Sunday, April 7, 2013

The Avalanche's Gift

One year ago, I nearly died in an avalanche.  Shortly after the incident, I wrote down some of my thoughts here.  In the last year, I don't think that a day has gone by that I haven't thought about that incident.

I distinctly remember my attitude the day I got swatted off the mountain.  I was over confident.  I was cocky.    I was not afraid.  Jason and I had just skied the north face of Mt. Superior.  I had triggered and skied out of an avalanche, and I had laughed.  No biggie.  Just as I thought, just as I would have guessed, and not surprisingly, I triggered it, managed it, and skied out.  I was, after all, a pro skier.  There wasn't much that could stand in between me and what I wanted out of the mountain. . . . or so I thought.

The day I stood on Superior and confidently arced turns on its south face might have been the highest point in my ski "career."  That day, I was standing on what I considered to be a pile of accomplishments: a variety of ski traverses, ski linkups, decent results at some rando races, and a speed ascent (and record) on the Grand Teton.  But as the avalanche swept me off the mountain and into a funnel lined with sharp and merciless rocks, I instantly realized that of the things that matter most in life, my skiing stunts were not among them.

It's odd how time nearly stood still as I churned and  pin-balled off the mountain.  Although my fall likely was less than one minute, I had ample time to reflect on what was happening to me.  I felt overwhelming anger and guilt, understanding that the next bashing might be my last.  I was fully aware that if my life were to end in the next cartwheel, I would leave a family behind.  My family.  That's what made me angry and guilty.

If I had to pinpoint one thing the avalanche taught me, it would be that I was a lucky guy.  I realized that in the years I had been moving in the mountains, I hadn't conquered anything.  I hadn't mastered much at all.  Rather, I had gotten away with things.  The mountains had given me gifts.  I had just gotten lucky.  Timp solo on an unstable day?  Luck.  Scaling the north face of Buck Mountain with one tool and no rope?  Luck.  Triggering avalanches and skiing out of them while skiing off Twin Peaks and Dromedary (in the same day)?  Duh, dumb luck.

This ski season has been a bit weird.  For the first time in years, I haven't had a burning desire to stand on or ski something scary.  I haven't had much of a desire to do much except for safe skinning and skiing.  Standing at the top of a powdery, class-A couloir kind of scares me.  I haven't summitted Mt. Superior since the avalanche.  I now think that the ideal ski day is when the snow is frozen solid.  Seriously, what is wrong with me?

The fact that I have seemed to have lost whatever moxy I used to have has troubled me, slightly.  But I've gotten over it.  I suppose that my old self would say that the avalanche took something away from me.  That it stole my fire.  But now, I don't think of it that way.  The avalanche gave me a gift.  It supplanted overconfidence with fear.  It didn't take away my desire to be in the mountains, but it gave me a healthy dose of respect.  It showed me what might have been without completely divesting me of what I had.  And that too was a gift.