All of us who have sat with our backs against a sun-warmed slab of mountain learn one thing after even a few minutes: Sunny rock is beautiful, but it’s also really hard and unforgiving. There is nothing more powerfully “real” than stone. Which is why I’m so surprised by the encroachment of the fanciful “Positive Thinkers” into the mountains. Self-help rah-rah cheering is great for some things, but in the mountains reality trumps unjustified self-esteem in short order.
If I’ve learned one thing over the years it’s this: the universe doesn’t give a shit about you, what you think, want, feel, or believe. You are, in the greater scheme of things, as completely irrelevant as a moth flying around a light at night. Rockfall happens whether you pray for it to or not. Some of the nicest, most decent people I know have taken rocks straight between the eyes and died in the mountains. Same with some real assholes. If there is a consciousness to the universe then it is clearly psychotic. A simpler explanation is that it’s up to us to do the right thing. Get it wrong and we die. To paraphrase the protagonist in Fight Club, until you know this basic fact of mountain life you are useless. You are not special and any amount of “magical” thinking is dangerous in reality-based activities.
This is why I hate books like “The Secret,” which claim that thinking happy positive thoughts about what you want will result in the conscious universe giving you stuff. Or that you can “manifest” outcomes by thinking about them. Anyone who talks about manifesting anything other than a good crap instantly earns the title of self-deluding nut case in my mind. When The Secret’s Law of Attraction meets the law of gravity, the law of gravity always kicks ass. Now, this sort of quasi-magical mental bullshit is cute in a three-year old, but I expect better from an adult. My kids talk about unicorns and I smile; it’s not going to kill them and an active imagination is a good thing. But even as I tell my kids there are no monsters under the bed, I try to teach them to look out for the real monsters, and to never rely on a magic unicorn or a prayer to save them. Real danger doesn’t respond to mysticism.
Thinking that somehow you are special and have the ear of the universe or some other mystical nonsense means you might not approach the mountains with the proper care. I view “spirituality” in mountain people the same as spirituality in suicide bombers; there are no virgins waiting in heaven for either, and I don’t want to be tied into a rope with anyone who thinks he or she is special. Crazy Horse believed he had magic that made him immune to bullets. He’s dead, just as are all the climbers who think, “When it’s your time it’s your time, nothing I can do about it,” and continued climbing up a south face on a warm day as the rockfall increased.
The Messner quote I like best goes along the lines of, “Mountains are neither fair nor unfair, they are just dangerous.” This is a critical piece of understanding that all of us who do mountain sports ought to have tattooed onto the inside of our eyeballs as a readily accessible reminder when we’re contemplating doing something like climbing under seracs. A proper response to real danger is to get the hell out of the way.
There is a well-known mental shortfall defined as “optimism bias,” meaning that people think they have more control over a situation than they do, and that negative events are more likely to happen to others. Too much bias toward optimism is probably useful in some areas in life, but not when life itself is on the line. Whenever I read avalanche reports I’m often struck by how often the victims knew the slope was suspect, but optimistically decided it would be OK. If someone survives then magical ideas like miracles and guardian angels are often invoked. Strangely, no one says, “God struck him down like a cockroach, too bad,” when someone dies. Magical thinking in any shape rests on denying reality. Ignorance kills often enough in the mountains without adding “willful” in front of it.
When I speak to groups about risk management I stress that the positive power of positive thinking is fine for boosting your ego before calling someone new for a date, but it’s not appropriate in situations that actually matter. What’s called for is some good solid reality-based critical thinking. Not, “We WILL make the summit!” but, “Hey, what’s the weather doing while we’re climbing? Kind of early for vertical cumulus cloud development isn’t it? Maybe this is all going to turn into a thunderstorm shortly, time to run away.” I call this situational analysis the “Positive Power of Negative Thinking.” Positive thinking fundamentally isn’t based on reality. If you’re competent then you’ll likely survive and do a good job. Just thinking, “I CAN DO IT!” likely means you’re not, and should stand down.
