What to say and do when you don’t know what to say or do

A perk of my job is the opportunity to make connections with people—someone I’m interviewing (often someone I admire), someone who reads something I write, and so forth. Occasionally, I get to see or learn or attend something cool, like last weekend’s Adventure Film Festival in Boulder.

We often disparage groupthink as perilous, but it can have the opposite effect, too. Sitting in a theater full of people who are psyched on adventuring, whatever that means to them, is inspiring. 

One of my biggest projects over the last year-and-change has been working with a team of snow professionals on a collection of avalanche accidents—The Snowy Torrents. The final product is, I believe, excellent: well-researched and well-reasoned, not to mention incredibly useful, in a long-term sense, and it comes in a very aesthetically pleasing package. I am proud of the work we did on it, and I’m excited about the next volume.

It’s also difficult. Each volume requires the authors to re-open two hundred-odd old wounds, and, in a more personal sense, means that much of my mental energy goes into reading—and nitpicking, in excruciating detail—the events of the worst days of people’s lives. It is fraught with emotion, but I believe it is important, and I consider it an honor to be a part of the editorial team.

Last weekend’s Adventure Film Festival experience was a welcome reframing of my adventure outlook. It’s rare, in my professional life, that I am able to disconnect from outcomes and consequences and just enjoy creative pursuits for their aesthetic value. I left the festival on Sunday afternoon feeling recharged, ready to create and connect.

And then, on Monday night, I saw an Instagram post, and then another, and then another: Hayden Kennedy, along with his partner, Inge Perkins, had died as a result of an avalanche in Montana. I hoped it wasn’t true, and then the following morning I read a post by the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center friends’ group and felt a lump in my throat.

When Hayden Kennedy was chopping bolts on the Compressor Route on Cerro Torre, I was just beginning an internship at the American Alpine Club. It was a hell of a time to be surrounded by climbers and mountain folk: history was unfolding right before my eyes, and I got to hear directly from the people who were making it. Like every aspiring (and accomplished) alpinist I knew, I admired him deeply.

I don’t have anything new to say about death in the mountains—nothing I haven’t already said, and nothing Kennedy didn’t already say more articulately himself. As always, it is acutely painful to hear about the death of a person you admire. It’s also almost unbearably sad to contemplate that he felt unable to go on living after the death of his partner, a feeling that breaks my heart but is not beyond my realm of understanding.

I have read enough accident accounts and known the names and friends and families and would-be rescuers of enough people killed in the mountains that I occasionally have to check in with myself—How did this person’s family cope? What were their last moments like?—when I stop wondering those things, I will know it’s time to change the sort of work I’m doing. Still, hearing the circumstances of Kennedy’s death knocked the wind out of me in a way I haven’t often experienced.

As usual, I have no real answers. What can we take away from this? Be good to each other. Be careful out there. Remind your friends and partners that you love them, because things very often don’t play out as we expect them to. Surround yourself with people who inspire you to be your best self. I don’t know. All that feels hollow and trite, and yet, I guess, none of it’s bad advice.

It will take time for our communities—of climbers, of outdoor enthusiasts, of storytellers and creative types—to parse through all this. It is hard to find meaning in tragedy, sometimes. But in the meantime: Be good to each other. Be careful out there.

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