Sometimes the Hardest Choice is the Best

 

As he was for so many people in my home valley of Jackson Hole, Stephen Adamson was my estate attorney. Two years ago, as I prepared myself for cervical spine surgery, Stephen helped me put my affairs in order, creating a revocable trust, acting as my executor and addressing every minute detail with the quiet attention and good humor for which he was known.

We had many enjoyable asides about skiing, hunting and dogs.

It thus came as a seismic shock, and an ironic reversal of the natural order of things, to learn that the man so many of us had trusted to oversee our legacies had been killed in an avalanche on Mount Moran’s Sickle Couloir in May 2015, along with his skiing partner Luke Lynch, a local conservationist.

 

It’s easy in that frame of mind to become what Carl Jung described as a “puer aeternus,” the eternal boy, looking for yet another accomplishment, often associated with danger, to validate that one still has the right stuff.

 

The deaths of both men were made even more excruciatingly heartbreaking by the fact that they left behind two wives and five young children.

I didn’t know Luke, but in my many meetings with Stephen I found him a thoughtful and analytical person, and I have few doubts that he would have wanted us to sift some lessons from the avalanche that took his life. Three immediately come to mind and they apply to many corners of the West, as much to Bozeman, Aspen, Telluride, Park City, and Sun Valley, as to the Tetons, for all are familiar with the phenomenon of outdoor sports widows.

The first concerns timing.  Not that long ago we reserved skiing extreme lines like the Sickle for when a melt-freeze cycle was well established, no new snow had fallen for days and wet slide avalanches had run their course. Objective hazards having been minimized, the risks you took were determined by how well you skied steep terrain, not whether that terrain was going to fall on top of you.

The second lesson concerns the psychological outlook the skier brings to the mountains. During the last few years the men who have died in steep Teton couloirs — Steve Romeo, Chris Onufer, Jarad Spackman and now Luke and Stephen — have all been in their late 30s and early 40s, a time when the mythic endurance of one’s youth has begun to fade and one can feel the waning of physical powers.

tetons700It’s easy in that frame of mind to become what Carl Jung described as a “puer aeternus,” the eternal boy, looking for yet another accomplishment, often associated with danger, to validate that one still has the right stuff.

To be fair, none of these men was a true archetype of an eternal boy, living in some fantasy world and waiting for some lucky strike to set him up for life. They had demanding jobs, and they worked diligently while giving to their community. And because of their many commitments, the majority of them had become weekend warriors, their ability to wait for perfect conditions and maximize their safety constrained by jobs and family.

That is the third lesson we can take from this avalanche: When we let conditions outside the alpine environment dictate when to ski extreme terrain, bad things can happen.

Unfortunately, it has become ever-easier for the avid longtime skier to justify going out in marginal conditions, as avalanche forecasting has become more sophisticated and our personal knowledge of the snowpack has been enriched by years of on-the-snow experience.

Moreover, modern skis let us navigate terrible knee-wrenching snow — wind pack, ice, breakable crust — with aplomb. All these factors have enlarged the number of people skiing extreme lines, making the pressure to add one’s own mark to the history of steep skiing ever harder to resist, especially when there’s such an immediate and tangible payback for one’s ego.

Given the exposed and prominent nature of the Tetons, everyone can witness the skier’s handiwork from the valley floor: line after line through precipitous and gorgeous terrain, intimidating places, where one’s skill, boldness, and grace can be put on full display. It’s a heady validation, and I stand as guilty as anyone in having relished it.

But at some point in our skiing careers we have to acknowledge how frighteningly random are the risks of the snowpack, especially when we venture onto steep terrain that’s in iffy condition. Even in perfect conditions there are never any guarantees in extreme terrain, and the less ideal the conditions — as they were on the day that Stephen and Luke died — the more compelling the need to retreat, going down the humble line that hopefully brings us back to those we love.

 

Editor's Note: Ted Kerasote, a longtime backcountry skier, has written about skiing, avalanches and snow safety for many years.  This story originally appeared in the Jackson Hole News & Guide. Reprinted with the author's permission. He is author of recent acclaimed books, "Pukka's Promise: The Quest for Longer-Living Dogs" and "Merle's Door: Lessons from a Freethinking Dog".