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Death is an inevitable part of life but can work its way in at unpredictable times, knocking you down to your knees, taking your breath away. Yet everyday we see athletes pushing the limits and breaking records in outdoor and action sports. Taking risks and defying death – until they’re not. What compels them to continue?

Facing Death

On April 29th, 2015, my father passed away. I was by his side in his final weeks, days, hours, and breaths. Details of his death circle around my mind daily. His frail skeleton of a frame, sunken eyes, transparent skin, were all signs that death was near, yet life remained pulsing through his veins. He fought so hard to stay alive, fought through pain and discomfort, so that his physical being could remain by our family’s side for moments longer. He cherished his life.

I was the last person to see and speak to my father in his wholly right mind before he got sepsis, erasing the possibility of stepping foot outside a hospital again. As he laid there, emaciated from days without food and so severely dehydrated that nurses couldn’t get an IV into his vein, I finally got up the nerve to ask him if he was scared. “Yes,” he paused, “that’s the first time anyone has asked me that.” Of course he’s scared, you idiot, I thought to myself, even though he never showed it. 

This encounter made me acutely aware of how shy we are about death, and how many of us live in denial of its reality. After his starting treatment for Leukemia in 2010, none of us ever talked about the possibility of my dad not making it. Nearly five years elapsed, as if talking about death would somehow manifest it. I later learned that my father was also scared on mountain peaks, yet again, despite all my time with him up there, I never knew.

Not Afraid? Or In Denial?

I know a few skiers who claim they’re not afraid of death, but I am. Partly, I’m afraid of what dying would mean for my future (or lack thereof), but moreover, I fear how my death would impact those I love. I don’t want them to hurt because of me. I don’t want that deep inescapable ache in their hearts to be because I died. Missing someone who has died is among the worst feelings on this earth. Nothing can be done to remedy it. It’s just a piece of your heart, frozen in time, constantly weighing your chest down. You’ll never get to see that person in their physical form again so you hope and pray that your memories of them will suffice to carry you through your darkest days.

My vigil and my final words to Sarah.

In the last year, two prominent women in the snowsports industry lost their lives in avalanches. Both while filming. I don’t know what exactly transpired to lead to such dire outcomes; I wasn’t there. It’s common to place judgments from afar about what decision-making took place, but it’s unfair. We weren’t part of the conversation. The deaths of Matilda Rappaport and Estelle Balet hit close to home for me. Along with Liz Daley’s and Sarah Burke’s deaths in recent years, these women represent me. We fall into the same demographic. These accidents happened to them and it could easily have been me. It just wasn’t.

We like to think that we can keep ourselves safe by always making the right decisions. But we all know that we can’t evade death forever. Even in my dad’s case, my family replayed the tapes so many times trying to figure out where things went wrong. It’s easy to look back and point fingers because, as they say, hindsight is 20/20. In the scenario of backcountry skiing, these moments of decision making seem to be a bit more concrete. But are they?

Why Do We Continue to Take Risks?

Jen Hudak jumping a cliff at Rocky Point at Alta, UtahSince stepping away from halfpipe competition, I’ve been spending more and more time in the backcountry. An ironic result of not being willing to risk my body in a halfpipe any longer, I now spend time in an even more life-threatening environment. Risk assessment is something I’ve become quite privy to, but awareness and good decision making only keep us so safe. It seems that not a month goes by that our community doesn’t hear about another person who lost their life to the mountains, most of them in avalanches.

I’ve struggled to transition away from my life as a professional skier. The dichotomy between feeling there is untapped athletic potential running through my veins and sensing there is more to life than reaching that potential, keeps me at war with myself. Is there more to lose than to gain? Yet, even as I relinquish professional pursuits, I’m still a skier, through-and-through.

Time in snow-covered mountains makes me forget my troubles, at least temporarily; it helps me make sense of my thoughts and process my emotions. I find myself in a meditative, trance-like state as I work my way up long skin tracks while I feel, dissect, process, and reflect. As I drop into an untouched slope of powder, outrun my sluff, or navigate steep terrain I feel exhilarated, elated, but even more so, I feel inseparable from earth and life force itself. I think to myself, with my arms outstretched and smiling face looking up to the sun, “this is what it’s all about.” My happiness, sanity and sense of self depend upon time spent in the mountains. But it’s not always safe.

Measuring Real Risk

Over the last ten winters, an average of 27 people/year died in an avalanche in the United States. It’s impossible to say what percentage that is because we have no way of counting backcountry travelers accurately. But 27 isn’t a huge number. From 2002-2012, an average of 41.2 people died skiing or snowboarding on a resort. This is out of 54 million skier visits in the 2012 winter, which equals a .000076% chance of dying. Car accident fatalities however, totaled 32,719 in 2013, equal to 10.3 deaths per 100,000 people. A .0103% chance of dying in a car accident. If you ski, that means your chance of dying in a car accident is 135 times greater than dying on a ski resort. And no one seems too concerned about those odds… It’s if driving a car is a “necessary” risk and skiing in the backcountry is not.

Our perspectives on life verse death and risk verse reward are personal. There is no one-answer-fits-all to the question, “why do these athletes continue to take such dramatic risk?” In the end, I suppose I’m not trying to answer that question but to ask another: who will your death affect? I think about this constantly. For me, it’s my mother, husband, sister, brother-in-law and niece. It’s helped me draw some distinct lines about what risks I am willing to take. I think about my family before I go into the mountains every morning. I take risks, but not unnecessary ones, I avoid avalanche terrain on dangerous days, I wait for a stable snowpack to ski. But accidents can happen.

Life is short and our time should be spent in a way that fulfills us, brings us joy and allows our inner child to live fully. If living daringly on the edge is the only way for you, please be honest with yourself about what there is to gain, but also to lose. Discuss it with your loved ones. We will never escape death, and so, we must appreciate life – respect it, treat it with care, and explore our potential.

That’s all for now, there’s a conversation I need to have.

MM Rapaport Hargin Foundation & Sarah Burke Foundation:

“We want to inspire and support skiers, entrepreneurs and others to pursue their passions. We strive to improve gender equality both within and outside of skiing, and increase safety on the mountain.” To support the MM Rapaport Hargin foundation, click here.

“The Sarah Burke Foundation is committed to the altruistic ideals embodied by Sarah’s life and her actions. The foundation will preserve Sarah’s goodwill and her actions, by supporting and inspiring current and future generations. All support will allow us to carry on Sarah’s spirit and legacy by supporting others in sport.” To support the Sarah Burke Foundation, click here.

References: 
  1. Colorado Avalanche Information Center, US Avalanche Accident reports,<http://avalanche.state.co.us/accidents/statistics-and-reporting/>, Feb 15, 2017.
  2. “General Statistics.” Fatality Facts. Web. 21 Feb. 2016. <http://www.iihs.org/iihs/topics/t/general-statistics/fatalityfacts/state-by-state-overview/2013>.
  3. “Odds of Dying.” Injury Facts: NSC.org. 21 Feb. 2016. <http://www.nsc.org/learn/safety-knowledge/Pages/injury-facts-odds-of-dying.aspx>.