Tag Archives: Stevens Pass

Getting Out Alive

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What is Judgment?

Teaching Judgment at Stevens Pas

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, judgment is “the ability to make considered decisions or come to sensible conclusions.” In the backcountry that usually equates to knowing when to forge ahead and when to turn around. Having good judgment might help us decide when the risk is just far too greater than the reward. Judgment helps distinguish between what we need and what we merely want. The adventure will be here tomorrow, and our judgment can help us return another day to take it on.

How do you gain judgment without getting yourself killed in the process? Look at any aging adventurer and he or she will tell you about the time they almost died, or the time their climbing/skiing/parachuting comrade nearly bought the farm, or the time when, at the last minute, they couldn’t join their friends for a trip and someone got killed in an avalanche. It could have been them.

Experiences such as these–if we live through them–give us the ability to notice risk. We gain judgment by sheer proximity to death. The closer we get, the more humble and cautious we become. But then there’s the opposite effect. Being close to death can make us feel immune. Perhaps its like sugar to a diabetic, slowing them down rather than hyping them up. Maybe those that feel immune to death in the midst of it lack some important hormone, like insulin or humility.

Where Does Judgment Come From?

As a ski patroller, I’ve seen my fair share of accidents; some ending in injury, others ending in death. Does this lend me judgment? I think it has. Instead of feeling like I’ve cheated death and won again, I marvel that there but for the grace of God go I. This season I felt that especially, with the loss of such luminaries as Jamie Pierre and Sarah Burke and friends taken in the avalanche at Stevens Pass.

Some day I was going to ski Everest

When I was very young, I thought I could conquer the world. I was pretty sure that by age 20 I would be skiing Everest on a weekly basis. Give me a mountain, and I would ski it. Give me a river, and I would kayak it. Like any teenager I was oblivious to risk, and ready to take on the world. I was immune to judgment.

Then I developed Type 1 Diabetes, and all that changed. The first doctor I went to wasn’t an endocrinologist and didn’t know much about the disease. When I asked if it would kill me, he sighed. “While the threat of immediate death is controllable, diabetes does lead to a myriad of other complications.” He was kind enough to list them for me–heart disease, blindness, amputations. I imagined myself in a wheelchair, unable to walk, unable to see and really hankering for a bag of caramel corn. For the first time in my life I saw my own death. I grew humble in about fifteen minutes.

While living with a disease like T1D might temper one’s ability to take risks, it also taught me judgment. I was no longer immune. If I was going to work this hard to stay alive, I didn’t want to just throw it away in a risky ski descent. Not that I haven’t taken risks. I have. But I’ve also learned to listen–to really listen–to my fear. Fear is a gift reminding us that at the heart of it we want to live.

How do we develop judgment?

Stevens Pass Memorial

I’m not sure there is a single path to gaining the knowledge of when to go and when to retreat. No GPS unit worn on our sleeve can worn us when the risk is too high. No amount of gear, not an Avalung pack or an Airbag System or Avalanche Transceiver will grant us immunity to slides. Sure, we take classes and sharpen our skills, but when the risk gets too high, more often than not we go anyway. A few get caught, but many don’t. They can mistake luck for judgment, and it isn’t the same at all. Years of accumulated luck will eventually catch up with a person.

Judgment isn’t about years so much as it about experience. The more experience we carry with us–being sure to carefully glean the lessons–the more likely we are to make it back home. Because isn’t that the goal? Willi Unsoeld said it best when considering why he didn’t just stay in the wilderness.

Why don’t you stay in the wilderness?  Because that isn’t where it is at; it’s back in the city, back in downtown St. Louis, back in Los Angeles.  The final test is whether your experience of the sacred in nature enables you to cope more effectively with the problems of people.  If it does not enable you to cope more effectively with the problems – and sometimes it doesn’t, it sometimes sucks you right out into the wilderness and you stay there the rest of your Life – then when that happens, by my scale of value; it’s failed.  You go to nature for an experience of the sacred…to re-establish your contact with the core of things, where it’s really at, in order to enable you to come back to the world of people and operate more effectively.  Seek ye first the kingdom of nature, that the kingdom of people might be realized. -Willi Unsoeld

Often, we gain judgment through close calls. There’s nothing like a heart-to-heart with the Grim Reaper to bring about some calculated decision-making. What about you? How have you gained judgment in order to keep returning to the adventure you love?

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Leftover Stashes and Playing to My Strengths

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Roses for us, PBR for them

You might think that I haven’t posted anything in the last few days because I have been too busy skiing powder at Crystal. According to Facebook it’s been off the hook up here. And that’s probably true. But I wouldn’t know.

Instead, I’ve been sharing my story with various groups across the state. That’s right. I’m becoming a Motivational Speaker, which is kind of an oxymoron (more about that next time).

I did sneak in a day of skiing at Stevens Pass on Tuesday with a dear friend of mine that I haven’t seen in ages. We visited the new memorial site for Jim, Johnny and Chris, the recent avalanche victims. The frozen roses were beautiful and tragic.

Afterwards I spoke to a group of High School Journalists all with bright futures ahead of them, and I’m pretty sure I convinced at least one of them to scrap her plans for college and instead become a ski bum (sorry Mom).

Then later I drove over three mountain passes in a single day. Needless to say, it’s been a bit of a world-wind. Now I’m back at Crystal, hoping to find some leftover stashes today (if I ever find myself at a job interview, I’m afraid I will claim this ability to find powder turns two days after a storm as my BIGGEST STRENGTH).

The forecast looks pretty settled for the weekend, with another cold front arriving Monday. Perhaps March will live up to the hype. Fingers crossed.

Avalanche Deaths

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Avalanche Debris at Crystal Mountain, 2011

Yesterday was a bad day for skiing in Washington. Four people were killed in two separate avalanche incidents. It’s been all over the news–especially the avalanche at Stevens Pass that killed three. As I followed the condolences and shock on Twitter and Facebook yesterday afternoon, I realized how easy it is to cast judgement. I live and play in the mountains. Even those that have never spent a day chasing powder have still taken risks that 99% of the time do not end poorly. But when others take risks and die, the convenient response–the reaction that makes us feel just slightly better–is that we would not have taken the same risk. We would not have skied in the backcountry when the avalanche danger rating was high. We would have been more responsible, more careful, more lucky.

I knew those that passed away at Stevens Pass yesterday–Johnny Brenan, Jim Jack and Chris Rudolph. They were all good men, and an important part of the local community. Chris was the marketing director at Stevens. I can’t imagine how they must be navigating this tragedy when the very one who would normally field questions from the press was a victim. Our hearts, not our judgement, should go out to Stevens.

They were careful, they were wearing beacons and avalungs and carrying all the right gear. They had stopped in a group of trees, skiing from safe island to safe island, one at at time.

Just the way we are taught to mitigate risks. But mitigating risks doesn’t mean eliminating them.

The deaths in Tunnel Creek, as well as the avalanche fatality that occurred in Alpental’s BC yesterday, are tragic accidents. Yes, risks were taken. But we all take risks every day. My heart is heavy today for the families that have lost their loved ones.

If a lesson can be teased from the wreckage, it is in Elyse Saugstad’s story. She was standing in trees with the others when the avalanche broke out above them. She, too, heard the freight train sound of the avalanche barreling down on her. She, too, was taken over 1,000 vertical feet in the debris. But she wasn’t killed or fully buried. She was wearing an ABS system and deployed her airbag. It saved her life.

Click this link for a firsthand account of the avalanche from ESPN’s Megan Michelson, who was there. Megan describes the scene from the top of the slidepath and interviews Elyse regarding her experience. This is the best footage I’ve read so far.