The Departed Ones
In sports and life, mythological curses are sometimes blamed for tragic chains of misfortune. For instance, after an accident in James Dean's Porsche Spyder sports car took his life in 1955, the car became entangled in a five-year-long series of tragedies that killed a race car driver, injured a mechanic and brought mysterious woe to many who encountered it. The vehicle, it was said, had to be cursed.
In the freeskiing world, for the Squaw Valley community that I live in, it feels as though we're driving that Porsche right now. For the past couple of years, we seem to have been trapped in a vortex of misfortune -- we keep losing our people, one tragic accident at a time.
Randy Davis, a local up-and-coming freestyle skier, was killed at Squaw in an inbounds avalanche on Christmas in 2008. We lost longtime Squaw legend Shane McConkey to a ski BASE accident in Italy in 2009. Andrew Entin, a much-loved career ski patroller, died while conducting avalanche control at Squaw in 2009. Then CR Johnson died in an inbounds crash at Squaw Valley in 2010. Squaw's Arne Backstrom died in a ski mountaineering fall in Peru in 2010. And then, a couple of weeks ago, locals Kip Garre and Allison Kreutzen were killed by a backcountry avalanche in the southern Sierra Nevada mountains.
Of course, the greater freeskiing community suffered tragedies during the past few years as well -- we lost pro skiers Billy Poole, Jack Hannan, John Nicoletta, Ryan Hawks and countless other skiers. But the sheer number of deaths from Squaw seemed to be heart-wrenchingly high. We couldn't help but think it: Is the Squaw community cursed?
At this point, our tenets of faith -- karma, justice, providence -- have been torn down. We question everything. How can it be that our heroes, friends and family are being ripped away from the Squaw Valley community so methodically?
Although the phone call notifying me of Kip's death was the same as the phone call for Shane's, it doesn't get any easier. Each time, the caller ID bears the name of a friend I haven't talked to in weeks. The hellos and "how are yous?" are abbreviated, hesitant pauses implying that the caller is searching for the right words. Then the chest-tightening, breath-stopping, swear-inducing message comes through: "Shane/CR/Arne/Kip ... is dead."
As a community, yes, we've been hit hard. But we also realize how much worse off we would have been without Shane, Randy, CR, Arne, Andrew, Kip and Allison.
Thousands have gathered in the Olympic Village Inn ballroom time and time again and hung their heads at the many funerals. In fact, by age 28, I've been to twice as many funerals as weddings. We all have drank far too many beers tinged with tears. We've watched our resident spiritual guru, Ladd Williams, give his Native American prayer of passing so many times, I nearly have it memorized.
But perhaps we have gotten stronger through this painful process. Not stronger in the face of death, but stronger in the appreciation of life. For all the departed skiers, their commonplace would have been miraculous in most circles. Although they all died before we wanted to see them go, they weren't taken before their pinnacle because their pinnacles happened every day.
And we, as a community, have learned from that. Banishing ourselves to the tame spaces of mediocrity would be against what each of the departed's lives and deaths represented. We've learned that death is not the antipode to life; not living is, or as Kip would've put it, "Getting fired up!"
So as a community, yes, we've been hit hard. It feels lonely and sad. But we also realize how much worse off we would have been without Shane, Randy, CR, Arne, Andrew, Kip and Allison. Our world was made better by their presence, and because of that, we will not abandon our tenets.
But we do hope that the chain of misfortune ends soon. In 1960, that hexed Porsche Spyder mysteriously vanished off the back of a trailer truck. So here's hoping that whatever is going on here in Squaw vanishes as quickly as the Spyder did.