Big thanks to Backcountry Access for sponsoring this avalanche education content. Check out the additional plethora of avalanche safety resources on their website.
[Editor’s Note: Famed alpinist Alex Lower perished in an avalanche on Shishapangma, Tibet in October of 1999. Lou Dawson was not only an acquaintance of Lowe’s but somewhat of a contemporary as well. They never climbed together, but supported one another’s ambition verbally and in writing. As career mountaineers, both Lou and Alex questioned the motivations that lead to happiness, and the consequences that could result. We all must ask the same questions eventually. Are we risking too much? No one can say for sure; we can only ponder and perhaps answer questions like these for ourselves, and remember those that have gone before. Please also note that Shishapangma can be spelled as either one or two words.]
“…A sluggish crawl with death all around you.” That’s how ski mountaineer Conrad Anker described summiting an 8,000-meter peak. A few days later his words proved prophetic, as two of his teammates, renown climber Alex Lowe and filmmaker Dave Bridges, met their end in an avalanche on Shisha Pangma (8,013-meters) in Tibet (during their American Ski Expedition of 1999).
Many of us in the backcountry ski community were hit hard by the tragedy. We had been touched by Lowe’s exuberance as well as Bridge’s remarkable blend of mountain skill and cinematography. Their webcast was exciting, funny, irreverent, and honest. It thrilled me from the start, and capped with tragedy the ‘cast is now a classic, for better or worse (as of 2014 we don’t know if this is still in publication).
To honor the Shishapangma team’s trials, it is fair to bring up the age old subject of balance: Life and death; danger versus a warm bath; emotional vs. physical risk. Indeed, the concept of balance covers just about everything we do as ski and snowboard mountaineers. To open the discussion, first consider the basics:
Route. You want something steep, but the snowpack hides a fragile slab? Balance. You stay in the low angled trees. A corniced ridge offers a smooth path next to knee-deep trail breaking in a powder field. You walk the cornice, but stay away from the edge. Balance: you walk the line between risk and reward.
Gear. Weight vs. power is always a question. The guys you see hucking 100-foot cliffs are not wearing sandals; they use heavy boots and skis that make climbing an inquisition torture. Likewise, try big air on 180 cm randonnée (AT) skis and flexy boots, and you’ll learn the truth in the words “it’s the landing—stupid.” In both cases the gear is out of balance. But climb Mount Shasta with the latest AT or tele gear, and you’ll bliss your way up and down. Balance.
Technique. The physical act of skiing or riding is about balance. Observe a good skier. They don’t force it. They appear relaxed, sometimes almost gangly and loose. Get coached, and you’ll hear about centering, relaxation and balance.
With the trivial out of the way let us get to the big question about balance. Who among us has not wondered, was a guy like Alex Lowe, with a wife and kids, leading an unbalanced life if he made his living by taking huge risks? A direct answer to that is impossible, as we can’t speak for Alex. But, I’ve conversed with Alex a number of times, and I have no doubt he would have entered into such self-examination with enthusiasm. Thus, let us direct the question to our own lives. I have no intention of judging Alex, but, I know he’d be happy if we use his life to inspire introspection and discourse — he’d be happy knowing we are looking at the hard questions.
First, let’s not be in denial. Much of extreme climbing (not to mention skiing) is about cheating death. Glory it all you want, but do so with open eyes. The 10th Mountain Division in WWII experienced 10% casualties, which is considered heroic combat. Figures I’ve seen are about the same for climbing 8,000-meter peaks.
“I have to question the complexity of our means of seeking happiness…” wrote Lowe on the expedition website shortly before his death. “My motivation to climb has become increasingly rooted in relationships, to the point where who I’m with has more to do with my decision to commit to a project than the project itself…”
Alex Lowe was a man of intelligence and introspection, so in the words above he must have also been addressing the complexities of balance and risk. If his motivation to climb was rooted in relationships, he must have wondered if such relationships could be created and enjoyed more easily outside of extreme mountaineering. True, the “complexity” Lowe wrote about was also the accomplishment of third-world mountaineering. Such work can be daunting, but no more so than building a house, running a business, or raising a family. And those challenges almost always include powerful relationships. I’m certain Lowe knew that.
