Thursday, July 3, 2014

I Could've Warned Them

My brother and sister-in-law, James and Rachel, are super-athletic and outdoorsy folks who do things like cross-country ski to a remote yurt for FUN. Their home gym takes up a whole floor of their house. And they buy Christmas presents for each other like crampons and rain kilts for all-weather hiking.

So last year they went on this big ol' hike to the Middle Teton. They went with their good friend Mac, who is a guide and the director of a university outdoor rec department. They camped at the trailhead the night before and woke up at three o'clock in the morning to begin the fourteen-mile hike with 6,000 feet of elevation gain. They got caught in a thunderstorm well into the day and had to stop hiking and stay low to avoid being struck by lightning. This was a 90-minute hold-up. But that kind of thing happens to seasoned hikers all the time and they know how to handle it and how to stay safe. Plus they are well-prepared and have good gear. Once the storm passed, it was a satisfying ascent and they were thrilled to make the summit.
On the way down, Rachel was not looking forward to crossing the snow fields. She felt ill-prepared despite the time they had spent learning and practicing self-arresting with an ice-axe at the beginning of the day. During a pep talk given by James as they carefully crossed the ice, Rachel slipped and fell and careened down a 50-foot long, 60-degree slope. She hit the rocks at a frightening speed and James said he was thinking that she was going to have a lot of broken bones. He was terrified. So was Rachel. She tried to do the things she'd been taught in order to slow a fall, but nothing was working. At the bottom, she hit the rocks, jumped up and shouted, "I'm okay!" Mac had descended the slope ahead of her, and was by her side in seconds. He had to ask her to sit down so he could check for broken bones and he was concerned she might pass out from shock. James was at her side not too long after Mac. He slid down the ice feet first and stomach down probably almost as fast as Rachel in her uncontrolled fall. And here's the part of the story that I can't quit thinking about -- James was in a panic and he immediately started asking, "Why did this happen? What went wrong?" In fact, he repeated this line of questioning uncontrollably enough that Mac asked him to take a breath and try to sit down.

I keep repeating that question to myself, incredulously: Why did this HAPPEN? Are you KIDDING me? Let me answer that. You were climbing over ice on a mountain that was treacherous enough to require helmets and fancy shoes and a sharp axe but the shoes and the axe didn't work and Rachel fell! DUH.

Are you like my brother? Do you trust your equipment and expect things to go well? Are you surprised when things go wrong?

Or are you like me? Here is what I might have said if I had been at the bottom of the slope:

"OH MY GOD! I KNEW THIS WAS GOING TO HAPPEN! I KNEW IT!"

I knew the equipment would fail and someone would slip. Except I really didn't. But in my mind, the fear is so strong that often, when I complete adventures or even daily tasks unharmed it is quite a surprise. Wow! I made it off the mountain alive! I got to my car without being attacked in the parking lot! No one kidnapped my child at the beach! You get the picture. I don't know that I can ever learn to fully believe that things don't always turn out tragically. For me, the key is to keep on doing things even when they involve risk. Not crazy risk, but enough to keep life interesting. I'd rather be surprised by success than doomed and confined to my house by the fear of failure.
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