Category Archives: Freeskiers

The price of magic

Not again. Please, not again. I don’t want to be writing this. I don’t want to be acknowledging another loss, mourning more bright and beautiful lights that went dark far too soon. Not again.

But of course it happened again. Because this is what we do, from the weekend warriors to the fearless mountain guides. We go out into a space that isn’t safe, that isn’t controlled or contained, where nothing is certain. Even for the very best among us – the most experienced, the most thoughtful, the bravest – there are no guarantees. It’s not a mystery why, as Steve Casimiro writes in his beautiful homage to the dead and the living left behind: “You play with fire, you might get burned. Some extreme skiers live to be old, some don’t.

Goodbye, JP. Goodbye, Andreas. I didn’t know either of you, not really, although I met JP at a few movie premieres and have always been in awe of the contribution he made to Canadian freeskiing. I never spoke to Andreas Fransson, but I followed his blog and his documentaries and all of those insights about risk and reward, the price that might have to be paid one day for a life lived amid a stunning beauty beyond the reach of most of us.

And now, that debt is paid. They’re both gone in an incredible, sickening double whammy that punches a hole right through the heart of our community. When I saw the first news headline, it felt like a kick to the gut.  Then it just felt impossible. Not Andreas, not JP. It can’t be true. Of course it’s not true. Not both of them. Not this.

Did they know? Right at that last, final moment, as the mountain fell apart around them and the white wave broke, did they know there was no walking away this time? So much experience, so much expertise; maybe they did. Or maybe they still hoped, even as they were swept away. It’s only human, to hope when all hope is gone.

And for the rest of us, as we wonder how the hell this happened to people so much more experienced and expert than we could ever dream of being, what do we take from this? If the very best among us could be snuffed out in an instant, just like that, what does that say about the calls we make? About what we do, where we go, why we choose to be in these places where the world is no longer safe or predictable?

This, I think. He said it so many times, in so many ways, Andreas.

“What I do know is that a life without seeing magic is not a life well lived. Mountains are just one tool in this quest, but it’s the one I know and the one I breathe. It’s not about going out into the mountains because they are worth dying for. I don’t think there are many things that are worth dying for, but I still need to go out in to the mountains because they give me something to live for. I want to live with excitement, love and joy…and then all those other questions just disappear.”

And be careful. Oh, be so careful. Ask the questions, and if you’re not happy with the answers then ask them again and again and again. Because there are people out there who love us, each and every one of us, and I don’t ever want the people who love me to be hurting the way that the people who loved JP and Andreas the most are hurting right now.

Consequences

The season hasn’t started yet, and we’re already in mourning.

In the early hours of Sunday morning, a huge serac broke near the peak of Manaslu, the world’s eighth highest mountain. Its weight triggered an avalanche that swept through 6,800m Camp 3 where 29 climbers were trying to sleep before heading for the summit. They included extreme skier Glen Plake, who was part of a team aiming to ski the peak without the aid of supplemental oxygen.

Accounts of what happened next make harrowing reading. Plake was in a tent with a sleeping Greg Costa when the avalanche hit and swept them a thousand metres down the mountain. Fighting his way out of the canvas afterwards, he found everything that had been in the tent with him except for his climbing partner. Costa is one of three presumed dead in the wake of the slide.

Revelstoke climber and skier Greg Hill was lower down the mountain in Camp 2 when the blast from the avalanche alerted climbers that something terrible was happening above them. His blog account of digging survivors out of the snow and then watching the life fade out of them is heartbreaking. It’s hard to imagine losing one companion in an avalanche; seeing eight dead and numerous others injured in spite of your best efforts to save them is beyond my comprehension.

This was the single most devastating avalanche in Himalayan climbing history. The lives that were lost belonged to people who believed in pushing limits, testing boundaries, and living life to the full. It’s so hard for me to be objective about the risks that they take, and the consequences they face. I’m a risk taker by nature, but I’m by no means an extreme or hardcore athlete. At this point in my life I’m also aware of consequences in a way that I wasn’t when I was younger. I want to test my own limits and push myself out of my comfort zone whenever possible, but the most important thing is that I come home safe to my family at the end of the day. It’s the people left behind who have to live with the cost, day in and day out.

My heart goes out to the folk lost on Manaslu, the survivors who did everything they could to save as many lives as possible, and the loved ones left behind.

Goodbye Rando Steve

I hate that I’m writing another of these posts. I hate that I could have written so many more of them than I have this year. I hate that another icon is gone, and there will never be another update from Rando Steve on TetonAT again.

I tuned into the unfolding story yesterday via a Facebook post. All morning long I was watching and refreshing the page and hoping that the search would end in some way other than it did. It’s funny how visceral the reaction to the loss of a member of the skiing community is, even when it’s someone I never met. It’s like a kick in the gut. I didn’t know Steve Romeo, or his friend Chris Onufer; and as skiers they occupied a different plane entirely from the one I’m in. But we shared that deep passion for the mountains, and the words and pictures on TetonAT that brought Steve’s adventures to the world made him someone that I admired, and respected, and will miss.

Outside Magazine published Steve’s last interview today, and it’s incredibly poignant given what happened just a few days later. It hurts reading his words about the inherent risk in avalanche terrain, and the choices we make about where and how we ski. It’s a really important reminder that the worst can happen to the very best. But in the end it’s not the commentary on risk or reward that I want to remember; it’s this.

