In the ski world, like any number of high-risk sports, tragic accidents sometimes happen. When Shane McConkey died nearly two years ago, like a mantra worn thin by repeated mumblings, the refrain echoed through the ski industry, “Well, at least he died doing what he loved.”
Two days before his disappearance, I talked to Paul Melby about his job as a diving instructor. He liked it, but it was cutting into his ski time. As both a former ski patroller and snowcat driver at Crystal, Melby was accustomed to skiing every day. And now, his four day-a-week schedule just wasn’t enough. So, while probing around a tree well yesterday, my heart in my throat, I remembered the refrain. “At least he died doing what he loved.”
But I don’t buy it. I can’t. Death is death. And even if someone dies with a heart full of joy, their blood pumping with a nirvana-esque sparkle, they are still gone.
“At least he died doing what he loved.” Tell that to his mother, to his family, to the hundreds of volunteers that have searched for him.
A few years I ago, I spoke to J.T. Holmes about base jumping. J.T. jumps off cliffs in a squirrel suit and flies. He says he’s like a bird, and that the feeling is unparalleled anywhere else. You can’t get this feeling skiing. When I asked him if it was dangerous, he just smiled.
He explained it to me like this: when you start out base jumping “you have a bucket of skill and a bucket of luck. At first, the bucket of skill is empty, and the bucket of luck is full. You pour from the bucket of luck into the bucket of skill. And someday the bucket of luck will run out.”
I wonder how different that is from drug addicts–engaging in risky behavior one knows will kill you. If J.T. was speaking of using heroin–how the high was worth the risk, how one day it would most likely be his demise–I would have been alarmed. I might have told him to get some help. I may have even taken him to a drug rehab center.
But when we talk about high-risk sports, everyone seems okay with it. Like it’s okay to die doing it, as long as you were happy right up until the end. But aren’t drug addicts enjoying themselves too? Don’t they, too, love the high and want to prolong it, want to get back to that first ideal rush, when they didn’t know if they would ever land, if they would ever have to follow the laws of gravity and physical limitations again?
As a ski patroller, charged with saving lives, I just don’t buy it.
I want to believe that I can save lives, that I can find a missing skier, bring him home–alive and well–to his waiting family. I want to believe that no one will ever die on my watch.
And yet I know, from my own experiences, that isn’t always possible. I know, too, that the rush of adrenaline, the pure joy of cold snow, the deep promise of the untracked line, the expectation of winter storms marching relentlessly towards us makes it all worth the risk.
We tell ourselves, “I could die today and be happy.” And perhaps that’s true. But I would like to posit this view: it’s better to live and ski, or jump, or fly another day. Living is always better. It is only here that we can enjoy the breathtaking splendor of mountains and cold air and crisp joy. It is only here that we can return.