When People Die

Post by WildSnow.com blogger | October 2, 2014      
Sabastian 'Basti" Haag in Europe, 2008.

The late Sabastian ‘Basti” Haag in Europe, 2008. He said the mountain behind him is where he learned to climb and ski mountaineer, and was his ‘favorite peak.’ Click to enlarge.

There are a lot of people hurting in our community right now — five people will never be seen alive again by their friends, families, loved ones. Fully five, that’s FIVE well known ski & snowboard mountaineers dying in avalanches over about a week’s time. Sebastian Haag and Andrea Zambaldi near the summit of Shisha Pangma. Then J.P. Auclair and Andreas Franson in a couloir in Chile.

And when it seemed like it couldn’t get any worse, we heard about well known and spirited split boarder Liz Daley dying in Argentine Patagonia, ostensibly swept over a cliff or cornice by, yes, an avalanche.

Lisa and I knew two of these people (Daley and Haag). Our son Louie knew Liz quite well. We all were amazed and inspired by Fransson. Likewise, many of you WildSnow readers knew some of these guys, perhaps all. This is huge in our community, just huge. I’ve been feeling strange for days now and finally realized I’m just numb with shock and grief.

The departed would want us to handle it well, I’m certain. It’s trite to say, but these five people knew the risks and made their choices. They’re not asking for sympathy, rather, they’re probably asking that we handle their loss in a way that honors their love of the mountains and the inspiration they so generously provided all those of us who watched what they did. Nonetheless, this is hard. Grief is the word.

I’ve read some takes that summarize as “get over it, people die all the time all over the world, what’s any different about a climber or skier?” Nope, that’s not the key. Most people who live the dream life we have in First World countries don’t have their friends and associates frequently dying while pursuing their passions. Not judging here, only looking at the reality. When we ski alpinists have to process the deaths of five this week, numerous last winter, Romeo and Onufer before that — and Coombs — it’s just hard, it feels like things are out of kilter. I mean, to enjoy this sport do you have to die doing it?

Is our sport really this dangerous? Indeed, that’s a whole blog post. Won’t go there now, except to say that yes it is dangerous if you do dangerous stuff — and that it can also be done quite safely if you make certain kinds of choices. I’m waxing sophomoric. Like I said, we’ll not go there now.

What I’m talking about here is grief, and how to deal with it. Yes, if you’re reading this it’s pretty likely you knew one of these five individuals. Or if you didn’t know them personally, in the case of famous skiers such as J.P. or Fransson you felt close to them anyway, as a fan. That engenders grief as well.

So how to deal with all this? If you find yourself dazed and numb, see if doing some action off a list helps. I got this from HelpGuide.org and added some things.

Turn to friends and family members – Talk it out, or just revel in being close to those you care about. Celebrate life. Have a special dinner, call it a memorial or wake so you have some focus and can process feelings.

Draw comfort from your faith – Whatever your spiritual or religious feelings, now is the time to bring that to the front.

Take care with self medication – Regarding substances, alcohol etc., they have no healing effect, they’re only short-term fixes (if that). If you do find yourself needing medication for insomnia or depression, seek the help of a medical professional.

Join a support group or see a therapist/counselor – If you’re having a lot of trouble coping, don’t hesitate to get help.

Be careful about obsessing on details of accidents – A certain amount of curiosity is healthy. We can often learn from events. But too much web browsing to get the last details can be unhealthy obsession. Try to leave yourself with good memories, not a bunch of terrifying facts that can manifest in fear, depression and constant worry.

Go to the mountains – We are mountaineers, alpinists; just as those who passed in these accidents we derive much of our physical and spiritual food from the high and wild. Take action. Go there and celebrate those who are gone. Do it your own way — just as they did it their way. Do something you love with someone you love. Have a picnic, cut firewood, climb a mountain, or ski a couloir, no pressure, be safe, focus on the positive. That’s how we can eulogize these five fine individuals.

Commenters, I’d love to hear your thoughts on how to cope with grief as well as honor the departed.


