Death and Decision Making

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20160220_112639-01 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>.

My Father, A Dynamic Man

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IMG_1489 Dad was a dynamic man, a man of few words who always managed to teach so much. He was a man of great intellect—a genius, or gen-yi, as our family would say. I always knew this about my dad, but that aspect never defined him.

When people asked what my father did for a living, I had a routine answer. I was careful to delicately and slowly allow all of the pieces to surface.

“He’s a professor.”

“Oh. Well, what does he teach?”

“Computer science.”

“Really?! Where?”

“Um, at Yale.”

—Awkward silence—

On paper and without knowing him, my father’s résumé made him sound unapproachable, like he must exist in a different realm than the rest of us. This, of course, couldn’t be farther from the truth. What defined Dad were not the specific lectures that he gave, or the programming languages that he wrote, but the love that he shared, and the belief that he had in each and every one of us. My father was not just a mind and an ego, but a heart and an adventurous soul.

One of the greatest memories that I have with my dad was a mountaineering trip that we went on together with two of his colleagues. I was 12. The trip took place in April of 1999—we climbed Forbidden Peak in Oregon, which involved traveling on glacial terrain. I recently looked up some information about the peak to refresh my memory and laughed at what I learned. The website suggested taking 3 days to make the climb. We did it in two.

The hike in to the base of the climb involved some stream crossings and ultimately landed us on an open glacier with Forbidden Peak towering above. We found the surface of an exposed flat rock about 20’ by 6’ and made that our base camp. We pitched tents on the hard slanted rock because it would be warmer than pitching a tent on snow. In the morning we woke before the sun to begin our summit. It was my first time using an ice axe and crampons and the first time I’d been tethered to someone while “hiking” in case one of us was to slip. I’m not sure that my 110-pound self would’ve been much help to my dad then, but it certainly made me feel safer. The final approach to the summit was an exposed ridgeline with 1,000’ foot drops to either side; I can still generate the butterflies that I felt in my stomach by just thinking back to that view. Standing on the top of that mountain, breathing in the thin fresh air and feeling the warmth of the sun on our face made it all worth it.

But things got interesting on our way out and we came to understand why they recommend taking 3 days to complete the route. As the snow warmed up during the day, it melted into the streams that we crossed the previous day. Those streams had turned into raging rivers by our exit that evening. I remember being passed from shore to shore by my dad and his two friends, one of them would stand in the middle of the river on a semi-stable rock and would transfer me from one river bank to the other. We didn’t get back to our cars until well after dark, but we did something others may have said was impossible. We improvised.

Most fathers wouldn’t think of taking their daughter on such a trip, most wouldn’t imagine their 12 year-old would be up for it, but dad didn’t see me as a young incapable girl, he didn’t look at what I couldn’t or shouldn’t do, but at what would be possible. He saw me as his equal, even at that young age.

Dad believed greatly in human potential. He got you to understand the world better by encouraging you to try a little more, to push a bit harder, to take a leap of faith and attempt something you’d never done before. He facilitated our learning by motivating our trying. This was true whether it was computer science, soccer, lacrosse or jazz.

He lived this philosophy daily as he battled a terrible disease and tolerated relentless side-effects to his treatments. He just kept on trying. I was in awe of his perseverance and courage; I was baffled by his ability to remain positive and to remain kind, to his doctors, nurses, aids and all of us, at least most of the time.

My dad was my hero. Not because of how smart he was, not because of his accomplished career, or for being coach of the year, but because of his ability to love deeply and to share his zest for life with thousands of others—to prove that success in life is so much more than what society lets on. Success is about living passionately, cherishing the little things and reveling in the beauty and light that surrounds us.

My father’s death has left a great mark on my heart. But so too, did his life.

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reIGNITED

In January 2005, I found myself in Aspen, Colorado for my first winter season out west.  I was an eager 18-year-old girl from the East Coast, ready to take on the freeskiing industry, set new standards and win the X-Games. I was full of fire, ambition and fight. I talked big game, I was over-confident, very excited, and underprepared.  I walked away finishing 9th out of 10 competitors that year; falling on nearly every run of a generous 3-run final.  Every year since 2005 I have returned to Aspen ready to compete; always a little more experienced and filled with the perfect balance of excitement and anxiety.   To this date, I have 5 Winter X-Games medals and 2 golds in halfpipe skiing. This last Wednesday, January 25, I had a stirring of butterflies in my stomach as I exited I-70, routed CO-82, and headed the 35 miles toward Aspen.   However this year, the butterflies were not in anticipation of competing in the most prestigious event in freeskiing, but for an entirely different reason.  You see, two weeks prior, several distinct events took place that would change the course of my life.

At 6:45 a.m. on January 10, 2012, my alarm went off.  I stirred, hit the snooze button, shifted my body slightly and closed my eyes again.  I could hear the distant voices of my US Freeskiing teammates and coaches in the kitchen- raring to go.   We had sled laps starting at 7:30 and they would only last until 9 a.m.  But I wasn’t feeling it.  I made the decision to sleep more, to let myself acclimate- it was my first day in Breck, I didn’t need to be taking sled laps at 7:30 in the morning.  About an hour later I pulled myself out of bed- headed to the kitchen for a leisurely breakfast in a giant, quite house, abandoned by my eager teammates.  My phone rang- my best friend and teammate for years, Jess Cumming, was on the line.  She asked what my plan was for the day and I told her: I was tired, and not rushing out, planning on taking a mellow first day here to get ready for the weeks and months of chaos ahead.  Jess was more than okay with my plan.  As it was, she was coming over to Breckenridge to announce her retirement to our staff of coaches.  I understood. Part of me was envious of her decision.  To step away from all of the pressure, the expectations, the risk, the hard work; it sounded nice.  But I was not done- there was more that I still wanted to accomplish out there on my skis- I wasn’t ready to turn it all in.

