By Michael Lanza
Hi Nate and Alex,
There was a tragic story in the news recently of yet another accomplished young climber who’s now dead. He actually survived an avalanche that killed his girlfriend while they were backcountry skiing in Montana, but he could not endure the avalanche of grief and pain that followed. He took his own life the next day. He was 27, his girlfriend was 23. They were both way too young. It’s unspeakably awful.
This story will probably fly off your radar soon, I know. But I can’t avoid thinking about that terrible double tragedy. For me, it’s a stark reminder of the inherent danger in many outdoor activities I’ve done with you two since you were little—a danger only magnified if we let all that’s fun and rewarding about what we do blind us to the darker reality. A story like this one throws a harsh light on a contradiction I’ve grappled with since you both could walk: The very experiences I know are helping shape you into wonderful young adults also pose a real risk to you.
That’s why I’m writing this letter to you. (I know you’re thinking, “What’s a letter?”) We could talk about this, too; I love the honest, free-flowing conversations we have. But sometimes it’s easier to communicate and absorb thoughts laid out in writing. I’d like to know what you think of this after you read it.
I don’t even want to type the names of that young couple, now dead, simply out of respect for the horrible pain their parents and families are suffering; I’d rather not do anything to compound that, including writing words that sound judgmental of anyone. (Here’s a story in Climbing magazine about them.) Many of us in the broader climbing community know his name not only because of his accomplishments, but because of the echoes it creates of the accomplishments of his father, who wrote for and edited Climbing magazine for 30 years. I remember reading his stories about mountaineering in Alaska, putting up new routes that sounded chilling and impossible to me.
In a way, their names almost don’t matter—and I don’t mean that disrespectfully. This month it’s their names; a couple months ago, the names were different, and in another month or two, there will be new names of young people who’ve perished long before they should have on some mountain or river. While it would be hyperbolic to describe the premature deaths of climbers, kayakers, backcountry skiers and other outdoor enthusiasts as an epidemic—there aren’t that many—it would trivialize tragedy to ignore a pattern that has devastated innumerable survivors.
Many climbers, whitewater kayakers, extreme skiers, and others have questioned their participation in a sport that has claimed the lives of too many of their friends. It’s kind of like a rare, incurable disease: We know it will strike again, although we don’t know who, and it will break hearts every time. Yes, some of these fatalities involve elite athletes pushing boundaries in their sport; but other victims are regular people like us, experienced and inexperienced, who make a costly mistake or sometimes no mistake at all, beyond choosing to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
We may be powerless to stop it completely, but I hope you learn that choices made—which climbs to make or rivers to paddle—help determine that fate.
What’s relevant is that these two people grew up in families and a broader culture where outdoor adventure was normal and fun and a certain level of risk was considered acceptable. Just like you guys.
When I was a young adult, not all that much older than you two, I never really expected disaster would visit me in the backcountry——until it did.
I vividly remember walking up the driveway of my friend Rick’s parents’ house the day after he was killed while rock climbing with your mom, me, and two friends. I’d known his parents for almost two decades—Rick was the younger brother of my best friend in high school. I was terrified they’d be angry and blame me. Instead, they hugged me, and they have never suggested I was at fault.
They taught me a lot about inner strength, grace, and forgiveness in that moment. It’s a lesson I’ve tried to emulate in my life ever since—which isn’t easy. But I could not comprehend just how much strength they exhibited until you two came along, and I could at least begin to understand the huge crack that opens in the life of a parent who loses a child. That emptiness can never be filled.
I also vividly remember returning a year later to the mountain where Rick died, just with your mom (we weren’t married yet), to hike that peak. Something in me needed to revisit that place. I don’t remember now whether I expected to gain some resolution to the guilt and pain I’d been carrying for a year just by going back there. But I didn’t.
After hiking the mountain, Mom and I had a cabin to ourselves—a beautiful spot on a lake where we paddled a canoe at sunset. That evening, something happened to me emotionally, and I just fell apart. I blubbered painfully, with loud, heaving sobs for, I don’t know, an hour or two. Your mom listened with understanding, trying to say the right things. Unfortunately, no words can ever change what has happened.
Yes, I know I’ve said this to you a billion times, but it can’t be overstated: There’s no cure for survivor grief. On a certain level, I can understand how that young climber reached the decision to end his own life after he wasn’t able to save the woman he loved (although I certainly believe that’s not the right choice). I’ve been to the place where he was emotionally, and it’s horrible beyond words. Even now, more than 20 years later, thinking about it can literally melt me down into tears.