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21 Responses to “When People Die”

  1. Mike Marolt October 2nd, 2014 10:40 am

    For me, the heart and soul of grieving boils down to faith. How often is tragedy a path to deeper faith, and why. Some say it’s because faith is a crutch. I totally agree. If in the grieving process you can open yourself up to the grace of God, you might not be able to define exactly what death is, or what comes next, but I believe from my own experience of losing my mentor, idol, hero, and father to an accident skiing, you gain the ultimate relief, wisdom that there is something beyond words that is real. Time doesn’t heal the wound of losing a friend, but grace helps you grow around it to understand that life as we know it is spit in a bucket, compared to what comes next. But more importantly, Grace allows you to realize that as short as that life is, it is critical to live it to the fullest, with love in your heart and a desire to treat others as you would have them treat you. Or simply put, if God came to me today and said I could have my father back if I wanted him, I would not. He is in a better place, and now I want to do what I know I have to in order to get to where he is. I didn’t really feel that until Dad died. The point is, faith is a crutch. It helps us heal ourselves in this life to get to a better place. Faith helps us do the work, and to understand that death is really the beginning of life….If you believe that, grieving is merely the human reaction to missing your friend with the knowledge that death is the most important aspect of being human. Faith heals EVERYTHING if you let it, even the human pain of losing someone you love. I am not suggesting all the other points are not important. They are because we are human. But for me, faith is the cornerstone that helps all the other stuff work to get me through the tragedy and pain which is at times almost unbearable. My heart goes out to family and friends of these 5 people. I didn’t know them, but all are in my thoughts and prayers. I don’t say that lightly. This has been a tough couple of weeks.

  2. Pierre Askmo October 2nd, 2014 11:05 am

    This is so painful. I met Andreas a couple of times in Chamonix during the 2012/2013 season and he was probably the most centered, calmest big moutain skier I ever met. A gentleman and an athlete… It hurts just thinking about it.
    Lou, I fully agree with your statement “it is dangerous if you do dangerous stuff” the only modifier that’s gnawing at me is that often (as in this case) it seems dangerous even when you don’t do particularily dangerous stuff. Andreas and J.P. got peeled off the mountain in climbing mode, Doug Coombs died looking down a couloir he skied a ton of times before. Remy Lecluse and Gregory Costa got taken asleep in their tents. Sometimes I think that just the fact being present in the mountains in winter is enough. It doesn’t seem to me like these guys where being reckless when they got caught?

    To leave on as positive a note as possible here are some words from Fransson:

    “Society has an absurd general belief that life is about hanging on as long as possible. So people [are] often hanging on for the sake of hanging on and not for really living. … I can go on for days about this, but the important things in life are unsayable, so let’s just live it out and see what we find behind the curtains in front of the big game we are all playing.”

    I’m pretty sure I agree but it still hurts…

  3. Lou Dawson 2 October 2nd, 2014 11:22 am

    Pierre, with all due respect to those deceased, many of these situations were indeed dangerous, good example being the poorly sited camp on Manaslu. On the other hand, yes, there might be more risk than normal just by being in the mountains in winter, but I think “might” is the operative word. It’s also risky to sit at a desk and develop heart disease.

    As for society having an “absurd general belief,” I know so many people who put the lie to that, not just in the mountaineering world. People who are just as concerned about the quality of their lives and the contributions they make to others, especially their children, as they are about their own longevity, and are not self absorbed. With all due respect to Fransson, I understand where he is coming from but I think that statement is a bit elitist and generalizes way too much, but he’s not here to dialog about it so I’ll shut up — other than to say perhaps we should take his statement metaphorically to mean by “live it out” he means to live for greater goals than just longevity, which could mean everything from the parent caring for their downs syndrome child all the way to a medical missionary in Mexico backcountry. Lou

  4. Pierre Askmo October 2nd, 2014 11:44 am

    Yes, I do realize that, as in Coomb’s case, staring down a 60 degree icy couloir hanging on to your edges is not neccessarily avoiding danger… Having said that I do struggle with the way I often feel we rationalize the accidents. In order to reassure ourselves I feel that we often seek the preventable reason why the accident happened in the first place. Something along the lines of “if they only had paid attention to this, that or the other predictable factor it would never have happened” and so I can go on into the mountain under the illusion that I can make myself safe. More and more I feel that premise is as false as prevalent. Not that the sedentary life seems to be all that safe, it only takes a cursory glance at health statistics in this country to realize that. I guess that at the end of the day it is all about figuring out what we want out of life for our loved ones and for ourselves. Of course you are absolutely right, the quality of our contributions to others is probably what we want to be our defining legacy. However I do feel a tension between my love for my loved ones and my love for the mountains. That’s probably why I would love to believe I can be safe out there and so make sure I’m there for my loved ones too… It’s just that over time, I feel it’s getting harder to believe that.

  5. Lou Dawson 2 October 2nd, 2014 1:17 pm

    All, I’m having some trouble with my spam filters that’s causing a lot of false positives, and resulting in your comments getting held in moderation tank. Please keep commenting, we’re watching carefully and will approve comments for publication as quickly as possible.

    In the meantime, I’m fixing the filters so they’re less agro.

    We got attacked yesterday and I had to ramp things up, that’s what changed.


