What happens when we die doing what we love

When you find my body, please call my husband and my daughter… It will be the greatest kindness for them to know that I am dead where you found me — no matter how many years from now. – Geraldine Largay’s final journal entry

It had been a crazy day at work – a full-day intense meeting, the kind that makes your head hurt and your voice hoarse with fatigue. Before heading out for lunch break I checked my phone and, there in my inbox, nestled between meaningless notifications, product adverts and social planning notes, was the email.

It was simply titled; its content equally simple.  It started with “some of you may have heard…”. My brain processed before my eyes had finished reading. They raced to the next paragraph. “It saddens me to report…” and finally, “I offer my condolences…”

No, it can’t be. We’d been planning to do a scramble this upcoming weekend. We were supposed to head to Jasper next month. It can’t be.

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The next day I opened the email again, this time reading carefully. I clicked the link to the fatality report and read it multiple times. Photos of the mountain were overlaid with arrows pointing to locations where “avalanche triggered” and “body recovered”.

Over the next couple of days more emails came in, people wanting to make sense out of it all. There ensued the typical messages that come from a place of pain- admonishments about not going out there alone. To avoid terrain traps. Don’t go up there in bad weather. Pleading everyone to stay safe.

What does that mean, anyway, to “stay safe”?

Every winter we brace ourselves for reports like this. And every spring and summer. And every fall. Sometimes we contemplate, take a break from mountain adventures for a while. Sometimes we find another past-time altogether.

When I say our sport is a hazardous one, I do not mean that when we climb mountains there is a large chance that we shall be killed, but that we are surrounded by dangers which will kill us if we let them. – George Mallory, 1924

A fatality inevitably invites insensitive and very vocal backlash from those who think going to the mountains is stupid, trolling anti-mountain prejudice.

In light of the recent series of accidents half a world away on Mt. Everest, the BBC revisited a series of articles originally published after last year’s avalanche. Therein, the authors wondered whether mountaineers will ever decide that Mount Everest simply is not worth it. When death is all around, why do people gamble their lives in the mountains at all?

The authors concluded that the reasons are varied because the reasons are personal. Hopefully they are helping put to rest a long-held notion that mountains are for thrill-seekers and adrenaline junkies. That people who meet their end are inexperienced and deserved their fate. That we are frivolous or cheap in our value of life. That we think it won’t ever happen to us.

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Ultimately a friend or family member of the deceased will say “at least he died doing what he loved” as a means of justification. “He died doing what he loved” feels like the living comforting the living. If you love something you really do try your best to ensure that you can continue to do what you love.
Death does not make a hero in the outdoors community. Media sensationalism that elevated Chris McCandless to “modern myth, a romantic figure inspired by free spirited idealism” is the exception, not the rule. We don’t choose the mountains because we see it as a death venue. As someone once said, just because we want to peer over the edge doesn’t mean we want to jump off.
I’d rather say, he pursued his passion and lived a life fulfilled.

 

Most of our friends pulled out of the trip this weekend. I respect their decision. I hope that they respect my decision to proceed with the trip, to honor our friend through the rocks and the wind of the mountain tops.

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