Thoughts on honoring the dead and the living

Almost exactly eight years ago, at the end of September 2014, the mountain world lost three of its biggest stars in two separate avalanches in South America. Heartbroken and not knowing what to do with the grief of losing several friends to the mountains, I wrote this essay. This week, the end of September 2022, we lost another friend and icon, Hilaree Nelson, who died while skiing from the summit of Manaslu, the eighth highest mountain in the world. Whether you knew Hilaree or not, these words might resonate. —Stephen Casimiro

Liz.

JP.

JP.

Well, shit. JP and Andreas and Liz, gone.

Several friends died. JP Auclair, Andreas Fransson, Liz Daley, killed in two separate avalanches on the same day, same part of the world.

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They follow Shane. And Craig and Doug. And of course Trevor. Some of the best and brightest from the already bright world of snow and mountains, their lights extinguished far too soon.

It’s not a mystery why. If you play with fire, you can get burned. Some extreme skiers live to grow old, others don’t. Shane used to say, “There’s no harm in BASE,” by which he meant if you screw up, you’re dead, and he was right. We’re not surprised that it can happen, we just are when it happens. The only one whose skiing death really shocked me was Doug. He was so damn precise, so strong, so in control, the idea that he would lose an edge and slide off a cliff still baffles me. Doug Coombs, really? Doug?

But yes. He is gone. And so is my father and so is my beloved mother-in-law and so is my dear sweet niece, and then too many people are gone and their passing becomes too great the older I get.

And what remains in all this absence? The aching disbelief, the intellectual struggle to understand, the black sense of loss of losing a friend and the knowledge that another great spirit is gone from the world, taken from everyone. And let’s not forget the existential echoes, mortality. Could be me. Was not it. Let’s hope it isn’t for a while.

Social media profiles fill up with all kinds of well-intentioned condolences. RIP, mountain brother. REST IN PEACE? WTF. What does that even mean, RIP? Who wants to rest? RIP is just a stupid thing we say because we don’t know what else to say, because death is the biggest mystery of all next to life and also because it scares us and who really wants to talk about it ?

So we pretend it won’t happen to us, and we put our platitudes on these digital bulletin boards, we leave our flowers at the grave as best we can, and none of it is enough, but that’s okay. We want, we need, to mark passings, to give back in some seemingly meaningful way, even if it’s just three little letters that don’t amount to much except as a gesture. But these gestures, they are important – not only for families and friends to see the impact of their loved ones in some tangible moment, but also for us to know that we did something. Lit a metaphorical candle or whatever.

And then we promise to carry on, carrying that person’s spirit within us and trying to let it guide us. I didn’t address my father much in life, but in death I think about him all the time and I try to honor his strengths regularly. I am working to be more like Lynn, my wife’s mother, in how she touched countless people with love, in so many ways big and small, wherever she went. And all the time when I’m skiing, I think about Trevor’s wildness or Doug’s cool strength, and I try to own that as best I can, as me, with them inside of me.

Many people will now do the same with JP and Andreas and Liz to remember and honor them by emulating them, and they should. Two incredible men, one incredible woman, three charismatic spirits have passed from this plane, and we owe it to them to live up to their strengths, to incorporate parts of them into us, so that our world will be a better place because of it, and we are also better people.

But that is not enough. It’s something. It is nothing. But it’s too little and it’s too late.

Last month my son turned 17 and after dinner, over cake, his girlfriend shared one of her family traditions with us, how the family takes turns telling the birthday recipient something they admire, love or like about the person. They share one thing, then the next person shares something, and so on until they have shared one attribute for each year.

And so we did, we told him 17 different qualities that we loved and even though he was embarrassed at first he sat there and took it with a smile and by the time we were done he hadn’t just heard that we loved him , but some of the many reasons why.

The extra thing I did, though, was tell him that I didn’t just admire, for example, his patience, but that I actively try to copy that patience, that I actively try to be like him. That he is a role model for me, and not in some fuzzy idealized way, but in a proactive, I-work-at-this-every-day way.

It may have been a small idea, but it felt deeply important to me, and in the five weeks since his birthday, I’ve found myself loudly acknowledging my friends and family and telling them that I don’t just like their good qualities, but that I am also working on becoming more like them. That I don’t just think warm thoughts about them, but that I do warm things with them as a guide.

We take our time on earth for granted. Even when we don’t, we do. We spend our precious moments on trivia, on tricks, and we lose sight of the fact that our minutes are far more valuable than our dollars. I wasn’t super close to JP or Andreas or Liz, but JP knew I admired his incredible vision and Andreas knew how much I respected his intellectual passion for skiing the steeps. I just wish I had told JP that I liked his photos so much that I actually looked at them before I shot my own or said out loud to Andreas that I was working on bringing his same kind of mindfulness to mine own skiing.

It is good to honor the dead. It is better to honor the living. It is good to use words. It is better to act. And really, there is no time to waste.


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