A lot of knowledge is passed on to students during an avalanche course. How to read slope angle, measure snowpack, identify surface hoar and terrain traps… the list goes on and on.
As a class participant, you’re given statistics on winter deaths in the mountains and told who is most likely to get swept away in a slide. As a responsible outdoor recreationalist or athlete, you carry this knowledge and these numbers with you every outing. The goal is to not become a statistic.
When you ski in the backcountry, your decisions are final. So as you’re taught to do in class, you check the avalanche forecast every day during the winter and you become an amateur meteorologist and geographer, studying the weather and topography of the landscape because, as cliché as it is, your life depends on it.
You do these things to come home safely every time you leave the house. But, there is always risk. There are always the factors that you may have forgotten to check, or double check, and there’s also the information you simply don’t know yet. As you’re taught in class: “You don’t know what you don’t know.”
But you’re not taught, and what you cannot possibly fully appreciate until it happens to someone you know, is how to cope with avalanche deaths.
Especially when your friends die.
Stephanie Hopkins wasn’t my best friend, but she was a friend. We’ve skied together and traded belays in the gym. I’d run into her at mutual friend’s houses or at the crag, always with a smile on her face and carrying a positive energy that simply radiated off her, like the warmth of the sun.
In February, when Steph and three others died in the Wilson Glade avalanche, there was no warmth. Only the numbness that bitter cold delivers, and it felt like it would never abate. After the accident, many of us in the Salt Lake outdoor community were in shock, and were left to learn lessons only life can provide.
Now, I understand why a class can’t teach you how to wade through the emotions that come with a mountain death. The feelings are too raw and upending, too difficult to put into words for others to understand. Because everyone grieves differently, and at a different pace, you can feel isolated even within a community that is devastated together.
For months, I didn’t touch my skis. The thought of heading into the mountains was simply too draining, and brought with it other thoughts that I wanted only to push away. I didn’t have the strength or energy to dwell on those. I didn’t have the time for tears. All I felt I could do was make it through the next day, and if I had a brief moment of relief from the weight of my grief, it was a good week.
I pushed mountain activities away. I immersed myself in my work and oftentimes took my frustrations, sadness and anger out through busyness, exercise or in relationships – professional, personal, or romantic. I was not myself.
Steph’s death made me question my own decision making in the mountains. The loss made me question my own affection toward high places and my love for working in the outdoor industry.
Why do I take these risks? Why do I ski and climb and hike, when at any moment, it all could be taken away? How lucky have I gotten in the past? How many poor choices did I make that I simply got away with, with no consequences arising to make me learn? How can I continue to entice others to get outside without clearly outlining the risks, without emphasising the possibility of death in the places we love so much?
And without mountain moments, my sadness was exacerbated. Mountains and fresh air are my fuel and what instills in me daily creativity, positivity, joy and love of life. Steph also instilled and emitted that same positivity and joy; she carried the energy of the mountains.
My world felt upside down.
I felt the only way I was going to have a chance at making the world feel rightside-up again was to be back in the mountains and to immerse myself in the same environment that robbed our community of a beautiful soul.
So, when a few of my good friends mentioned they were hoping to ski Mt. Tukuhnikivatz – one of the “50 Classic Ski Descents in North America” – it seemed like a chance to try to wash away the confusion, sadness and anger. I made myself go.
We were engulfed by morning stillness while approaching the summit. The quiet of the woods and the rhythm of skins breaking the snow’s spring crust provided time and space to think, to embrace thoughts I had pushed aside. This was my first time back in the mountains and on skis in months, and I was reminded why we, I, choose a mountain life.
We can all die at any time doing ordinary activities: crossing the street, riding a bike or driving a car. Though we certainly increase our odds by being in the mountains and by putting ourselves in environments that can harm us, whether it be through extreme weather, rockfall, or avalanches.
But without these moments where we find ourselves on the edge of life and death, at the mercy of sheer luck, our appreciation for life is not at its fullest. Only when we’re cold can we truly appreciate warmth. Only when we’re tired, hungry, exhausted and afraid can we appreciate being comfortable. Only when we’ve experienced loss can we truly appreciate love, connection and happiness.
I finally understand that Steph, and most likely the others who died that day, would not want for our mountain experiences to be diminished. She’d want for us to embrace what gives our lives meaning and purpose, because that’s what makes us the best version of ourselves. The mountains and our experiences in them provide perspective and fuel to live a life full of love and happiness and joy.
The sun was rising as we arrived in the basin below Mt. Tuk and morning light kissed the surrounding peaks above. As sunshine filled the basin, I felt Steph’s radiant energy again. For the first time in months, I felt a warmth breaking through the numbing, bitter cold.
Looking at the summit glowing in front of us, I stopped and stood and cried.