And this is why we need to both strip magical thinking out of the mountains in all its forms and celebrate the mountains for what they are: Extremely dangerous, stunning beautiful, deeply moving places that we love in our own ways, and that we find meaningful in a way nothing else offers. A place that often brings the best out in us precisely because it’s not a “woo woo” spiritual zone but a stunningly attractive reality where just staying alive is an accomplishment. Celebrate that beauty but watch for the hidden danger. Revel in the sun’s first rays after a frozen night out, but know that those rays are warming the face above the bivouac and that it’s time to get out of the sleeping bag and get moving.
If this all sounds depressing then you’re probably a lot like the majority of people I see wandering around in the mountains. All of us who climb, ski, paddle and fly over mountains are irrational optimists, and my realistic viewpoint often conflicts with that irrational optimism. But without understanding the game we won’t change our plans based on the reality of what’s happening around us. To be a successful climber is not to summit a peak or have fun doing so, but to survive the outing. To do that takes a hawk’s eye for detail about what is happening, not a prayer that it’ll be OK. It takes a keen appreciation of a mountain not just as beautiful but also as a hair-trigger trapdoor gallows we can hang ourselves on at any moment. And to understand that even with all this it’s still worth it, but that running away is often the best move when the opponent not only has all the cards but isn’t even aware you’re in the game.
The opinions in this piece are those of Will Gadd, a professional athlete.
Of all the dangers we face in the outdoors, the most difficult one is that of trust. The power of nature is something that we accept; the power of other forces over us is a conflict. Vulnerability feels like something we can control by not surrendering to it, but really we can’t. We think on it and then let go because if feeling vulnerable stays at the forefront, we become paralyzed.
Risk assessment is based on an evaluation of probability, consequence and vulnerability. North Shore Search and Rescue team leader Tim Jones volunteered a great deal of his life for others. His dedication was an example and serves to remind us of our responsibility to assume and be accountable for our actions.
“To live is so startling it leaves little time for anything else.”Emily Dickinson.
Random events occur. The benefit of danger is committing to being aware and alive and making the best decisions we can given the information we have. Life is beyond our control, living it fully is not.
From the blog, Sprinter Life-Reclaiming the pursuit of happiness
It was June, 1997, and whitewater kayaking was experiencing a golden age. All disciplines of the sport were peaking, from freestyle to slalom racing, and at the front of the explosion was the newest and greatest – extreme kayak racing.
Extreme kayak racing pushed the comfort zone of even the most accomplished paddlers of the time. As opposed to traditional racing held on moderate sized rapids, extreme races were staged on the hardest sections of river possible. Paddlers would charge through class 5 hydraulics and over cascading waterfalls, often head-to-head against several other competitors.
That year your daddy was the head organizer of the most prominent extreme race in the country at the time, The Gorge Games. The race was to be held on the Green Truss section of the White Salmon River in July. In addition to organizing the kayak events, I also had every intention of winning the extreme race. For months I had been training, both physically and mentally. By June, I was in top condition and was training with my long time friend, Rich Weiss.
Rich was my hero. In 1991, while training together in Canada, I saw what real work ethic looked like. I taped his Champion Series race profile picture to my dashboard, and for the entire 1992 season I looked at it before every workout to get inspired. By 1997, we both found ourselves living in the Colombia River Gorge and again started paddling together, preparing for the Gorge Games. By late June the rivers were swollen with snow melt, and we were running them at levels that I’m certain had never been tried before.
On June 25th, the Green Truss section was peaking at 6 feet, over double the normal level. Rich and his wife Rosi showed up at Outdoorplay, my new kayak shop, in the late afternoon. He was carrying a photo of himself to add to the shop’s wall of fame, which he autographed. It said,
Tree – Keep smokin down the river
Your friend, Rich
We hung it on the wall above the cash register, I grabbed my kayaking gear, and we headed for the Truss. Rosi was along for the ride, or, more accurately, to drive our shuttle. She would drop us off at the top, and then wait at the bottom until we arrived. This was a regular occurrence, as Rosi hardly ever left Rich’s side. They were more or less inseparable, two of the most in love people I had ever met. Everybody knew it.
At the put-in, the water was brown and angry. Rich and I dropped in and ran a couple rapids. When pulling over to catch our breath, we questioned whether or not it would be runnable. We didn’t use its name. We didn’t have to. We approached the horizon line and pulled over on the left bank. It boomed like an explosion. We walked to the lip and caught our first glimpse of Big Brother, the 30 foot waterfall and crux rapid of the Green Truss section of the White Salmon river.
