Biff America: Life and death in the backcountry
“As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods; they kill us for their sport.” — William Shakespeare
Legend has it, when Mark Freeze’s body was dug out from under an avalanche, Jimi Hendrix could still be heard blaring from the headphones of his Sony Walkman. The year was 1983.
Mark was probably the first person I knew to die doing something he loved.
Backcountry skiing might be the only segment of the ski world that is actually growing right now. There are light boots, skis and skins that allow any decent downhill skier or rider to climb and ski off-piste (though that doesn’t necessarily mean they can do so safely).
But back then, there were two types of backcountry skiers. Wool knickers and gator-wearing hippies like me, on skinny cross-country skis with leather boots whose gear and (lack of) ability kept us mostly off steep and dangerous terrain. And people like Mark, who used Alpine gear, and sometime lifts, to venture out of bounds to ski steep stuff. I only skied with him a few times; the terrain I enjoyed bored him.
Today, no savvy backcountry skier would think to venture out without an avalanche transceiver and various rescue and snow safety tools. During those days, at least for my crowd, the cutting edge of snow safety gear was to attach a 20 foot “avy-cord” to your pack with the hopes that the cord could be located and followed to your body if you were to get buried. Truth is, my skill set mostly kept me from skiing anything that was steep enough to cause a slide. All the cord did was get caught on deadfall and stumps and yank me off my skis like a golden retriever on a short leash chasing a tennis ball.
Like most backcountry skiers, I have lost many friends and countless acquaintances to avalanches in my decades of mountain living. I miss them all. I loved a few of them, but I don’t idolize any. In truth, all who died or experienced a near miss made a mistake.
A few years after Mark’s death, I helped dig out the bodies of two close friends.
We have all, in life and on snow, been guilty of bad choices. Sometimes it scares us; sometimes it kills us. I don’t condemn those who make mistakes as long as the ramifications are felt by them alone. But, all that said, I think it is dangerous to emulate or idolize them.
There has been a rash of avy deaths the past several years — particularly this winter, with the pandemic causing more people to venture away from the ski resorts to play in the backcountry. What should be noted, though, is a large portion of deaths and incidences are not newbies but rather seasoned skies who made poor choices.
Death makes heroes of us all. Seldom will an obit say, “John Doe died last week. He had low morals and would make love to a snake if he could hold its ears.”
You read of quotes and testimonials celebrating the lives of those lost. Phrases like “Society is obsessed with hanging on to life opposed to really living it.” Or to paraphrase some guy named Shakespeare, “A coward dies a thousand deaths, a hero dies but one.” Both are valid assertions, but I think there is a balance to be struck between nuts and guts, brave and timid.
Some of the most risky (and foolish) things I have done, I did in my 20s and 30s. Had I been forced to pay the piper with my death back then, I would have missed out on half a lifetime of incredible experiences, great ski days, love, marriage and seeing the Red Sox win a World Series.
Mark’s headphones and hat hung from the rafters of a local bar. I can remember looking up at them to imagine his thoughts as he felt the snow beginning to move under his skis. Was he unafraid and resolved that he had lived a great life? Or did he wish that he was more cautious and mindful of the risks?
Paraphrasing again, but Shakespeare also contended, “Discretion is the better part of valor.”
When I was younger, I naively assumed it was the former. After 40 years of reflection and thousands of days behind me, I’m happy the poor choices I made were mostly confined to bad dancing, bad dating and bad haircuts.
Because a mullet might look stupid, but it won’t kill you.
Jeffrey Bergeron’s column “Biff America” publishes Mondays in the Summit Daily News. Bergeron has worked in TV and radio for more than 30 years, and his column can be read in several newspapers and magazines. He is the author of “Mind, Body, Soul.” Bergeron arrived in Breckenridge when there was plenty of parking and no stop lights. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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