Soul Shred: Coping in Alaska
“Life is what happens when you are busy making plans.” – Mom
It can be difficult to distinguish the trivialities of daily life from that which is truly important. For so many of us, the next snow or the next comp becomes the focus of so much. But, it is always important to take a step back and remember why we go in the first place. Embrace the soul shred and get back to being happy.
Skiing has been all consuming in my life for as long as I can remember and my love for the sport matured alongside one of the closest friendships I have ever known: Mike, my partner in crime, my confidant and my brother. On Saturday, February 1st, 2014, Mike and his roommate Harrison were on an ordinary tour in Hatcher’s Pass, Alaska. As is typical in the Talkeetnas in mid-March, it was a cold and clear morning; the type which freezes your toes in the quick transfer from your sneakers to your boots. The tour up to the Jupiter bowl is a classic. The trail follows an old hiking path that cuts through an abandoned mine and snakes along the edge of a lake. It was a favorite of ours because of the fantastic views of Denali and the fast open bowls that run back to the car.
On this day, the usually tranquil tour would become anything but when Mike collapsed suddenly on the backside of the bowl. He had suffered a massive heart attack, caused by an undiagnosed heart defect. After twenty fruitless minutes of CPR, Harrison rigged a sled from Mike’s skis and began to drag him the three miles back to the car. Four hours later, Mike was pronounced dead at the hospital at the age of 23.
In the moments following, I received a call from Harrison. The excitement of hearing from my old friend disintegrated as soon as I pressed the phone to my ear. It was difficult to distinguish any words through his tears. He stopped to compose himself, and with tremors in his voice, whispered, “Mike is dead”. Confused, all I could utter in response was, “what?” I had clearly heard him, but I couldn’t believe it was true. There was silence on the line and in that unspoken moment we could feel each other’s pain. There was nothing more to be said, so we ended the call with a melancholy promise to talk soon.
I looked down at my dog as he nuzzled deeper into the side of my leg and I could feel the tears welling up in my eyes. But it wasn’t a sadness I felt inside, rather emptiness, like part of my self had suddenly been ripped out leaving an unfillable void. However, it was not yet time to cry; so I turned off my phone and headed back to Alaska.
Usually, I don’t have any problem sleeping on planes, but my mind was restless. That weekend I was giving a eulogy for a man who words could not accurately describe. I found it more fitting to share one of our adventures instead; a moment in which Mike had unintentionally changed my life. One February night in North Conway, several years ago, Mike and I had made plans to tour Mt. Washington and ski the ice-fall first thing in the morning. We woke up early and made it to the base by 6am. A short time later we had made it to the bottom of “Chute” and were transitioning from skinning to boot-packing. It was a cold, wispy morning and my buff was coated in a hardened, wind-blown snow. I was tired, blistered and uncomfortable. About half way up the chute, Mike looked back at me to find my head down, taking one step at a time and hoping for the sun to come up and finally warm my bones. He yelled down at me, “Pick your head up; don’t let life pass you by”. I looked up in angst, as if he was patronizing me. But when I did the sun began to peak over the mountains to the east illuminating the snowflakes blowing through the cold mountain air. It was that morning sparkle that we always hope to catch, but rarely do; one of those moments that makes the struggle worth it. His words would stick with me for the rest of my life as I watched him live happy and carefree.
After the funeral, I headed straight to Hatcher’s. I traded my suit and tie for boots and skis and took the lonely tour up to Jupiter bowl just before sunset. As I sat at the top, staring hopelessly at Denali to my West, I removed my precious cargo from my pack; two cold PBRs. I cracked them both, and as I took my first sip, I poured the other out into the snow which had claimed Mike’s life. It would be the last beer I would ever have with my best friend.
My remaining week in Alaska would bring some of my best ski days of the season. I was surrounded by good friends, cold beer and my touring setup. I was determined to live my life the way Mike would have wanted, happily. While he may be gone, he lives on in all of the hearts he’s touched, and every turn I take, he takes with me. When I think of him, I’ll always remember the quote above his desk, “Don’t give up, don’t ever give up” – Jim Valvano. So, keep on shredding with a smile on your face and Mike in your heart. If life happens, pick your head up; don’t let the world pass you by, and get out there and spread some stoke.
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