Temptation and Doubt

Christmas morning, Lilo and I stood on the Osseo trail near its junction with Lincoln Woods and watched a single snowmobile buzz along the latter towards trails to Owl’s Head and the Bonds. The driver saw me watching and raised one hand in acknowledgement. I don’t remember if I waved back. Motorized vehicles are prohibited on Lincoln Woods. I thought I saw a shoulder patch, but couldn’t read it from where I stood.

For a moment, it stopped my heart.

But there was no search effort staged in the parking lot when Lilo and I returned: just a single Fish & Game truck with trailer ramp down. I mentioned it to a couple of friends, but “that was weird” seemed to be the end of that.

And then Monday morning I got back in the car after a nice toddle with Titus and a friend at Diana’s Baths and looked at Facebook and saw that a hiker had died on Bondcliff. That snowmobile had been exactly what I first feared and then discarded: the beginning of the effort to find and bring him home.

Here are three things that I’ve been thinking about — none specific to or meant as judgments of this event or individual; only things that I’ve been thinking — since.

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One.

A few years ago I switched from galloping horses at solid obstacles back to endurance sports. I had this idea at the time (though it wasn’t the reason I switched) that the latter would feel not less risky, but less pressured, at least. I don’t mind playing with margin of error; it’s actually something that I really value in my hobbies and that informs my professional life, too. Flippantly: if it’s not at least a little dangerous, I’m not interested. But part of me liked the idea of reducing the urgency of decision-making. Of allowing more time to gather and process information.

What I didn’t realize until I was in it was that time can be its own trap.

That is: when you have to decide, you have to decide. The consequences of making the wrong call can be dramatically catastrophic. But so, it turns out, can be the consequences of not making any call. Of waiting. Deferring. Continuing on just a little further to “see how it goes.” There is such a thing as a point of no return and the thing about endurance sport is that sometimes that point slips by without you realizing it.

We talk a lot about watching for red flags and changes in the weather and signs that it’s just not your day. All of that, I endorse! More and more, though, I think that maybe we’re wrong-headed. Maybe we shouldn’t be waiting for signs to turn around. Maybe we should be seeking green flags instead: reasons to continue. Maybe, when we’re shaving the margin, the question shouldn’t be, “Why am I stopping?” but rather, “Why I am not?”

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Two.

It could have been any of us. Bad things happen, even to people who are smart and skilled and capable and prepared. Being all those things can reduce the likelihood and improve the chance of a good outcome. Being all those things is well worth doing! Not making a reasonable good-faith effort to be those things is irresponsible at best.

But beyond a certain threshold, all you can do is all you can do.

And all you can do is not a guarantee.

I don’t think that’s a reason to be afraid or not to pursue the things that you love, whatever they may be. I don’t think it’s a reason not to learn all we can from those things that do happen or a reason not to be as compassionate as we can towards those who live through them or towards those who don’t. I just think it’s a thing to know, to live with, to look at with clear eyes, and a thing to which we’re all of us, one way or another, responsible in the end.

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Three.

This stunning Runner’s World story about the Mount Marathon runner who simply disappeared. This excerpt in particular:

So now you’re Michael LeMaitre, toeing the starting line last July 4. You haven’t been up the mountain, and you’re a little nervous. Then you look up and you see the peak, so close you can almost reach and tap its summit. It’s just three measly miles, round-trip! Straight up and down again, with hundreds of new best friends! You’ve been through so much more than this. Take it slow, you think, and you’ll be fine.

Honestly—if you were Michael LeMaitre at the starting line, what would you do?

What would you do?

There’s not a wrong answer to that question. There are many worlds in which LeMaitre — or Kate Matrosova, or George Mallory and Andrew Irvine — comes back down that mountain, as did those folks in the Adirondacks not two weeks ago. There are all sorts of reasons to make all sorts of choices. Some are better than others, but what matters is only: what would you do?

Here’s what I know as a student of risk: most of what happens when the rubber hits the road was decided in the hours and days and weeks and months and years leading up to what will look like “the moment” in the after-action report. Here’s what I know: risk is what you get in the space between temptation and doubt.

What would you do, in that space?

For everything else, choose accordingly.

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And also four.

I wrote to a friend after hearing the news, “It was such a beautiful day.” And it was, you know. Vibrant skies. Fresh-fallen snow. And powerful, powerful winds at the higher elevation. Even on Lincoln Woods, ground-level and protected at the point where Lilo and I — originally bound for Black Pond because I missed Bondcliff and wanted, while I wait out this time of strictly smaller hikes, to see it however I could — turned back in favor of Osseo because Lilo kept telling me something is wrong, you could hear that freight-train roar. It would have been beautiful on top and very, very cold.

Whoever he was, he was one of us, in a spot that is sacred to many of us. I really hate it when people say “died doing what they loved.” I understand where that comes from, but I think it erases what should not be erased and also that most people would really rather have done what they loved and been home for dinner without the dying bit in between.

But I hope those skies and that spot were some comfort. I don’t really believe in an afterlife but wherever he is now, I hope that it’s warm.

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5 thoughts on “Temptation and Doubt

  1. Nearly 20 years ago, my 18 year old cousin died after a horse-jumping accident. Her beloved horse (the one she moved home with her grandparents to be with, while her dad was working in oilfields internationally) caught his legs in the back of a big large oxer. He flipped over, the cantle of the saddle hit her (helmeted) head. She would have died on site,but a registered nurse was in the barn and administered CPR until the airlift got there. The next day they realized she would not wake up and the decision was made to donate her organs. The standard story would have been “oh so tragic, but she died doing what she loved, and her organs saved others.”

    Except. Her body was riddled with cancer. The organs went nowhere, and she did die a much less painful death, not all that much sooner than she would have otherwise. And she was with her horse (celebrating entry into the university program of her choice) for her last conscious moments.

    And i think there is a blessing in that. We don’t want death, and I agree (after a close call or two myself) that looking for the green flags is better than for the red, but sometimes shit just happens. “Good luck or bad luck, who knows,” as the story goes.

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  2. I also hate the “died doing what they loved” statement. The ONLY time I am okay with it is when someone dies from some kind of absolutely un-related thing that would have happened no matter where they were (read: stroke, aneurysm, freak heart defect that wasn’t previously detected no matter how many lifelong check-ups, etc.). Hikers, boaters, riders, who die because they were pushing their limits pursuing their passion? They absolutely didn’t intend on dying. Something bad and very not okay occurred that altered their plans. And that fucking sucks. Hearing of the death of a friend, acquaintance, or fellow passion pursuer never gets any easier.

    I’m with you, I hope wherever he is, he’s warm and, dare I say, happy.

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  3. Beautifully written. This entry gave me chills. There are times when the risk of endurance sports really hits home with me (usually well past the point of no return). You are right that most of these things are pre-determined long before the actual “moment”. I too find little comfort in “died doing what he loved”. Excellent post.

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  4. I am like you – I love endurance activities in the remoteness of the mountains. My close calls and the fatal mistakes of others haven’t ever deterred me. I love it too much. However, it’s up to each of us to do everything in our power to be ready for the unexpected so that we do make it home, even on the worst day.

    I, too, hate the phrase “died doing what he loved”. He or she didn’t plan to die that day and probably wouldn’t have done the activity if they knew that the price would be their life.

    Thanks for this post.

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