Friday, March 23, 2012

Sobering. Death in the Mountains and Me

Each tragedy that occurs in the mountains seems more personal to me the longer I’m around. The longer I live by the mountains; the more people I meet, the more experiences I have and the greater the chance of tragedy hitting home.

Every moment, people make decisions that may determine their fate. Some decisions are obviously poor, while others are more subtle, but all have consequence of some degree. Over the years I have dug out a handful of petrified people out of the snow; those who died in avalanches. None of them were people who I immediately knew though; they were just bodies, each with a story forever then on attached to the tragedy. Each scene was visually horrifying but since I personally knew none of them I lacked an emotional connection; each scene was somewhat surreal.  Last year, however, that all changed but I was not there to see the accidents first hand.

Not only is it hard to deal with the death of those you know, it is that much harder when friends die doing the things that you do yourself, by decisions that you may have easily made yourself. When the people you look up to the most fall, it is hard to rationalize your own existence by the decisions you have made that leave you alive today. You will never know how many of those decisions were left to luck, and that is the problem with learning from experience.

Each accident leaves something to be learned, or at the very least speculated upon to what went wrong. In some situations when negotiating the mountains lady luck is all you have. We try our hardest to minimize risk but never know when we are truly just skating by. Conditions in the mountains are always tangible and we as humans are only as good as the knowledge and discipline we have and choose to use.

My first personal connection to death in the mountains was nearly a year ago with the passing of my friend and colleague Kip Garre. More recently, Steve Romeo, an acquaintance from a ski trip to Antarctica (easily one of my most memorable skiing experiences) has now passed. It is all quite difficult to process really. Kip and Steve were both motivated like the super human and carried the idea of motion in the mountains on skis, a concept which I have based my life around, more than anyone else I have known. Kip and Steve defined the sport of ski mountaineering. Both Kip and Steve died with their touring partners (Allison Kreutzen with Kip, and Chris Onufer with Steve).  Both accidents occurred while on ascent in steep, high elevation terrain. Kip passed in the Sierra and Steve most recently in the Tetons.

In the years to come I can only hope that death in the mountains stays at arm’s length to me, but with the constant passage of time the reality of the situation is likely to be the opposite.

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