At double the normal water flow, Big Brother looked ferocious. The normal line on the right side of the river was completely closed out. The well-known and dangerous cave on the right side was being hammered by a torrent of water pushing in from the hydraulic at the base. Getting pushed into the cave at this water level would be ugly. Complicating the issue was another nasty 10 foot drop right below called Little Brother. The current was moving so fast at this water level that the chance of having to run Little Brother right after Big Brother was 50/50. Rich and I sat in silence.
After a while of staring at the drop, I started to see a line on the far left side. By jumping over a 3 foot pour-over leading into Big Brother, I thought I might be able to access the left side. With enough speed and a strong last stroke, I envisioned my boat clearing the hydraulic at the bottom, thus avoiding the cave. The distance between the pour-over and the main drop was small, maybe enough time for 2 paddle strokes. But I saw it in my mind’s eye.
I told Rich I was running it. He put on his big, Richie, ear-to-ear smile and said, “Good luck, I’ll watch from here”.
I don’t remember being nervous. I don’t remember being scared. I paddled aggressively into the pour-over and nailed the move. But the distance to the main drop was much smaller than I had anticipated. I had enough time for only one stroke. I paused, waiting to feel my boat right on the lip, then launched the most powerful stroke I could muster. It was quiet. I felt my boat falling. Then I hit the hydraulic at the bottom. The power of the water immediately flipped me over, but the speed I had generated from the last stroke carried me through. I rolled up and barely scratched my way into a small eddy just 5 feet above Little Brother. I gave Rich the thumbs up to let him know I was ok.
I looked up at Rich through the mist. He was staring at the waterfall, his hands tucked into his lifejacket. One minute passed. Then two. Then three. At the time it didn’t register, but looking back on that moment, I saw trepidation, something I had never seen in Rich before. He looked down at me, far below, sitting in-between two powerful drops. I was getting bounced around in the small eddy while clinging to a rock. It looked as though he was considering walking around it. I put my hands up and shrugged, indicating “it’s your call”. Then I pointed at my watch and tapped it, indicating “make the call”. Rich smiled at me, looked at the drop for another second, and then disappeared over the horizon line. That was the last time I ever saw him.
I watched the horizon line waiting for the first glimpse of Rich’s boat. Finally it appeared and as I watched him clear the pour-over my first thought was, “Oh no, he’s going way too slow”. He approached the lip of Big Brother with little speed and appeared to stall. I waited for the powerful last stroke, but he seemed to just fall off the drop. His boat was slightly off line, and he skipped off a shallow section during the fall. Upon hitting the bottom, his boat did a back somersault into the hydraulic and started violently cartwheeling toward the cave. Then it was gone.
I immediately marked the time on my watch, knowing the seriousness of the situation. I wanted to know how long he had been under. I stayed in my boat waiting for him to wash out. With the strength of the current I knew there would be no hope to rescue him before he was swept over Little Brother. But, if I stayed in my boat, I could follow him over the next drop and hopefully get to him below.
Then, in an instant, his boat shot out of the falls and pinwheeled over Little Brother. But there was no sign of Rich. He was pinned behind the waterfall in the cave. I climbed out of my boat onto a narrow, slippery catwalk of rock shooting out from the cliff wall and started throwing my rescue rope behind the curtain, hoping he’d grab it. Forty minutes later I gave up.
My hands were now shaking. All of a sudden the canyon felt dark and unfriendly. Getting back into my boat and running Little Brother, alone, was one of the scariest things I’ve ever done. After that drop I was able to scale the cliff. From the canyon rim I looked into the river and saw no trace of Rich. I ran through the forest, heart pounding, until I came to the road. A truck picked me up and took me to a pay phone where I called 911.
Next came the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in my life. From the pay phone I walked across the street to the take-out where Rosi was waiting for us. She looked surprised to see me. With my stomach in my throat, and on the verge of tears, I told her that the love of her life, her soul mate, and the father of her unborn child, was dead.