  6. ptor October 2nd, 2014 2:14 pm

    It is only peoples attachment that makes them hurts. Letting go is tough and that process is what reminds us we’re human..or actually spiritual beings having a physical experience. I shed tears as well but I still see it the way Master Yoda does…”Death is a natural part of life. Rejoice for those around you who transform into the force. Mourn then do not, Miss them do not. Attachment leads to jealousy. The shadow of greed that is.”
    Ok, making fatal mistakes is definitely not the goal but if people think being dead is ‘bad’, then logically they are assuming that the deceased are in ‘hell’ or something worse than ‘here’. If you don’t know you can’t assume and therefore there is no reason to mourn anything but your own loss of what you were attached to and the others having a tough time releasing their attachment.
    If you love somebody, set them free.

  7. Pierre Askmo October 2nd, 2014 3:20 pm

    Mike, thanks for a really beautiful and understandable explanation of what faith can be in these situations. Your view of life and death is inspiring.

  8. Craig Zematis October 2nd, 2014 3:37 pm

    For many of us, there is no greater feeling of ‘being alive’ than when we place ourselves in positions that endanger life. Fortunately for those reading this site, that position is accompanied by physical exertion, beautiful scenery, shared experiences with friends, and the feeling of accomplishment.

    I’m going to celebrate the these 5 athlete’s lives by checking my beacon’s batteries, re-reading my avi books, and getting ready for another winter’s worth of living life they way I want to live it here in Alaska’s backcountry.

    Then, after my first lap this season, I’ll pour one out for everyone whose has come and gone before us, helping make what we love possible.

  9. Billy Balz October 2nd, 2014 4:52 pm

    These folks all died doing what they love. If they were content with the risks they were taking, I’m content with their decisions. I hope they weren’t influenced by commercial considerations. Everyone defines differently what is the edge of his/her personal envelope. I grieve for their loved ones and perhaps mostly for any children left behind…so cruel for a kid to lose a mom or dad. Particularly unfair.

  10. Charlie Hagedorn October 2nd, 2014 5:20 pm

    When a skier in our community died in an accident, one of the most helpful things was a friend’s surfacing of the victim’s own writing on the the loss of friends in the mountains. Seeing those thoughts marked the beginning of the change from grief to recovery. Similar writing can be found on Fransson’s blog, and perhaps the others have done the same.

    Thanks for this post, Lou; these particular tragedies have affected acquaintances and friends of friends, but the more the internet brings our community together, the more resonant we are to each loss (and success).

    Ptor, you’re right on.

  11. James D. October 2nd, 2014 7:25 pm

    I lost my son to a senseless auto accident. 19 years young. A strong and amazing skier. Loved every day he skied CB and Monarch. Probably would have been a J.P. or Fransson etc. if he continued to live. I never worried when he was skiing. It has been a difficult 2 years. Lou, your advice is right on. I myself have skied hard and ride my bike as hard as I can. Some days it helps and some days not as much. I feel the pain of Liz’s family the most. A beautiful person lost much to soon. Please pass my condolences on to all family and friends. Remember that as we are making are turns they are our own, but when we look back up at them we can dedicate them to those that are watching from above. Jim

  12. jw7 October 2nd, 2014 9:41 pm

    “The light that burns twice as bright, only last half as long” -Blade Runner

  13. John walker October 2nd, 2014 11:06 pm

    this media culture is warped. Personally I would Let what is be and leave the decisions made by the dead left alone. I’m all for learning from others mistakes but there’s an element of the unknown involved. This world and life in general is unpredictable. Pursuing goals in threatening environments will catch up. In regard to the frequency and intensity of skiing pursuits of the skiers I’ve known who have died skiing the rate is quite high on both levels. These are high risk apex athletes who live in a realm far beyond what most will ever consider. Everybody dies but how many truly live?

  14. Ed October 3rd, 2014 1:34 am

    “So live your life that the fear of death can never enter your heart.
    Trouble no one about their religion; respect others in their view, and demand that they respect yours.
    Love your life, perfect your life, beautify all things in your life.
    Seek to make your life long and its purpose in the service of your people.
    Prepare a noble death song for the day when you go over the great divide.
    Always give a word or a sign of salute when meeting or passing a friend, even a stranger, when in a lonely place.
    Show respect to all people and grovel to none.
    When you arise in the morning give thanks for the food and for the joy of living.
    If you see no reason for giving thanks, the fault lies only in yourself.
    Abuse no one and no thing, for abuse turns the wise ones to fools and robs the spirit of its vision.
    When it comes your time to die, be not like those whose hearts are filled with the fear of death, so that when their time comes they weep and pray for a little more time to live their lives over again in a different way.
    Sing your death song and die like a hero going home.”


