Which is more dangerous, dropping in or driving here on snowy roads? Turkey Chute, Grand Teton National Park.
One September day some moons ago, 26-year-old me sat mid-route on the Whitney Gilman Ridge on Cannon Cliff in New Hampshire, making my first multi-pitch lead climb. Now, Whitney Gilman is only rated 5.7, maybe 5.8 the way we climbed it, but it’s exposed as hell – the crux puts a big soaring expanse of air beneath your harness – and even today it impresses me to look upon it. And sitting many hundreds of feet above the Indian summer afternoon, taking it all in, about to lead the last pitch, I felt like life couldn’t get more full.
“Hey, Glenn,” I said to my partner. “If anything ever happens to me out here, make sure my mom knows I died doing something I loved.” He nodded gravely, a solemn promise made.
Today, with many years under my belt and the loss of too many friends in falls, avalanches, and accidents, I cringe at the memory. It sounds like one of the tritest, most self-absorbed, and most post-adolescently melodramatic comments I could make. What a tool.
Of course I would have died doing something I loved. That was self-evident. My parents knew I loved climbing, skiing, mountain biking. But as I consider it now, I realize that I didn’t actually intend the comment as an explanation, as solace for a grieving parent to help them better understand their son. No, I meant it as a justification for a selfish act and a mistake made, as if screwing up doing something fun made it okay that I screwed up.
I didn’t die, obviously. Over the years, though, I’ve come far too close to it, sometimes through my own oversight, sometimes through the misjudgment of others, and sometimes from simply doing what we do, which is push the margins. And I’ve come to the conclusion that if I die in any other manner aside from expiring peacefully from natural causes at a very old age, hopefully in the loving embrace of my wife, it’s a tragedy. If I buy the farm thanks to some unexpected wind slab or stack it into a tree, it’s just going to plain suck, and the mechanism of my death should in no way soften the blow. Please, whatever you do, don’t say, “At least he died doing what he loved…”
But that’s the risk. That’s the risk, and dammit, it’s worth it. A life filled with adventure tastes sweeter than one viewed from the couch. And as science tells us, sitting on the couch isn’t exactly the safest place to be, either.
The New York Times has just published a story entitled “Extreme Grief,” which purports to examine the hazards of adventurous sports like skiing, snowboarding, and backcountry skiing in particular. In fact, it is reporting at its worst, a random collection of anecdotes in support of a spurious assumption, with seemingly no real understanding of the true issues at hand. It tells the story of Rob Liberman, a heli-skiing guide in Haines, Alaska, who along with client Nickolay Dodov died in an avalanche almost exactly a year ago. Liberman’s Dodov’s parents have petitioned California’s senators, along with other congressional representatives (why California when the slide happened in Alaska isn’t explained), for “an independent investigation, improved safety conditions and standardized regulations for helicopter skiing in Alaska.” It also relies heavily on an interview with Ben Clark, a filmmaker who’s made a documentary about the accident called The Alaskan Way.
The deaths of Liberman and Dodov are tragic. And a parent’s grief plumbs depths I hope I never know. Of course they want an investigation. Of course they want tighter standards. Of course Liberman’s father would say, “I’m sorry I ever showed him a pair of skis.”
But the story itself is a opportunistic grab for headlines, a woeful clamber onto the bandwagon of all things avalanche, that misses the point of adventure by a wide margin. And in asking the wrong questions in the wrong way, it takes an important topic, how we as adventurous people should approach and manage risk, and reduces it to, well, marketing:
Headlines of skiers buried by avalanches and the deaths of the 25-year-old snowmobiler Caleb Moore in January and the 29-year-old freestyle skier Sarah Burke last year have overshadowed growing concerns of the increased risk-taking and lack of regulation in extreme winter sports and their impact on families. Clark’s film, and another documentary, “The Crash Reel,” by Lucy Walker, which is scheduled for HBO later this year, may help change this perspective.
