Mourning in the Wake of an Avalanche

What We Did After Our 17-yr old Skiing-loving Son Died


On Tuesday, Feb. 13th my wife called me at my office on Main Street in Great Barrington, MA and asked me to come home. Spencer, our 17-1/2 yr old son who was on a work-study adventure as a senior at Leysin American School in Switzerland had not reported back at Tuesday evening “check-in” (they ski on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons). When the school called MP, they were in the middle of a full-scale search and rescue effort. Two of his friends had followed him down on the last run of the day, and they had lost track of him, although as it turned out it was already too late for them to have helped him, and in a strange twist they actually ended up safely (thank God) skiing over the aftermath of the avalanche.

Within minutes of the first call my wife was on her way to Newark Airport for the 6:20PM direct daily flight we have used for the last two years connecting Newark and Geneva. I stayed home to be with Natalie and Ian upon their arrival from school, called family and waited for news from LAS (Leysin American School). When something happens in the my wife’s family, you call her older brother Peter…you don’t even know why, although he immediately makes sense of the situation and proves why. Within minutes he was on the next plane out of NYC, one leaving JFK only 4 hours after my wife’s, also bound for Geneva which is 1-1/2 hrs away from the beautiful mountain village of Leysin. He would be the family member that could be with her on what would be either the happiest or the saddest day of her life.

(Note: if you want, go to Google Earth for an aerial look at this landscape: Geneva, Lake Geneva, Montreux, Aigle (town at base of mountain), Leysin, and the mountains surrounding Leysin).

Our friends Steve and Jan were there with me when the worst of all possible calls came from Dr. Steven Ott at LAS, and thereafter, as I made the next calls to my wife and our families. All I could think of to say to anyone was that our “Snow Angel” was gone. MP was stronger than I was when I reached her just as she was parking the car at Newark Airport. She said she wished she could be there to help me. She was calm and controlled and it could only have been a mixture of shock and silent preparation for her long airplane ride. She walked into Newark Airport and found her great friend and “matron-of-honor” Beth….something the grace of the moment had prompted me to arrange. Thank you, Beth.

MP took off and I’m still not sure how she coped on the plane trip.

When she got to Leysin she was met by Christophe Ott, son of Dr. Ott, and Lou Felo, the community’s English-speaking pastor. Lou was someone that was always there during our stay, and who promised to continue to be always there to help us make sense of things. He and his wife Jan took MP home where she stayed the first night.

Their guest room was “cozy and warm,” and their compassion was boundless. Lou relayed the first of the details surrounding the accident, and addressed all the dark questions she had. It was the first in a series of spontaneous arrangements that could not have been more perfect. Mary Pat also fell into a role that evening that would provide her with focus and sanity; she began greeting and comforting the students who wanted to come immediately to see her and talk about Spencer. Thus, the first steps of healing began.

Back home, Steve, Jan and our third angel Kerry were helping me. Natalie was at ski team practice and Ian was skating. Neither knew. After finishing up the first wave of calls at home, most made on my cell while Steve and Jan arranged every detail of our flight on our phone, Kerry and I arranged for me to come to her house, bring Ian into her kitchen and tell him the news. The best I can say is that when I told him, I watched and felt his heart break. He burst into sobs and hugged me tightly. It was that most beautiful kind of hug we all know as parents…the one they do when they’re sick, or when they know you’re sad: you are hugging each other, comforting each other, and you become aware that every time you pat or rub their back, they mimic the same gesture, rubbing and patting you the same way on your back, all the while holding you as tightly as they can. I will never forget it.

Ian and I came home, sat together in the family room next to the wood stove, and continued to hold each other. He asked if Natalie knew, I said no, and I asked him if he wanted to be there when I told her? At first he said no, but when we heard her coming through the door, clunking into the family room with her ski boots on, he changed his mind. Together we told her. She burst into tears, but kids and age groups are different. She preferred to process it alone and ran upstairs to her room. Ian asked if we could watch something “happy” on TV. He and I went upstairs, made a fire, snuggled on the couch and began to settle in.

Just then Kerry appeared to help us organize and pack…and as it turned out, be the mother that Natalie needed at that moment. She knocked on Natalie’s door, and gave her the chance to cry and hug someone like her mom. Kerry got us packed, and we made the decision to sleep at home, with snow and wind blowing outside, before leaving early the next day and following the plows to Newark airport. We left by 9:30 AM, with plenty of time to go slowly through the storm, arriving at my brother Dick and Steph’s home in Florham Park, NJ at about 3:00—a trip that normally takes 3 hours. They met us along with their 13-year old son Tommy, sister Sue and husband Richard, Chuck, our minister from Summit, NJ days, and friend Zach. It was another moment of grace and the first chance to plug into family and friends from our NJ life, and it felt just right. They loaded us up with love, magazines, gum and candy and drove us the rest of the way to Newark Airport.