“I think for people who really love to ski, and aren’t so caught up in the hype and the crowds, we’ll always be drawn to the backcountry. As long as you’re interested in fitness and getting a workout, why wouldn’t you want to climb up this untracked peak, on your own, and have this moment in the backcountry where you’re not being rushed to ski down the line? You can take whatever track you want, and always get fresh tracks, and have this orgasmic moment at the end, like, oh my god. And then to realize that this is possible every day, day in and day out. I think it is just inevitable that you gravitate to that as a skier.”

RIP Rando Steve and Chris Onufer, and my deepest condolences to all those who are missing you today and always.

RIP Sarah Burke

There are no words that seem adequate right now. Sarah was a pioneer and an inspiration, both as a skier and as a Canadian. I wish her family strength in the face of this unimaginable loss.

#believeinsarah

I don’t know Sarah Burke personally. But as a female skier, I’ve watched her and had nothing but admiration for the way she’s hauled the sport forward, leading the charge for proper recognition for women’s freestyle skiing and eventually taking it all the way to the Olympic games. There aren’t too many women at the top of this sport, and fewer still who have the ability to cross over from the park to the big mountain.

I don’t know Sarah. But both the Whistler community and the freeskiing community are small, and I’ve talked to her husband Rory a few times at skiing events. He’s one of the world’s happy people; someone whose positive outlook and sheer energy are so infectious that you walk away buzzing from attitude osmosis. I can’t even begin to imagine what it’s like for her friends and family to live with the uncertainty that surrounds every moment right now. I’ve watched the video of her and Rory discussing how they met and married, and my heart feels sick for the place he must find himself in.

In this world, there’s nothing we can take for granted. Be strong Sarah, and Rory, and everyone around you: keep fighting. You’re too young to die in the mountains just yet. You have a whole lot more living to do.

Solitaire

It’s ski movie season, and J and I have been taking in as many as we possibly can. Attack of La Nina was so epic and deep that it made me mad all over again about missing two-thirds of the best season in history; at One for the Road it was reassuring to see Ian McIntosh looking in good shape after the horrifying femur-breaking fall that featured in the movie. The films, as always, were pure ski porn: huge cliff hucks, near-vertical Alaska spines, blower powder in the BC backcountry.

Then last night we hit the new Sweetgrass Productions’ film, Solitaire. Filmed over two years in South America without the aid of a single heli, cat or chairlift, this was a work of art as much as a ski movie. Lingering shots of windswept icefields and bones bleaching in desolate grasslands juxtaposed with the flickering embers of fires and a cat luxuriating in the sunshine filtering through the window of a remote mountaintop cabin. The action shots lingered on crystals hanging in air, the sheer scale of the landscape, and the power and beauty of the lines carved by skis in the snow. The movie was a testament to the stark beauty of the South American landscape, and the endurance and skill of the individuals exploring it.

If you only see one ski movie this year, make it this one. It’s a stunner.

SOLITAIRE: A Backcountry Skiing, Snowboarding, and Telemark Film from Sweetgrass Productions on Vimeo.

Ordinary Skiers

Last night I watched The Ordinary Skier, the two-year-in-the-making Seth Morrison biopic. There’s a section in the middle of the documentary where JP Auclair talks about Seth’s broken ankle and the impact of his year on the sidelines that put into words something that I never fully managed to articulate during my long recovery from injury and surgery. When sport is your heart and soul, an injury is more than just a limit on your physical activity. It’s more than the frustration of being set apart and left out. It takes your voice away; it leaves you mute.

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t afraid of being injured again; especially another ACL injury. It’s going to be interesting, this year, to ski without the restrictions from last season. I’ll have the freedom of the mountain again: the open bowls and couloirs, the powder, the tree skiing and the jumps. It’s not like I didn’t venture into a few places that I shouldn’t have gone last year, but I was so painfully conscious that I wasn’t meant to be there and I couldn’t afford to make mistakes.

It’s the question hanging over me right now: will I be able to get back to where I was before? I look back at the days I had in 2009/10, in the early part of the season before I wrecked my knee, and I know that these aren’t things I could have achieved last year. Top-to-bottom runs in Couloir Extreme; full speed through West Bowl late on a powder day; dodging trees on Bark Sandwich. I’ve got a whole summer of strengthening under my belt and these days there’s nothing that my knee stops me doing, from hiking the Lions to trail running. But it’s not the same as it was before, and I don’t know yet if my head’s the same either. Last year I started the season with extreme caution that gave way to wild abandon when I first got back to Whistler, and then had to reign myself in after the abrupt wake-up call of the first falls. I don’t want this year to be about reigning in, or caution. I want it to be about getting back into the game, and moving forward.

I may be overthinking this. One thing I learned last season is that no matter how much I turn things over in my brain, not one of the thoughts matters the moment I get back on snow. All I really need is for the new season to start.

RIP CR Johnson

Freeskier CR Johnson died today on the slopes of Squaw Valley.

The story of CR’s battle back from his 2005 brain injury is one that I found both moving and inspiring, and it helped motivate me to keep skiing when I thought my own knee injuries would force me off the slopes. It’s almost unbearably poignant watching this clip now that we know how his story ends, but there’s also comfort in his words. “The joy that I get from skiing…that’s worth dying for.” He knew the risks of going back to skiing at that level, of another head injury; but he chose to take those risks because he truly believed it was worth it.

The freeskiing tribe has lost one of its bravest and most courageous athletes. Our thoughts are with CR’s friends and family tonight.