Saturday, April 20, 2013

Musings on life, death, and risk

Thursday morning was Craig Patterson’s memorial up at Alta, and it proved to be as heartwrenching and powerful as the attendees undoubtedly anticipated it would be.  I’m not sure, but Tom’s Official Police Estimate put the crowd at several hundred; we talked to a ton of people, saw many people from afar that we didn’t get a chance to talk to, heard about many others who were there whom we didn’t even see, and of course there were many, many people there from the many walks of Craig’s life whom we didn’t know.  Bruce Tremper stepped up to take on the possibly-awkward role of being the Master of Ceremonies, welcoming a crowd that didn’t want to be there and opening the morning of heartfelt talks by talking directly about the accident, which was an elegant opening for the emotional eulogies that followed.  As I later told Craig’s old BD boss Garrett, an ah-shucks good southern lad who – like all of the speakers – delivered a heartfelt speech, eulogizing a son/friend/brother in front of hundreds of people is one of the hardest – yet, in a weird way, one of the best – things that we do.   I think the entire crowd had so much admiration for the passion, poise, humor, and emotion that Craig’s dad, his sister, Renee’s mom, Geoff Lane, Jay Byer, AK buddy Josh, Craig’s high school and college buddies, and lead UDOT avy guy Liam invoked, all with the strength of a thousand men in keeping themselves composed enough to finish. 

This is what the speakers were seeing.  A lot of people, but one heart. 
Our day began as many do: Ash and I met Scott and we started skinning up for a couple of nice powder runs under a brilliant blue sky.  

This day was unusual in way besides the obvious poignance; when we left the car it was less than 10 degrees, but at least it was quite windy up high (can't really tell that from the picture) so not only was it really cold – for the Wasatch in mid-winter, much less in April – but also we had to be concerned about increasing avalanche danger.  The fact that soon enough soon enough some of the “biggest names” in avalanche safety were going to be at Alta soon, we definitely did not want to put their expertise to the test, much less ruin the day!  

For us, and for many, the skin track is the equivalent of the golf course or the Japanese steam baths; it’s where we chat about not only the banal stuff like gear and The Big Game but also the stuff that matters, like life, death, our loved ones, etc.  And of course Thursday morning was provocative enough that it engendered plenty of fodder for skin track chatter.  Scott said that he’d had some people ask him if he “was reconsidering backcountry skiing” now in the aftermath of Craig’s accident, and asked what I thought of that.  I had given this a fair bit of thought over the last week.  On one hand it’s painful to acknowledge that we are pretty akin to junkies:  “wow, Billy Bob went down yesterday.  Bummer.  Oh well…. give me another hit.”  On the other hand, as I rode through Sugarhouse park the other day I looked at all the people exer-walking and jogging around the park and sorta wistfully thought “those guys don’t have to worry about dying during their recreation.”  But I realized that we are different than junkies and joggers. 

To make a bit of a trite summary I borrowed a line that I remember from local mountain bike hard (and nice) guy Alex Grant talking about why he raced:  it’s simply What We Do.  I have been skiing for over 40 years, as have Scott, Ash, Brother Paul, and many more, and as Scott said, whether it sounds shallow or not, skiing is  - in part – what has defined us as people.  Here’s a pic of the notebook I toted around in Junior High School:
Not one but two Garmont stickers!  And a Hanson sitcker!  And note the 1980 Lake Placid sticker.  Why do I still have this?  I have no idea.....
And at the ripe young age of 48 I’m as stoked about skiing now as I was when I was thirteen.  For better or worse, those original days of skiing within the relatively safe confines of the resort have evolved to skiing in the more-dangerous backcountry, but clearly the risk of getting killed in an avalanche is a risk that we all assume. It’s not that the risk is “worth it”; it’s that we are willing to assume it.  And as Bruce said in his opening statement, the odds of getting killed in an avalanche are quite low.  Considering the loose statistics of how many people across the West ski multiple runs in the backcountry every year versus the number of people killed in avalanches, statistically-speaking the odds are very much in our favor (I’ve been reading Super Freakonomics, which is full of great versions of statistics completely refuting  popular emotion-based societal perceptions). 

That said – as Bruce again emphasized in his introduction (which was a bit of a stump speech to what was probably the biggest/strongest single group of backcountry skiers in recent history, all in one room sitting at rapt attention) shit (“stuff”) happens.  Even to the best guys.  At last fall’s Avalanche Center annual seminar a guy gave a talk on “why avalanche pros still get caught in avalanches, despite years of not only experience but formal training on the job, which most of us don’t do.   Fundamentally, it’s because – once again, as Bruce reiterated – none of us, even avy pros – are infallible.   A year ago – two days after Jared Inyoue got hurt in an avalanche, that elicited his own eloquent life/death 1-year-later muse here:  I dropped into a chute that I felt would be safe, but a quick pit a few turns down – after I was already over-committed – was a dramatic indication otherwise.  Fortunately, I was spared and was able to humbly grovel my way back out of that situation.  But prior to that, and since then, I’ve made mistakes that have infuriated me, because I shouldn’t have done that, but I did.  Including mistakes that have come within a hair’s-breadth of killing me.  But with every mistake we learn; not only about the situation and our environment, but also about ourselves and our decision making.   The (unfortunately, now-defamed) author Jonah Lehrer summed up his book “How We Decide” by saying something along the lines of “it doesn’t necessarily matter what we decide, as long as we are conscientous as to why we decided the way we did.”

So why did Craig, as a DOT avalanche guy known for his knowledge and conservatism, make some decisions that led to this accident?   As Brother Paul and I discussed yesterday, there are many times where he and I have – somewhat counter-intuitively – actually taken more risks than I would with someone else around.  I don’t want to subject anyone else to my risky decision, I’m not sure that my partners would “appreciate” the decision, I don’t want the responsibility of their safety as a result of my decision, or perhaps I don’t have anyone around to talk me out of a dumb move?  So was Craig  - the model of a great, safe partner in adventure – safer with other people than he was by himself?  Some people – who don’t know – have decried this accident as an example of why people (much less pros, as example-setters) should not ski alone, but the mechanics of this accident don’t lend themselves to a partner being able to help at all, unless……our risk tolerance actually goes up when we are alone.  But even so, if I had been out with Craig (and I had actually had loose plans to go there that day and may have bumped into him, but I wasn’t able to sneak out) and he had wanted to go up higher than is normal, I may have acceded to his desires because he is “better” than me.  Or maybe he wouldn’t have done it because he wouldn’t have wanted me to see that Craig the Conservative was actually Craig the Risk Taker?  We’ll never know. 
As ever when someone dies prematurely, so many questions arise, and there’s a lot of genuflection:  why him? Why not me?  Should I do this?  Could this happen to me?  What about my family?  Should I change my outlook/goals/temperment/activities?   Is this really worth it?  How much risk am I taking?  Fundamentally, whether we are fighting other drivers on the freeways on our way to work or tickling the belly of the avalanche beast, we need to acknowledge that NOTHING is worth getting killed for (or even hurt, for that matter).  But whether we like it or not, we all assume some risk one way or another, and we need to be ever-more tuned to that all-important decision-making process, because it may only be a couple of steps – as in Craig’s case – between yet another fun run and a bad accident. 

Yet we should have the humility to acknowledge that despite our best efforts, not only does shit happen, we are infallible.    And life is short and more uncertain than we care to admit, and it’s good too, so we should be sure to keep the pedal down, but do so carefully. 

And so we soldier on……

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