On Sunday January 11th, 2015 Steph, Neil and Elena died during an ascent of the central couloir of Joffre. I didn’t know Elena. I did know Neil. Steph was a friend. They were all friends or friends of friends. They were part of my mountain family.
They were near the top of the couloir, roped together when they fell 600m to the base. It is so tempting and so easy to speculate as to what happened, what went wrong. I want to try and make sense of this. The reality though is that it’s impossible to know what went wrong, or what mistakes were made. It doesn’t matter either.
What matters is that these three amazing, intelligent and loving people are gone. It is so easy to let the grief swallow us up, make our world seem so bleak, make our love of the mountains seem ridiculous.
Steph, Neil and Elena died. They died doing what they loved. I’ve climbed crags, scaled mountains and skied lines with Steph. I only have to close my eyes to see her soft smile or her searching gaze. I know how happy being in the mountains made her. She knew the risks. They were worth it to her. She was good. Maybe they made a mistake, I know they got unlucky.
This sucks. The mountain community is small, it’s tight. We trust our lives in each other and to lose three friends like this will leave us raw. I write these silly articles as a way to process my own relationship with the moutains. Re-reading what I wrote only a couple of short months ago, it feels like so much has changed. But the reality is that nothing has changed. I will go into the mountains this weekend and run a trip for the ACC. I will have fun. I will do my best to pass my love of the mountains onto those new to these wild and dangerous places. I will do my best to keep them safe, fully aware of my flawed decisions and capacity to get it all wrong. I will be sad that I won’t get to ski or climb with lost friends, but I’ll remember the awesome contributions they made to my mountain family.
The risk is still worth it for me. I hope it’s always worth it.
He was skiing in South America and his death was only one of five people killed in avalanches this week.
Right now there’s rallies for democracy happening in Hong Kong. ISIS is butchering people. Putin is annexing Ukraine. Walruses have arrived in amazing numbers on a beach in Alaska because climate change has reached a point where there aren’t enough ice floes for them to rest on. There are really important, scary things happening all over the planet. Things that matter.
But JP died and that’s what’s stuck in my head. I didn’t know JP. I never met him. But I respected him. For all I know, he might have been some epic douche. But just like Shane McConkey he seemed like more than just an awesome skier. He seemed like the kind of guy I want to be. He was innovative — he helped make skiing cool again by showing skiers could jib just like the boarders. He helped invent the twin tip ski — he literally took skiing in a new direction. When all of a sudden it seemed like everyone is skiing monster lines, hucking monsters cliffs and stomping monster hits, he recorded the most innovative ski segment in years in a small town. He, with the amazing guys at Sherpas, made skiing down a sidewalk not only cool, but beautiful, emotional. Whether it’s accurate or not, I saw JP as innovative, mature and yet never overly serious. He didn’t seem to take himself or the sport too seriously and somehow reminded us to have fun.
Shane seemed to be like that too. As so, so epically documented in G.N.A.R., Shane seemed to loathe how seriously skiers sometimes take themselves. He hucked back flips naked. He filmed a ridiculous Bond homage. He invented his saucer boy alter ego just to make people laugh. He invented an entire game about how to be the most ridiculous person on the mountain. He also invented the pin tail ski. He has a god damned type of turn named after him. He invented skiing off cliffs with a wing suit. I didn’t just want to be able to ski like Shane, as someone who takes things way too seriously, I wanted to BE more like Shane. I wanted to always remember to have fun. I wanted to remember to not sweat the small stuff. I wanted to remember to relax.
So many other skiers I’ve either known or have known of have died during my life on skis. Tyler Lewis of the VOC drowned in muddy tree well early season. Sarah Burke, Arne Backstrom, Andreas Fransson, CR Johnson, hell, Doug Coombs died less than a decade ago.
My dad wasn’t an amazing skier. He learned to ski when he was 48. He tried to convince my Mom to let him quit his job (as a professor of neurophysiology) and become a ski bum. He volunteered on weekends as a ski patroller. He was like a kid on skis, the happiest I ever saw him. He didn’t find it until he was in his forties, but he found what it is to be a skier. Skiing didn’t just make him happy when he was skiing, it made him a happier person overall. It made him a better, more relaxed dad. Ten years after he discovered skiing, he died on his skis. Volunteering as a ski patroller, skiing his favourite run, he lost an edge and fell hard breaking a rib which pivoted around and punctured his aorta. Coroner said that if he hadn’t seen it, he wouldn’t have believed it. Total fluke. Shit happens. Bad luck.