During those first few hours we all had the same questions on our minds that you had here. Did Spence suffer? Could he have been saved if something had only happened faster? Whose fault was it? It was easy to say none of it mattered, but it did.

The answers would come in time. We had to put things together from many sources, including some that might have been a bit more tactful. There was the abrupt and somewhat scolding message from Andre, the head of mountain rescue and the man charged each year with warning the students of the ever-present danger of avalanche. He spoke at the memorial service as a representative of the town and it was pretty much uniformly accepted that his comments might have been better if he had waited until Monday assembly to share his observations with the students. However, in a strange way it was like looking into the unflinching face of reality to hear how dangerous the mountains were, and how easily conditions could come together invisibly to make such an event possible. In his defense, he had lost his brother to an avalanche in Nepal many years ago, and his wife to illness the year before.

And then there were the more compassionate explanations by some of the experts who were there when Spence was found, saying he had surely not known what was about to hit him, and that when it did, he may well have been knocked out, or not had enough time to panic, and finally, that he had most likely died of asphyxiation due to the wet, heavy snow—snow that ruled out any chance of narrow escape or of surviving while waiting for rescue, and which, ironically, probably drowned him, melting from the heat of his breath and filling his lungs. Please understand that without exception, these details of events were a comfort to us, relayed to us gently and compassionately while the person was sobbing.

But it was the accounts of a handful of teachers who quietly took us aside from time to time during the course of the three days to “tell us something they wanted us to understand” that were most moving. One by one, after being discreetly pulled aside, we would hear from teachers experienced from lifetimes of skiing and hiking in the Alps, about the many times they had skied the exact same trail or a trail equally thrilling, with their hearts in their mouths, and with only the luck that on that day, in that place, it hadn’t been their time. These confessions of a sort meant a lot to us, coming from people who had skied, hiked, rock climbed and mountain biked with Spence, who were devastated themselves, but who explained exactly what it had felt like to fly down that trail. They had been in that same situation many times, said they would put themselves there again and assured us that Spence had exited this world at the pinnacle of worldly happiness.

Upon arriving in Leysin, Natalie and Ian took a nap in the beautiful, old, quiet room we shared at the Chalet Les Airelles, a B&B hosted by Helen and Michel; she was from Chicago and he, a Swiss native, had spent 20 years living on Long Island working in the record industry. They had quietly relocated guests to accommodate us. Only later would we learn that Spencer had often visited there while other student’s families were in town. In fact, he had been there for dinner just four nights before and had been laying on the floor with their dog Sasha, stroking her belly. We will always be grateful for their loving hospitality. Only at the end did Michel reveal that he had lost his own son ten years ago.

As the kids slept, we were asked if we wanted to see the site of the avalanche. We joined a group of teachers and rescuers at the gondola and nervously headed up. Once there, we realized what a blessing it was that they found Spence at all. The terrain is vast, and knowing where to begin would have been difficult. The town of Leysin (pop. 5500) and the ski resort that shares its name are both part of the same continuous sweep of jagged mountains stretching across Switzerland. When you are in Leysin, you are already high atop the Alps. All that is left is to walk 5 or maybe 10 minutes from your dorm or hotel room, in your boots, to either the gondola or the high-speed quad that takes you up to the center of the slopes. At that point you either go further up to ski the faces where there are no trees, or back down to the town on long, winding runs. When you look out from Spencer’s dorm room window, you see mountains as far as the eye can see, and the “mountain” you see above and behind you is just a ridge that the gondola climbs up and over to reveal an even more vertical, more rugged, more beautiful landscape you don’t see from the village.

In this place, between the highest peaks and the lower ridge above the town, was where Spencer took his last run. Exhilarated from the fun of the day and the joy of the first long awaited snow of the year, Spence and two of his best friends came halfway down one of the trails back to town, then cut through the woods to reach the very steep, very long trail where he died and which we were now staring at…a trail which served as both a well-known challenge whenever there was new snow, and (for those of us who knew Spence and can appreciate this all too well), the shortest way back to the warmth and companionship—and food—of the dorm.

By the time his friends came through the woods and peered down the slope, he was already gone. Everything looked peaceful. They hadn’t heard any telltale freight train sound; there was no evidence of any foul play. They looked up and down, and when they saw no evidence, assumed Spence had either skied another trail or was so far ahead that he had already dropped over the ridge and was beating them to the showers and to their favorite table in the dining room. They then dropped in themselves and skied their hearts out down the same double black diamond. When they got back to the dorm and realized he hadn’t checked in, they quickly alerted the authorities. The mountain rescue people mobilized and within 30 minutes there were literally hundreds of townspeople, search dogs and three helicopters w/ lights focused on the area of the avalanche. When they located him—using long poles pushed into the snow by rescuers in a long line—it took 40 men almost 20 minutes to remove the wet, heavy snow in the proscribed way so as to avoid further collapse. The doctor was called as they got close, and when they reached him, he declared Spenny dead on the scene.

