The correct questions

In the weeks before we were set to leave Montana mid October had settled into a stubborn, even egregious Indian Summer.  The kind with short, sharp, clear, and mild days that are good for doing just about anything, except packing.  The only time outside I got that day was walking from and to the office to get an espresso, and putting Little Bear in the backpack to stroll downtown and meet M after work.  Ben was in the alley, chatting with some guys after a mountain bike ride up by Canada.  He recognized us, as even in Whitefish guys with beers carrying toddlers around in backpacks isn’t that common.  Conditions that morning had been perfect, he said, except that the larches weren’t quite in full bloom.  Your son looks just like you, I said.  I know, he responded, isn’t it unfortunate.  Ben and his wife were the last of the many local couples we knew who had also had a baby in 2015, and there son had been the youngest, most tentative walker amongst the herd of toddlers at a birthday party the weekend before.  Ben had missed the party due to work, as an EMT.

Ben was full of it, as he well knew.  In addition to being an exceptional skier and endurance mountain biker, Ben was not in the least ugly, something enhanced by his optimistic and affable demeanor.  Over six years I ran into Ben plenty, at the ski hill, the ice cream shop, on the side of the trail most of the way up Gunsight Pass, but we only did trips together twice.  Both were skiing, on both occasions I was the weak link by far, and both times Ben displayed great patience with some one who really should not have been there.

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Ben, in green pants and the lead of a world class crew.

Ben died in an avalanche this past week, on Stanton Mountain in Glacier National Park.  His death, and especially the fact that he is survived by his wife and very young son, should make us ask questions, about the incident itself, about Ben’s choices that day, and about choices we’ve made in the past and will make in the future.  But out of respect for the dead and for the living, they should be the correct questions.

Don’t ask questions about whether he died doing what he loved.  It’s important to not live life paralyzed, by fear or doubt, but discussing how risk and reward balance out is an important discussion.  And this particular cliche is usually a proxy for stifling the conversation.

Don’t ask questions about whether he should have been there.  Ex post facto judgement for the purposes of learning is a good use of energy.  Doing it in the name of establishing moral superiority, even tacitly*, is the other side of the “Doing what he loved” coin, that is, a good excuse not think very hard about what happened.

It is appropriate to ask questions about risk assessment and backcountry skiing.  In three days I’ve failed to come up with another sport where the most favored conditions and the most hazardous overlap so thoroughly.  Backcountry skiing is not alone in that the more skilled participants are the most likely to die doing it, and in this respect Ben’s accident was statistically not an aberration.  It is difficult for me to not read the initial report and conclude that short of not going at all, no one could have done better.  Special variability and the quest for powder are, when combined with good skiing skills, a problematic combination.

Having done something in the past is no reason to keep doing it, especially as age slows reflexes, adds responsibilities, and generally makes the ground harder.  Keen observers of this video will have noted the moment (1:23) when I start to slip and only just save myself from a nasty fall by spinning and grabbing the webbing.  Not a ringing endorsement of my very rusty downclimbing skills, and I’m not content to just rest on my sling-snatching skills.  Slow and steady will be the order of the day, at a minimum, and maybe some of the higher consequence canyons will be off the table, for a while at least.

It’s important to not stay home for fear.  Ben would not have been the same person, same husband, or same father without the hazardous things he did.  At the same time it is foolish, and disrespectful, to not allow oneself to be properly sad and remember the dead daily, weekly and monthly.  Making the right choice, in the moment, has everything to do with asking yourself the correct questions.  Why am I here?  What do I want?  Why do I want that?  I often think about Rob, Erin and Casey, and now Ben when I ask myself these things, and I believe my answers are more reliable for doing so.

*Special shout out to Flathead Beacon columnist and hack Dave Skinner for doing this in a stunningly public and tactless fashion in the online comments of the article discussing Ben’s death.  I’ve been vexed by Skinner’s intellectual cheapness since 2010, and this is a nice confirmation that according to most available evidence he’ll rarely let an evenhanded treatment of facts get in the way of easy rhetoric.

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