Mountains of Silence

55 days ago on my way home from Way Too Cool as I flew over the Cascades my boyfriend Stephen, our friend Paris, and new friends Steph & Ian were in a avalanche that ultimately claimed Ian’s life.

The violent and sudden loss experienced in moments like the afternoon of March 4th is a frame shift event… nothing is quite the same afterwards, and I feel like I am just starting to adjust to this new normal. The exact happenings of that day are not my story to share, but in writing some of this down I hope that maybe it resonates with one or two people who have experienced loss or have a loved one who has.

I spoke with Stephen that morning, I was delayed in Sacramento due to fog, grounded waiting for the incoming flight.  He asked me how the race the day before panned out and I expressed a combination of disappointment and happiness.  The rust had been busted, my calves had failed on a biomechanical level of frustration, but I had run away with a shiny new 50km PR so it was hard to complain.   Stephen relayed where they were going skiing that morning, and gushed over the reasonably good day of skiing they had the day before.  We talked about Ian and Steph’s new puppy Obi and how much I would love them, and their dogs, we would go back there soon.  Stephen’s skiing enthusiasm was one of, “Exploring all the future zones and powder stashes,” we’d someday get to plunder together. I told him I loved him and signed off to the flight ahead, back to Seattle.

Part way home I got a call from my roommate, she was up at Baker skiing and sounded flustered, concerned… my stomach dropped.  She was relaying a message from Paris’ girlfriend who had received a text an hour before, she wasn’t able to reach me, but something had gone very wrong.  Paris was okay, but there had been a big slide. I repeated those words over and over to myself as I drove home.  Periodically, I’d start to cry or hyperventilate convinced that Stephen had been injured or killed. I’d spiral momentarily. I felt helpless and desperate for a phone call, one that would either be Stephen telling me he was okay or someone else telling me he was gone.  “Paris was okay, but there had been a big slide. Paris was okay, but there had been a big slide.” Trying to read between the lines of a text message that had somehow escaped the mountains. Expletives, crying, our other roommate finding her entire chocolate stash for me as we waited to hear something, anything concrete.

If you ski, paddle, or climb the likelihood is you have lost a friend, loved one, community member, our tribe is not that big. There’s a degree of calculated risk involved in each, and that’s why we try to be cautious, to know when to bag it, to choose our approaches and lines with a heightened awareness and a healthy fear. We respect it, we take classes about it, we practice, we have experience, but nature can swiftly, and suddenly shake that resolve.

I spent four agonizing hours on March 4th trying to convince myself Stephen was okay.  Trying to figure out how long I had to wait before I called his parents, how long would he want me to wait?  Mountains are the place we are happiest, but this was mountains of silence.

When they finally got out of the woods and back into town and my phone rang I was simultaneously filled with joy, Stephen was, okay, and guilt because the meant someone else was experiencing the grief I had just barely tasted.  Grief that would be changing and indefinite. There was no right emotion, none of them fit.  It was not a time to be happy, it was and is a weird settling somber sadness, the knowing it could have been any of them, or all of them and for no rational reason we had gotten a second chance.

There is a ripple effect to grief. And I waited and watched it slowly spread through our community as people slowly found out what had happened.  I watched this community rally with love and support for Steph, Paris, and Stephen. A community who rallied with love and support in an expression of Ian’s love for his community, for Steph, and for the life they were building together in the Methow.

The last 7 weeks have been difficult and as the partner, on the periphery of the tragedy, I’ve had a hard time processing what happened and the associated guilt in the aftermath.  Guilt in a getting a second chance, but also the guilt of struggling at all.  When I know I’m suppose to be the caring, rallying, supporter, shoulder, and rock. As long as I don’t crumble too.

I know that the guilt and fear will slowly subside, but I hope that I never lose this feeling of awe in getting a second chance, or the belief that it shouldn’t be wasted.  Pursue what you’re passionate about, share it with everyone can, and know that #Ianwouldapprove.

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