We saw Spencer’s body two days afterward in Montreux, the small city that sits on Lake Geneva halfway between Geneva and Leysin. MP, Peter, Pastor Lou and Christophe Ott had met Ian, Natalie and I at the airport, and within minutes we were at the crematorium and cemetery where his body lay. It sounds abrupt, but it was the most natural thing to do under the circumstances. Peter stayed with the kids while MP and I went in to be with Spence. He looked so handsome. His hair was brushed back the way his mother had always wanted. His features were sharp and coming into manhood. He slept so peacefully. He was dressed in his lime green golf sweater, his daily, gentle rebuke of the dress code, and the one thing his friends insisted he wear. We hugged him and kissed him on the forehead. MP softly sang “Spenny James” to him, our version of the Beatles’ Penny Lane sung to him in childhood. We looked at each other and knew in our hearts that Natalie and Ian should see him, too. They came in bravely, then each burst into tears and looked away, burying their heads in our coats and asking without words if it was OK to go now…they had been sad enough for two days now.

As a family we left the simple stone building where Spenny lay and walked back into the sunlight of this very old, very beautiful lakeside cemetery. Uncle Peter followed Natalie, I followed Ian, and MP bravely signed papers and resolved issues with the authorities, and we were once again on our way to our true destination, the village and the school and the students who were waiting to talk about their dear friend.

In retrospect, what made going to Leysin so amazing and so meaningful on this sad occasion was that, on that mountaintop, grace fell directly into our lives. We were asked to explain nothing. Everyone there knew Spencer on his own terms and only hoped that the family who had raised him and who were on their way to mourn would somehow fill in the missing pieces. From the moment we got there to the moment we left, the five of us (including Peter) were more or less inseparable from Spencer’s friends. We spent time with compassionate teachers and adults, but the kids were our greatest source of comfort, providing us with hilarious stories of classroom antics and cultural adventures. For three nights straight, we ate dinner with them, went to small gatherings at teacher’s houses with them, and ended up at the Top Club pub with those of legal age on Friday and Saturday nights. We listened to the stories of how he had touched their lives, laughing and crying as it became clear how thoroughly engaged he had been with life at LAS. We learned how Spence had taught friends how to tune and wax their skis and snowboards; how he had helped many of the beginners to improve; how he had purchased five roses the week before to be given out to five different girls at the Valentine’s Day assembly. We were shown (subjected to?) his favorite videos on the Top Club video jukebox; which ones were his pet peeves, and which he would play just to irk some of his friends…Fergilicious was his favorite; and possibly most satisfying, how some of these well-traveled ex-pat students loved him for his innocence and awe-struck expressions when visiting Venice and Scotland and other incredible places, and how he managed to show each one of these friends his softer side while maintaining his well-known air of cool distance.

The students wanted us to know everything they knew about our child, knowing instinctively that we would all begin healing through the process. We began to see how Spencer’s life was already making a difference, and what sort of gift he was going to give us.

The morning of the memorial service, we woke up to a spring-like day not uncommon in the Alps. A few crocuses were popping out at the base of the stone columns at the chalet’s front door. On our way to the little church at the top of the village, we drove past streams of students and townspeople headed the same way. Mary Pat and I were each asked to say something at the service, and we found the strength to make our remarks without too many interruptions. The other speakers included Pastor Lou, some of the more important teachers and administrators, and one of his best friends, Phil. His “dorm parent” played a Chopin nocturne and recited Wordsworth, and his friends sang two songs with their hearts wide open—Billy Joel’s And So It Goes, and Eric Clapton’s Will I See You In Heaven. It was just right for all of our wounded hearts.

Following one last pizza dinner on Saturday evening, we slipped out at dawn on Sunday, leaving, for the moment, a place where the mountains are close to heaven and where we always know we can return to be with our boy. And could there be a more beautiful place?

As a gift from our child who held his emotions so close, we have discovered a support network that stretches from Jakarta, Lagos and Havana to Vancouver, Nebraska and Great Barrington. It includes Muslims, Jews, Atheists, Hindis, Buddhists and Christians. Thank you, Spencer.

Love,

MP, Jamie, Natalie and Ian

(Follow-up: This story is not submitted for this purpose, but if a reader so wishes, donations may be made to the Spencer Akers Memorial Fund at the Berkshire Taconic Foundation in Great Barrington, MA. The fund will award an annual gift (currently worth $2,500) to a worthy high school or college-age applicant who wants to make a difference in peoples’ lives through entrepreneurship and travel. Thank you.)