    Quoted in “Act of Valour”

  15. Wookie October 3rd, 2014 4:15 am

    Five in such a short time – and many more before….and what no one wants to think about – many to come. I do not believe in the idea of an afterlife in the sense that many of us do, but it helps me to think of a story I heard a long time ago from a teacher I once had:

    Everything, everyone is part of a river – and there is only one river. Sometimes – that river flows over a waterfall, and many little drops form. It’s all very exciting, being a drop, and we all imagine that every drop is unique and separate….and forever. Eventually, though, we fall to the bottom of the waterfall and we again become what we always were…..the river.

    We didn’t all magically appear – and we don’t disappear either. We always were – and always will be. Even more – there never was an “us”….we are all the river.

    If that sounds flakey to you – thats ok – but it helps me, both to deal with loss – and to keep things in perspective when things are going well. Maybe it’ll help someone else too.

  16. Lou Dawson 2 October 3rd, 2014 6:11 am

    Nice, everyone, thanks! You make this a special place. Lou

  17. James October 3rd, 2014 10:58 am

    Lou, where are you getting accident reports from? Details of what happened in these incidents seem to be very scarce. You seem to have a couple bits of data (climbing couloir, cornice) can you elaborate or point to sources. I respect if you’re just giving this some time too.

  18. Lou Dawson 2 October 3rd, 2014 11:06 am

    James, I did a lot of reading but tried to keep the details minimal due to the usual lack of facts early in events of this sort, as well as having no desire to get into heavy details at this time. The details I did use seemed to be solid, but that’s of course subject to change. For example, the first Dynafit press release mentioned another guy who was caught in the Shish avalanche and survived, current press release does not. Just spend time on Google and you’ll be getting the same info I do. I’ve not been pursuing any insider first-person stuff on account of how tragic these accidents were, with dire outcome. If people had only been injured I’d be more inclined to chase after details. As always, I’ll make every effort to keep improving accuracy as more info comes in. Lou

  19. Kristian October 4th, 2014 10:34 am

    My father was born and grew up in the quintessential skiing town Zakopane.

    He was a lean athlete that skied his entire life. At 78, he had knee surgery that resulted in pneumonia and death. He had always said that he did not want assisted living and would rather die.

    But at the end, he fought every moment to stay alive, and was incredulous about his impending demise. He could not believe looking at his aged hands because on the inside he felt like he was only 17 years old.

    He wanted to get out of the hospital and ski again, even if it meant I that I would carry him down the slopes. I know that up until the last few moments he was conscious of attractive nurses.

  20. Dean October 6th, 2014 9:34 pm

    Everyone everyday takes risks that they believe are “normal”. No matter the level you play at its human nature to want more which we all know. The world has progressed on human spirit, risk and adventure and will continue to do so forever. This is not to say that one does not need to assess situations as best they can before stepping in. To the contrary. I do not know the detailed facts of these deaths but believe none had death wishes but merely living their lives. That is how it should be. Death can never be rationalized. It just exists and we too will face it in likely the most unexpected fashion.
    My best friend was my dad. He was the physically strongest person i have ever encountered notwithstanding my days spent competing with many of the worlds top professionally ranked athletes. He never rode a motorcycle in his life and at 65 decided to buy the biggest one you could. He travelled all around North America. His death did not come on a motorcycle which was the thing he loved most next to his family but from cancer. The latter stripped away slowly for the world to see all his strength and dignity. I remember when he had 1/5 of one lung left to breathe from he said to me “my arm sure is not as strong as it should be so I”ll have to fix that when I get out.” He knew he was not getting out. Would he preferred to gave gone on while riding his bike. You bet. Which would I have preferred? Whatever he chose. I miss him dearly every single day but I live on with his strength, grace and love. God bless those who have lost and grieve.

  21. Stewart October 12th, 2014 9:52 am

    Engaging with risk is fundamental to backcountry skiing, but maintaining one’s status in the hierarchy of media-celebrated ski mountaineering necessarily pushes one’s decision making to and sometimes beyond the limit. It is so compelling because we know it’s not staged, that these guys (and occasionally girls) are truly putting it on the line, with no safety net. More broadly, we are riveted whenever and however wild young dare-devils perform their death-defying feats, but through our attention we gratify and potentially distort their particular needs. I don’t want to minimize the feelings of actual friends and family, but in mass culture expressions of grief for the brave fallen are just the cathartic phase of the dramatic arc. It is perhaps more pertinent to consider the extent to which we are complicit in this gladiatorial spectacle and the mounting toll of disposable heroes, and a reminder to always temper ambition with humility.

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