The weather was gorgeous in Breck- warmer than usual, sunny, not very windy- and I was out just to have fun. I followed the boys off of the bottom two jumps in Freeway after hitting the pipe and was pleasantly surprised at how soft the landings were.  The jumps were much bigger than the jumps in Park City, but felt better because Breck wasn’t having the same thaw and freeze cycles that we were experiencing in PC.  After a few laps I met up with Jess and a few other girls.  I skipped the jumps for a few runs and then went back to them about an hour later.  As I got to the start of the bottom two jumps I thought I knew the speed.  I cleared the first jump and then went into the second jump.  As soon as I left the top of the jump I knew I made a mistake.  I was coming up short and I tried to prepare myself for the impact...  With all of my effort trying to stretch for the landing, to wriggle my way over the knuckle, but to no avail.  The impact was too great and my knee erupted. I began sliding down the landing and didn’t have the muscle control to pull my leg into my chest.  I rolled over my leg twice and continued to slide, until I came to a stop.  Expletives were flying out of my mouth because I knew I was done. Done for the day, for the year, for the rest of my career?

Over the next few hours I got X-Rays, scheduled an MRI, and tried not to be too discouraged. My phone was ringing quite a bit, and around 2 pm I got a call from Meg Olenick. She wanted to check up on me, but there was something else going on; I could tell by the unsteadiness in her voice. “Sarah took a bad fall, Jen.  She’s being airlifted to the hospital.  Her heart stopped for several minutes.”  My brain, heart and body went into emotional overdrive.  Everything began to hurt more.  But there was no reason to stress yet. Sarah is the strongest girl that any of us know- tougher than nails. She will be fine. Sarah is always fine.

I received the results from my MRI- it appears as if a bomb went off in your knee.  Your ACL is completely gone, you’ve torn your medial meniscus, there seems to be a floater in there- a piece of bone perhaps, and you’ve compressed your femur- there is a large indentation on the femoral condial and a disruption to the articular cartilage surface.  To be honest, I wasn’t surprised.  With how that impact felt, I’m glad that that was it.  Right now, I just wanted to get back to Utah, to be closer to Sarah and her family, to sleep in my own bed and begin processing what was going on.

The next week was an emotional rollercoaster.  There was very little news leaving the hospital regarding Sarah’s condition.  We were all operating under the guise that no-new-is-good-news, but somewhere in my heart things did not feel right.  Ten days after Sarah’s crash, she passed away.  The damage in her brain was irreversible and there was nothing that anyone could do to bring her back.  At this point, time came to a complete stand still.  It felt as if the whole world stopped turning, yet everything continued on around me.  The Winter Dew Tour in Killington was taking place that weekend and athletes would be expected to compete- Sarah weighing heavily on their minds.

So as I exited I-70 on Wednesday January 25th and had butterflies in my stomach, it wasn’t because of the prospect of winning another X-Games gold (that wouldn’t be happening, I wouldn’t be competing), but because it was time to be reunited with my extended family after Sarah’s passing. I wasn’t sure how I would feel.  Would I feel comforted being with everyone? Would I harbor resentment, envy?  Would I question the purpose of all of this? Would I feel deeply saddened, angry, mad?  The answer is yes.  But then I would ask another question: why?  And to that I would find many answers.

Everywhere I looked, I saw sympathetic faces. Faces that said, “I can’t believe this happened, I am hurt and sad and scared, but more inspired than ever.”  Every time someone smiled, it was Sarah smiling through.  The whole industry, ski and snowboard alike, was united, and for the first time, it felt as if we were all in this together. The boundaries that Sarah broke for female skiers were uncanny- there are too many to name in one short article, but what became even more apparent this last week, was how much she touched the lives of every action sports athlete, female and male alike.  You see, Sarah embodied what we are all about: perseverance, breaking boundaries, setting new standards, doing it because we were told we can’t, making something out of nothing, skiing because we love it.  They say the brightest flames burn half as long, but I don’t think Sarah’s flame has been put out. I think Sarah’s flame has just been ignited for the first time.  Now, more than ever, people are hearing about Sarah, listening and understanding her intentions, comprehending what she was about and finding ways to implement that into their own lives.  She is changing the world.

As I sit here, writing this 3 days post knee surgery, reflecting on the coincidence of blowing my knee on the same fateful day that Sarah crashed, I cannot throw in the towel and say, “I’m done.”  Now, more than ever, is the time to shift my perspective and remember why I started down this path- aspiring to one day live like Sarah Burke.  Life is only worth living if we are doing what we love.

And with a broken heart I say, thank you Sarah, for everything you have given me in the past, and every gift you will be giving me in the future.  For you, I am eternally grateful.