Lowe must have wondered if high-level mountaineering, with such horrific consequences for the loser, was the way to happiness. Indeed, almost any mountaineer has pondered this while in extremus (or at least soon after). I recall my own epiphany of danger high on an Alaskan wall, with our anchor bolts pulling out of rotten rock as an avalanche poured tons of snow on our hanging belay. Thoughts of family and friends burst in my head like cannon shells. My emotions became a train wreck of colliding motivations. I took risks after that, but in smaller doses. Then I almost killed myself in another avalanche. After that I switched to what, for me, was a more balanced style — though I still went climbing, and I still made mistakes.
Heroic combat has merit, as does pushing the limits of human accomplishment in most any field or endeavor. Huge lessons are learned. When you face death with your friends the relationships you develop can be powerful, fulfilling, and effective. That includes your relationship with God. Ideally, you take these lessons and relationships back to every day life. What you’ve learned helps integrate job and family, religion, volunteer work, education, and myriad other aspects of being human. The end result can be more happiness in your life.
But here is the problem. It can be mighty fine out there. Days are simple and mostly good in the backcountry. If you deny life outside of backcountry skiing, balance is easy to achieve; all you do is carve a turn, hang with like minded fellows, keep fresh batteries in your headlamp, and know what time the sun rises. Thus you go back for more, and more…
Life is a series of seasons, so perhaps there is a time of life for such simplicity. Perhaps it’s part of the learning that mountaineering imparts. In the 1970s I washed dishes and skied ( not necessarily in that order). For a short time my life had simplicity and balance that bordered on the monastic. And I learned a thing or two. But would I be happy doing that as a 48-year-old man? No. My balance now involves service, kids, spirituality, and more. I’m happier than I’ve ever been, and my relationships are just as powerful as during my days as an extreme climber and skier. Yet the balance is never perfect, and the temptation of the wilds, where life is easier to order, always nags me. In the proper doses, with minimal physical risk, my backcountry still schools me and helps with the rest of life. Indeed, a part of my marriage and fatherhood is based on mutual experience in the mountains. Yet sometimes I find myself seeking things the wild really can’t give me, such as love and peace, and yes, lasting happiness. The scale jiggles.
With thoughts such as Lowe’s in mind, we must ask ourselves questions: is the best (or only) fellowship I experience during backcountry trips? Do I feel spiritual in risky and extreme situations, but bored at home? Have I pushed a partner, lover or spouse to accompany me where they don’t belong, or chased an aggressive descent in spite of them? Do I have dependents at home, yet do things with statistically bad odds? Have I worked myself into a mercenary position where risk enriches me? Do I only feel alive at the sharp end of a rope? Do I seek happiness in the afterglow of epic challenge? Do I get angry or defensive when asked to question any of the above?
The answers to those questions will be different for everyone — but the answers matter. Indeed, we’re all unique individuals who live with different levels of emotional and physical risk. And living without risk is impossible. As a famous auto racer once said, “A man who doesn’t move is already dead…” The difference is the motivation behind the movement, what your risk contributes to society, and how it affects your friends and loved ones. Risk and reward must balance. Consequences affect many people. Rewards are not just for your benefit.
Glisse alpinism is beautiful because it teaches us balance. Every step of the way, from gear choices to trail politics, to risk vs. reward on big peaks, we labor to keep the scale s from swinging too deep. But we must apply the lessons to the teacher. The wisdom of the wild can become forbidden fruit, and death the final result. We must look at what’s truly important, and learn about balance from those who have gone before, or beyond. In doing so, we honor the contributions of Dave Bridges and Alex Lowe.
(This article was originally published in Couloir Magazine as a column called “Dawson’s Backcountry 12-4, January 2000”)