One of the Rockies’ best-known adventurers riffs on life and death in the mountains. Words :: Will Gadd.
We go into the mountains to find meaning. Deep, all-absorbing meaning, the kind where you don’t think about anything but the here and now, and the world makes sense in a way it doesn’t in normal life. The mountain air is a ZEISS lens for what often seems like an out-of-focus, out-of-sense existence. That clarity is gorgeous. Some call the mountains their temple, the divine in rock, snow and ice. Up high the light is brighter, skies bluer, emotions and friendships stronger.
Then someone dies, and in the cold, sterile, fluorescent light of the aftermath we look into the void and have a different problem: the lack of meaning. Why did they die, and what does it mean? Why did I live, and they died? What does death mean? Was that climb worth it? Of course not. Each death is a tragedy. But is it a tragedy when it’s a reasonably expected outcome of going to dangerous places? And if it is a reasonably expected outcome, that must mean it will happen again. And, most of us at the trailhead aren’t comfortable with that and don’t want to believe it will happen to us, so we call each new death an anomalous “tragedy” and move on, comforted by the belief it probably won’t happen to us.
Hope is not a plausible risk-management strategy. To admit life hinges on hope is to admit we don’t control the outcome. And that reality won’t do in our, risk-managed, twenty-first-century minds; we like to think we’re behind the wheel. In Europe, the Himalaya, South America, Asia, death is expected both in life and in the mountains—shit sometimes just happens. People don’t seem to have the same North American belief that we control our own destinies.
Every year dozens die in avalanches, but when someone close to us dies in a slide it’s a “freak accident.” If it’s possible to die either through human error or galactic happenstance at any given time, it means we are out of control, and that notion is unacceptable to the modern mind. But they are all freak accidents. And it is a tragedy to those left behind, especially the kids, whether the person was “doing what they loved” or not.
The instant and final razor of death doesn’t split mountain odds neatly into the heads and tails of a spinning coin. A beating, warm pulse and cold, flat skin cooling with every minute of CPR were both always there, the same odds, spinning in the air. Are you a Buddhist or a Christian or an atheist or an agnostic? Reincarnation, heaven, nothing, no idea, respectively. You’ll get your answers on death when you die. What is clear to me is those who believe humans are fallible and the divine is infallible deal more gracefully with death. They have a ready-made explanation for it. Yet, most mountain people are atheists, experientialists, and don’t have a plan for being “taken too soon.” I’m not saying turn to God, but if you believe, then belief might make random seem organized, and “everything happens for a reason,” a comfort.
I don’t have that comfort, but I envy those who do. I think shit happens. I’ve seen so many wrecks and smart people die I don’t believe I’m superior. That means I can die out there too. And that is a very cold and pointy truth to hold in a warm, soft mind. Hello, dissonance, my old friend.
Why this matters, beyond perhaps encouraging examination of our high-risk mountain pursuits, is that how we treat mountain death depends on our perspective on all of the above. I don’t think many of us are truly honest about our relationship with, or closeness to, death in the mountains. Me, I’m with Reinhold Messner, who doesn’t get the credit he deserves for saying: “Mountains are not fair or unfair, they are just dangerous.”
Mountains are chaos. Messner, who lost his brother and multiple partners to the mountains, is right—they are just dangerous. I try to find the calm places where death’s razor can’t reach me while I race across the halls of the mountain kings. I dance between safe spots in the mountains and find meaning in moving well amongst the ambiguity. I welcome it all: bluer skiers, crisper air, a fuller heart, a stronger bond with my friends, family, and friends that become family. My kids are better outside. Trail rage isn’t a thing.
Fragile specks blowing in the wind shouldn’t expect fair or unfair in chaos. Humans resist anarchy. Religion and politics are both a quest for order. Tame the untameable. Buy insurance. Wear your seatbelt. Vote. Invest. Control.
Before heading out, when I check the weather forecast on my screen at home, I see a list of 25 dead friends hanging on the wall next to my computer. Not one died in a car wreck. They died in the mountains. But here I am, bag packed, again. Poetic skies and relationships are one thing. Is this lifestyle… are these moments worth losing it all? Is everything enough to counterbalance nothing?
Is it danger that provides meaning for us mountain folk? We could play Russian roulette if all we wanted was adrenaline. No, for me it’s facing and avoiding the danger, seeing it for what it is, and dancing for all I’m worth in the most intense places in the world. Now that is meaning, and that’s what it fucking means to be alive. For me. It also means I may die, no, will die, either in the mountains or not. No one gets out alive. I’m not okay with that, and that’s where I find my meaning, the spaces where I can live while death sits over there sharpening its razor with the click of rockfall, the buzz of lightning and the silent accumulation of plaque in my veins.
But that’s me. What’s your answer?