Search and rescue arrived, and eventually found Rich’s body pinned on a tree downstream from Big Brother. They rappelled a 200 foot cliff, and by 11:45 pm they were wheeling the body into an ambulance back on the main highway where I waited. Rosi squeezed her 6 month pregnant body into the back of the ambulance with him, and the door slowly closed behind her.
The funeral came and went, as did all the questions of how and why. A couple months later Rosi gave birth to a baby boy and named him River.
I buried the pain and fear and shame in the deepest place I had, and Rosi and I never spoke again.
After Rich died I continued to kayak, and despite having some of the best river experiences of my life after the event, it was never the same. I put my focus into climbing instead, and over the years I continued to cheat death more times than I probably deserved.
So why am I telling you this story my sweet Soleil? I don’t know. I really don’t have an ending to this. But since you were born, those feelings seem to be creeping up from the deep place I stuffed them.
I have tremendous envy for friends I know who have had kids, yet continue to push the limits in their pursuits. In the same breath, I have seen too many of them perish. And I can’t bear the thought of leaving you.
I often wonder what was going through Rich’s mind during the long minutes he stood alone, so uncharacteristically, at the top of that waterfall. Did he know? Did he sense it? What was he thinking? What was he feeling?
Aside from your birth, the most magical times in my life have been the suspended moments in which time and thought stop, and pure life begins. Waterfalls. Big walls. Remote adventures. Solo missions. This is where the moments that defined my life were found.
Now I find myself struggling to answer questions.
- What am I willing to give up? What am I willing to lose?
- At what point do the risks I take no longer enhance my life, and how do I find the balance?
- And most importantly, what do I want to pass on to you, because I already see the crazy in your little green eyes.
These are the reflections I’m having as I process what I’ve done in my life, contemplate what I have left, and prepare for what you may choose to do in yours.
Perhaps in teaching you how to measure risk without the extra weight of ego and fear, I will learn to find the balance myself, and together we will get the most out of this already too short life.
All my love,
Big Brother shown at low water. The ledge of rocks above the waterfall seen in this photo created the pour-over we used to run the left side line at high water.
Another low water shot showing the normal line. A truly beautiful and magical place.
– See more at: http://sprinterlife.com/2013/07/the-risks-we-take.html#sthash.py50IZ0S.dpuf
No one heads out the door in the morning saying,
“Today is the day I am going to die in an avalanche.”
So how do we go from kissing our loved ones good-bye in the morning to the misfortune of being caught in an avalanche and not surviving?
An easy miss is to focus on The Small Picture instead of The Big Picture.
Backcountry: Small Picture
We take all the right actions – check the weather, make a plan, observe the snowpack, communicate with our group. However, by drawing the camera lens back to a larger perspective, we see we shouldn’t be there at all. There is just too much avalanche hazard in our route choice, the terrain is too complex, the consequences of misjudgment are too serious on this day.
Life: Small Picture
As humans we do this at our workplace and with our loved ones as well, taking offense over an imagined slight, a funny look, or off-handed comment.
Pull the camera lens back, gain that wider perspective, and suddenly you notice how petty the situation is. It probably isn’t about you at all; that person is having a tough day and is not aware of your presence in their drama at all.
Why do we ignore The Big Picture?
Why do we do this? Do we get to be “right” or feel vindicated? Or maybe it’s just habit – what we’ve been taught? Or perhaps it feels easier to make our choices from The Small Picture?
What we truly want is happiness, a fulfilled life, vibrantrelationships, and a healthy spirit.
Investing time and energy in the drama, the Small Picture, when we think about it, is not the path we want.
So often we don’t recognize that we have a choice.
Is It Worth It?
During this winter of high uncertainty one phrase kept ringing in my head: “Is It Worth It?”
Keeping this query in the forefront of my thinking I often forewent the short-term, steep powder thrill for the Big Picture. When I stopped and thought about it, my Big Picture Outcome was to be laughing with my family around the dinner table at day’s end.
When we make The Big Picture our natural response with our families, at work, and in the backcountry, we create our Desired Outcome: happiness, fulfillment, vibrant relationships, and a healthy spirit.
Because, if the worst happens, if the life of a friend, or loved one is cut short, was being focused on the Small Picture the choice we really wanted to make?