Whose concerns, exactly, other than newspaper writers? And what does a crash in a halfpipe or a commercial snowmobile contest have to do with avalanches or decision making in the backcountry? In typical mainstream media fashion, the Times has lumped together a handful of deaths and injuries that all happened to take place in the snow and called them cut from the same cloth. What kind of regulations would have saved Sarah Burke or Kevin Pearce from death or injury – rules against jumping in the halfpipe?
The problem with this story is that by casting vague concerns and institutional handwringing toward a disparate group of incidents, with no real understanding of the fundamental equation of risk, sport, and adventure, it suggests that pursuits like backcountry skiing simply aren’t worth the danger. It’s an unpacked snowball thrown in a random direction, but it calls into question the very essence of an adventurous life. That’s cowardly. And coming from a publication as big as the New York Times, it’s dangerous.
Look, it’s important to analyze risk and to study accidents forensically. As I’ve written before, if I die in an avalanche, the odds are that I made a mistake, and by all means, tear it apart, get to the heart of it, and learn from what I did wrong in hopes that others don’t repeat the mistake. Whatever happened that led to Liberman and Dodov dying, the facts should be made public – the decision making, the snowpack, the heli operation protocol. That’s how we learn. But a reactionary, emotional response that seeks to tighten pursuits that are by their very nature liberating, well, that needs its energies redirected elsewhere.
So, what of risk? Is death an acceptable cost of adventures? Hell, no. Brendan Leonard and I happened to be talking about risk yesterday, before the Times piece came out, and he said, “When I go out there, number one is to come back alive, number two is to have fun, and number three is to make the summit.” Seriously, death from recreation should not be considered okay, an option, or consequence. It’s a possibility, yes. And probably a greater possibility skiing in the backcountry than playing beach volleyball. But to accept it as a price of physical freedom is the beginning of an erosion in personal responsibility and the first mistake in a chain of decisions or assumptions that can lead to real problems.
Very rarely any more do I hear people talking about subjective vs. objective dangers. When I was first learning to climb, I devoured The Freedom of the Hills, and I took its lessons about the different kinds of hazards as gospel. I understood from reading Accidents in North American Mountaineering that most tragedies came from simple human error – not the random shuffle of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, but from a string of decisions that led to someone putting themselves in front of a loaded gun. If a boulder that’s been lodged in a cliff for 500,000 years falls on its own and lands on your head, that’s just plain bad luck. If you ski a leeward slope after a windstorm and end up with an ice mask, it’s no one’s fault but yours.
The more you study hazard through the lens of subjective/objective, the more you realize how few objective dangers there are – and that most of the real problems come from a lack of humility. Clark, the documentarian, said he was so moved by the grief of Liberman’s mother and the imagined effect on his family were he to die that “he has given up extreme skiing and rock climbing” in favor of hiking and running. That’s one way of dealing with risk, and because all of this is such a personal equation, I couldn’t begin to criticize him. I, however, have adopted a different approach. Now that I have a wife and kids and a greater sense of the permanence of mortality, I’m a lot more judicious about how I behave. I adapt my speed to conditions, or to my party. I choose my backcountry companions extremely carefully, because peer dynamics can be the biggest factor in causing errors of judgment. I ride differently if I’m alone, or far from help. I’ve never been much for getting air on bikes or skis, but now I generally avoid it – mostly because I suck and the odds are greater of hurting myself. But if I had Sarah Burke’s skills, I would have done exactly what she did.
I don’t know if this is maturity or prudence or simply experience. All of the above, maybe. The big difference between the me on Whitney Gilman and the me today is that I’ve learned that risk can be managed. Not all of it, or it wouldn’t be an adventure. But it’s also not as black and white as the Times or others suggest, where you’re either likely to die doing something you love or you simply don’t do that thing you love. That big grey area in the middle is where you find adventure, where you find risk, and where, to me, the best of life begins.