Almost exactly eight years ago, in late September 2014, the mountain world lost three of its biggest stars in two separate avalanches in South America. Heartbroken and not knowing what to do with the sadness of the loss of more friends to the mountains, I wrote this essay. This week, late September 2022, we lost another friend and icon, Hilaree Nelson, who died as she was skiing off the top of Manaslu, the eighth-tallest mountain in the world. Whether you knew Hilaree or not, perhaps these words will resonate. — Stephen Casimiro
Well, shit. JP and Andreas and Liz, gone.
More friends dead. JP Auclair, Andreas Fransson, Liz Daley, killed in two separate avalanches in the same day, same part of the world.
They follow Shane. And Craig, and Doug. And, of course, Trevor. Some of the best and brightest from the already bright world of snow and mountains, their lights snuffed out far too early.
It’s not a mystery why. You play with fire, you might get burned. Some extreme skiers live to be old, some don’t. Shane used to say, “There are no injuries in BASE,” by which he meant if you screw up you’re dead, and he was right. We’re not surprised that it can happen, we just are when it does. The only one whose death on skis really shocked me was Doug. He was so fucking precise, so strong, so in control, the idea that he would lose an edge and slide off a cliff still leaves me uncomprehending. Doug Coombs, really? Doug?
But, yes. He’s gone. And so’s my dad and so’s my beloved mother in law and so’s my dear sweet niece and so are too many people, gone, their passings adding up to far too great a total the older I get.
And what’s left, in all this absence? That aching disbelief, the intellectual struggle to understand, the black sense of loss in losing a friend as well as the knowledge that another amazing spirit is gone from the world, taken from everyone. And let’s not forget the existential echoes, the mortality. Coulda been me. Wasn’t. Let’s hope it isn’t, for a while.
The social media profiles are filling up with all kinds of well-intended condolences. RIP, mountain brother. RIP? WTF. What does that even mean, RIP? Who wants to rest? RIP is just a stupid thing we say because we don’t know what else to say, because death is the biggest mystery of all next to life, and also because it terrifies us and who really wants to talk about that?
So, we pretend it won’t happen to us and we pin our platitudes onto these digital bulletin boards, we leave our flowers at the grave as best we can, and none of it is adequate, but that’s okay. We want, we need, to mark passings, to give back in some seemingly meaningful way, even if it’s just three little letters that don’t amount to much except as a gesture. But those gestures, they’re important – not just for families and friends to see the impact of their loved ones in some tangible moment, but for us, too, to know that we did something. Lit a metaphorical candle or whatever.
And then we vow to go on, carrying that person’s spirit inside us and trying to let it guide us. I didn’t turn to my dad much in life, but in death I think of him all the time and I regularly try to honor his strengths. I work to be more like Lynn, my wife’s mother, in how she touched countless people with love, in so many big and little ways, wherever she went. And all the time when I’m skiing, I think of Trevor’s ferocity or Doug’s cool strength and I try to own that as best I can, as me, with them inside me.
Lots of people will now do the same with JP and Andreas and Liz, to remember and honor them by emulating them, and they should. Two incredible men, one incredible woman, three charismatic spirits, have passed from this plane, and we owe it to them to live their strengths, to incorporate parts of them into us, so that our world is a better place because of it, and we are better people, too.
But it isn’t enough. It’s something. It’s not nothing. But it’s too little, and it’s too late.
Last month, my son turned 17 and after dinner, over cake, his girlfriend shared with us one of her family traditions, how the family takes turns telling the birthday honoree something they admire, love, or like about the person. They share one thing, then the next person shares something, and so on, until they’ve shared one trait for each year.
And so we did that, we told him 17 separate qualities that we loved, and though at first embarrassed, he sat there and took it with a smile, and by the time we were done he’d heard not just that we loved him, but some of the many reasons why.
The extra thing that I did, though, is tell him not just that I admired, say, his patience, but that I actively try to copy that patience, that I actively try to be like him. That he is a role model for me, and not in some fuzzy idealized way, but in a proactive, I’m-working-on-this-every-day kind of way.
It was a small idea, perhaps, but it felt profoundly important to me, and in the five weeks since his birthday I’ve found myself acknowledging my friends and family out loud, telling them not just that I like their good qualities, but that I’m working to be more like them, too. That I don’t just think warm thoughts of them, but that I do warm things with them as my guide.
We take for granted our time on earth. Even when we don’t, we do. We spend our precious moments on trivialities, on contrivances, and we lose sight that far more precious than our dollars are our minutes. I wasn’t super close to JP or Andreas or Liz, but JP knew that I admired his incredible vision and Andreas knew how much I respected his intellectual passion for skiing the steeps. I just wish I’d told JP that I liked his photos so much I actually looked at them before shooting my own or said out loud to Andreas that I was working to bring his same kind of mindfulness to my own skiing.
It’s good to honor the dead. It’s better to honor the living. It’s good to use words. It’s better to take action. And really, there’s no time to waste.