In the next newsletter I’ll offer some ways to move from the Small Picture to the Big Picture.
Are your choices aligned with your Big Picture? Are you trapped in the Small Picture watching your life slip past? The shift from Small Picture to Big Picture, from frustration to fulfillment, is easier and faster when you have support.
I invite you to email me with “Let’s Connect” in the subject line, and we’ll schedule a one-on-one, private, next steps activation call for you. We will connect in, hear what’s happening, and contribute to you gaining clarity about your best next steps. You will be amazed by the miracles that take place from this very special process.
Through Adventure Coaching Sandy offers life coaching focused on decisions, as it is from individual decisions that you create your life. Whether it’s completing that book you have been putting off writing, or replacing overwhelm with peace, Adventure Coaching can help.
Sandy has trained as a life coach with the Coaches Training Institute, Enwaken Coaches Training, Radical Forgiveness Coaching. She has been a corporate trainer, a ski patrol director, a mountain guide/instructor, and river guide. Sandy has years of experience making (good and bad) decisions in high risk environments.
As I pen this missive eight backcountry mountain travelers have died this winter in snow avalanches in Colorado and twenty-five have died in the U.S. Many of us have experienced a close call in an avalanche this winter or known someone who has had a close call with an avalanche. We experienced two tragic backcountry deaths in two days in early March here in southwestern Colorado. Even if you haven’t suffered a wake-up call or profound loss through a snow avalanche this winter, we all suffer losses of friends, family, pets, job, income, and relationships as an ongoing part of life. If you listen closely, you can hear the silent wails of grief echoing from the mountains of the West.
Ironically this anguish actually initiates us into the process of healing our grief. Experts in counseling encourage us to allow the waves of pain to flow, as they crash like waves on the beach, ebb for a while, then crash again. This natural flow is part of our deep self-care. Like a physical wound’s blood flow cleans the wound, letting the pain flow when our wounds are deep and raw allows our grief to run it’s natural course.
Like a healing salve protects and soothes a physical wound, actions of deep self-care soothe our emotional wounds. Here are three soothing actions to try as those waves are crashing:
1. Light a Candle
Hold the person, or object of your loss, gently in your mind and heart. Feel their presence, their spirit, their life, all that you cherished about them, all they brought to your life. Write about it, share your thoughts and feelings with another person. As you do this, light a candle as a symbol of their light in your life, a light that is not extinguished by their physical absence.
2. Take a Walk Being outside in nature, in the sun, the wind, the snow, the rain is soothes our spirit, especially those of us who love the outdoors and wild nature. The timelessness of nature reminds us of the natural cycles of change. It calls to mind our place in the big picture of the natural world. The repetitive nature of walking is grounding and calming, and physical movement assists our energy in shifting and moving, as it must do when we are adjusting to a new reality.
3. Soak in a Hot Spring Many of us in the West are fortunate to have a natural hot springs close by. (A hot bath or hot tub also suffices). Water soothes and relaxes us. Adding bath salts and calming essential oils like lavender and roman chamomile assist in drawing toxins out of our body produced by the stress of trauma. Allow the water to support you and warm you as you let ‘what was’ and ‘what now is’ integrate in your being.
Change may be constant and unavoidable in our lives, but that doesn’t always make it easy for us to integrate those changes. If you are experiencing shifts in your life, it can make sense to receive support. I invite you to email me with “Let’s Connect” in the subject line to schedule a 1-on-1, private, next steps activation call with myself. We will connect in, hear what’s happening for you, talk about what shifts you are experiencing, and support you in gaining clarity about your best next steps. You will be amazed by the miracles that take place from this very special process.
The Pass Creek Yurt
The Wolf Creek Avalanche School
We are enveloped by spectacular mountains, which many of us were drawn here by their beauty and desire for exploration. We pursue new adventures and surround ourselves with those who share the same passions. Those people become our friends, partners, community, and family. The mountains can challenge us which allows us to create a certain bond with partners of trust and respect. This is a beautiful relationship that happens due to the connection in outdoor adventures. We are fulfilling and enriching our lives with a calculated risk. Each day we play in the mountains must come with preparedness and awareness.