Monday, February 1, 2010

The "rites of ski passage" come with risks

My new "San Juandering" column is out in January's Inside Outside Southwest. Titled "Rites of Ski Passage," it walks through (or turns through?) the reasons Sarah and I have chosen to invest a sizable chunk of our annual spending monies into ski passes for us and the kids every year -- and the life-lessons those passes bestow upon our kids. And us.

You can read the column here. It's also in the print edition, available all over the Four Corners. 

Getting those passes year after year, and skiing the same mountain over and over, have yielded good and valuable lessons, I believe. But one of the values I list can a bit harder to swallow than the others: Risk.

Here's what I wrote:
Risk. Uh, yup. Let's face it, it's part of skiing. It's dangerous. Early in the kids' skiing careers, it was just dodging flailing, wobbling tourists and hormone-whacked out-of-control teens on zinging snowboards. Then, as they grew independent, it was taking off on their own to navigate the mountain. Now that they're hormone-driven, but highly skilled, teens themselves, it's tree skiing and free-style moves. And -- new this year, as we enter the mid-teen years -- it's driving to and from the area. It's always something. But risk and danger are a part of life -- especially teen life -- so I'd rather have my kids exploring those boundaries in the mountains, with friends, doing something physical and exciting. With a helmet on.
Well, I didn't know it at the time, but on the day I wrote that paragraph, a 14-year-old girl from Bayfield was killed when she struck a tree at Purgatory.

Maddie Milner was also a local kid raised loving skiing, and was she was living the ski life I tout for my own kids -- and most any kids. Including the risks part of that ski life. My daughter, also a freshman in high school, had turned 15 just the day before Maddie's death. And like Maddie, she is already a ski addict. (This season she has already skied Aspen Highlands, Buttermilk, and Alta -- way beyond my ski travels.) She skis fast. She does tricks. She loves skiing the trees. And she now wants to start skiing, and maybe competing, in freestyle.

I cannot (would not, and will not) pretend to even mildly speculate on what Maddie Milner's parents and family is going through since Maddie's accident. What they think. What they may or may not regret. How they feel about skiing and its risks following experiencing the worst-possible example of those risks. But as a parent I cannot not -- I would be remiss if I did not -- think about what I, myself, might think were that worst-of-things to befall someone in my own family.

So after a month of reflecting on that family's tragedy -- so similar to my own family, so close to home -- and other tragedies in the news in what is already an especially deadly year in skiing (and add to that another friend's 20-something-year-old son who was buried to his neck in an avalanche north of Silverton earlier in January, and survived unscathed), I can only conclude ... yes, skiing is dangerous. And yet I want my kids more than ever to keep doing it. For all the reasons I cite in that column.

In the face of such rick -- in skiing, and in all life-things that I am still in a position to instruct and guide them in -- I vow to endeavor to prepare my kids, to give them the skills they need to be as prepared as they can be, to discuss with them honestly and seriously the risks and dangers involved. And I will entreat the gods for their safety every damn time they walk out the door.

But then I will, again, push them out that door and onto that mountain ... or river ... or trail ... or road ... or whatever adventure they feel called to.

To put it brutally bluntly: I pray nothing happens to my kids, but I'd rather they died living.

And I hope I never have to stand by those words. But, if I do, I also pray I will.

I think of something else I wrote back when I was just starting to introduce my kids to the risky adventuring -- skiing, as well as river running, backpacking, camping, road tripping, etc. -- that my wife and I had chosen to build our lives in the West around. I still stand by those words, and hold them still as compass bearings. All while I pray for many safe returns.
I don't want my kids to fear death; 
I definitely don't want them to fear life; 
I want them to not fear living, 
and to fear not-living.
(From Why I'm Against It All)
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