In April I went up to the Fairy Meadows Hut. The day before we got there, there was a fatality in the party there before us. We were the first contact the departing party had. They didn’t even know for sure that their friend was dead, the last they saw she was getting CPR in a heli. Countless times last season I would be standing on some ridge top considering a line when I’d hear a heli come in low and disappear up a drainage just across the highway from me. I knew someone was having a really bad day. I felt surrounded by death last season.
Am I good or am I lucky? I am so fucking haunted by that question.
I want to be good and lucky. If you make the right decision 99% of the time, statistically you’re still going to get bitten eventually. You need to be good AND lucky. I am terrified that I’m only lucky. Do I make good decisions? Is it my ability to read terrain, snow, my group, that has kept me from joining so many of my heroes?
There’s days when the avi danger is high and I go skiing anyway. I tell myself that by sticking to lower angle terrain with big run outs and limited terrain traps I can still ski with an acceptable safety margin. The woman who died at Fairy Meadows just before we got there died on a slope that I could barely believe could produce a fatal slide. There was a wind lip, off to the side, at the base of the line. She was skinning up, the slope went, she was buried over 3m deep in a wind lip that barely looked like it was in the slide path. Maybe she made a bad call. Maybe she should have been fine and just had bad luck. Maybe I would have done the exact same thing as her and it would have been my friends loading into that heli with that thousand yard stare.
At least once a week I have a nightmare. The only dreams I remember are in the mountains and bad shit is happening. I’ve watched my brother get nailed by a slide and killed in my dreams more times than I can count. Katherine dies in a similar way. Steve hits a tree. Piotr slips on a steep snow slope and goes hurtling into rocks. Christian slips on an icy traverse. Kiran badly breaks her leg in a boulder field, Jenna follows me up an ice route I just led and I discover the rope’s totally core shot. Each person gets their own dream, always the same one.
Not everyone dies, but bad shit is happening and I have to deal with it. I’m scared, I don’t have anything in my pack I don’t normally carry, I’m cold. My brain cuts me no slack. Once a week, something bad happens in the mountains and I have to deal with it. I have to watch my brother die, or a friend get horribly injured. I wake up super anxious. I know it was a dream, but it always feels so real.
The day after the dream is the day that I ask myself if it’s worth it. Strung out on coffee, sitting at my desk or on a plane I ask myself if this is really how I want to spend my free time. Is it worth it? Just to slide on snow? Stand on a summit? But then the weekend comes and I’m out there. I’m exhausted, I crest the last pass on a long hike. I mantle up over the top of a route. I ski trees so fast that my brain goes completely quiet and I exist in a state of pure instinct. I don’t remember the dreams. I am happy in a way I have never been able to duplicate. I’m where I have to be.
I think skiing makes me a better person. When I’ve let girlfriends keep me from going into the mountains every weekend, I become a person I don’t like. I’m more irritable, more serious, lost in life, less compassionate. In the mountains I remember to be like JP and Shane and take myself a little less seriously. I remember that the little stuff doesn’t really matter and that it’s almost all little stuff. I remember how lucky we are. I realize how amazing my friends are, how close we are. Through my dreams I realize how devastating it would be to lose them — what they mean to me.
At the same time, that question of ‘am I good or am I just lucky’ is going to keep haunting me. Maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe that will keep me more conservative so when I’m standing on top of that line that I’m pretty sure is safe, maybe I’ll take another second to consider it and maybe choose a safer line. Maybe being haunted by that question is what makes me good or at least better than I would otherwise be.
I don’t know what the future is going to bring. I hope I never have to watch a friend’s body get loaded into a heli. I hope none of them have to watch me get loaded. I hope we’re good and lucky. I won’t be able to do this stuff forever. I don’t know whether I’ll mentally or physically break down first, but eventually a weekend is going to come when I don’t want to go into the mountains. I hope it happens when I’m 90 and watching my grand kids terrorize their parents just seems like a better use of my time.
What I do know is that every weekend I want to be in the mountains. Every weekend I want to push myself. I want to drag myself into the office Monday morning, sunburned, hoarse, and with a shit eating grin on my face.
JP, Shane, Tyler, my Dad, Steph, Neil, Elena and all those others that went out on their skis. They knew that they were taking a risk. They knew that risk was worth it, for them. That risk is still worth it for me. I hope it’s always worth it.
Originally published at canadianspindrift.blogspot.com on October 3, 2014.