Looking back now, I don’t think I’d ever been stricken with such overwhelming sadness before or since then, until your grandfather died last year. It felt like grief was drowning me—that I’d never surface again. But while healing moves at a mercilessly slow pace, and never really occurs completely, you eventually do resurface. I ultimately decided that you don’t redeem one life ended too soon by wasting your own. You find redemption by living a worthwhile life. The two of you are a big part of that.
It’s impossible to convey to you just how much I wish I had made a different decision that day about doing that climb. But you never get those decisions back. That’s the part of that pain that never, ever heals.
That’s why I want to impart that lesson to you: I don’t want you to make a mistake that you (or your mom and me) will regret forever. For a parent who has taken his or her children backpacking, rock climbing and mountaineering, running whitewater rivers, and backcountry skiing, the worst nightmare is the disaster that lurks out there somewhere, like a mountain lion: unseen until it strikes.
Years ago, when you were little, a couple we’ve known for many years and climbed with countless times, but who live in another state now—and have kids the same ages as you two—asked me: “Aren’t you afraid of teaching your kids to climb?” It was a good question. My answer was: yes, of course I am. Parents can certainly worry irrationally about their kids; we are hard-wired for worrying. But there’s nothing irrational about concern for the safety of young people who rock climb, kayak whitewater, backcountry ski, or otherwise enter environments where hazards are real, ever present, and beyond our absolute control.
I wonder whether any rational, honest parent who introduces his or her child to such activities could not wrestle with questions of personal responsibility. I’m sure there are many parents who would question our judgment—who might presume we lack a healthy fear of danger. But they couldn’t be more wrong. Getting a close-up view of the margins of life has the opposite effect: It gives you a deeper and richer appreciation for every moment of life, because we’ve been reminded that life’s endpoint remains always unknowable. Getting older and seeing more and more of your peers and then your parents pass away has a similar effect.
The outdoors brought Mom and me together, and we simply decided the outdoors would remain central to our lifestyle after you two came along; we couldn’t imagine a different life. So we’ve watched you grow up in the outdoors. We saw how you loved scrambling around on the boulders and granite towers on our regular camping trips to the City of Rocks, going back to when you were toddlers. We took you backpacking and floating flat rivers—activities with less objective risk than climbing or whitewater kayaking—and thankfully (for our sanity), you both loved our family adventures.
We never wanted to push either of you into climbing or other risky outdoor sports; you both developed the interest in them at your own speed. I do believe that you’ve drawn larger life lessons from our shared outdoor experiences—including that risk is part of life, it’s unavoidable. (One of my favorite quotes is from Helen Keller: “Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men—as a whole—experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.”)
I believe that what you learn about safety outdoors also crosses over to helping you better evaluate risk in everyday actions like driving a car, or when you face choices over dangers like drugs. And you have both shown us a level of maturity that I don’t remember many of my peers having at your ages. You make us proud.
Now you’re both teenagers—an age where, at some point, we all make some questionable choices. It happens, and we’ll forgive you. (As a side note: A couple months ago, I interviewed the father of one of America’s most-accomplished young climbers, a kid just a few years older than you two. And that dad said to me: “Oh, your kids are hitting that age where they’ll do things outdoors on their own, but they still have the judgment of teenagers. There have been times when my son came home from, say, a day of backcountry skiing, told me what they did, and I said, ‘What? Really? You did that??? Are you kidding me?’”)
I don’t expect you both to suddenly reap a lifetime’s harvest of wisdom from this letter. I’m still sowing that field myself, and I’m much older than you (as you both often remind me).
But I like to seize opportunities whenever I can to remind you that you can’t let your guard down when you’re climbing, running whitewater, backcountry skiing, even backpacking. Tragic accidents occur in part because, on some level, we don’t believe it could happen. That disbelief can allow us to pay a little less attention to small errors that lead to big problems. And the unbearable sadness that follows them derives in part from having let ourselves believe that we’re so smart and safe that it couldn’t happen to us.
I left that illusion behind forever on a chilly, late-summer morning on a cliff in Maine more than 20 years ago. If I had the power to do so, I’d yank that illusion from your minds and tear it up. That’s what I’m trying to do every time I have this conversation with you. But that’s a hard lesson to absorb.
I don’t want you to learn from personal experience that the worst can happen out there. Believe it now. That will help you make better decisions when you confront those choices.
We will climb and backpack and paddle and ski together more. But now you both stand at the brink of adulthood, when you’ll do these activities without me always there to supervise and impose caution on your decisions. So I have just one simple, earnest request.
Please be careful.
Tell me what you think.
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See all of my stories about family adventures at The Big Outside, including “Why I Endanger My Kids in the Wilderness (Even Though It Scares the Sh!t Out of Me).”
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