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>.

Take The Backroads

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The Salt Lake City skyline juxtaposed against the Wasatch Mountains. Home. I have been living in Salt Lake City for 4 years now.  In that time I have found back routes from my house to locations that I frequent- the gym, Whole Foods, Sugarhouse Coffee, or Guthrie Bicycle for example.  If you were to measure the distance of my side-street-ventures, it would likely measure longer than taking the main roads, but I love my back roads.  There is less congestion, fewer traffic lights, and an ease with which I seem to flow from locale to locale.  Clearly I am not the only person who has lived in Salt Lake City for 4 years, I can't be the only person who has had the option of taking these alternate pathways, and yet, my back routes still remain full of flow and free of others.  More often than not there is uncertainty involved in choosing the backroads; they are the alternative, not the first choice, and everyone wants their first choice. It dawned on me recently that these opposing paths are much like life.

I fractured my tibial plateau just over a month ago in Russia.  In a season where I was returning from a major knee surgery the year before, getting injured again was not something that I had planned on; I suppose no one ever plans an injury, but I certainly didn't see it coming in such a flukey way, and definitely not if I was taking all the right steps in a gradual return to competition.  Last week I had a day where I was really down about having another season (my third in a row now) cut short by injury.  I asked myself, "when are you going to learn? when are you going to change so that you don't get frustrated and down?"  The reality is that we will never change; at least not completely.

There will never be a time that we are unaffected by difficult situations that arise in our lives.  We are human, and when bad things happen, it hurts.  But we can become more aware of how we handle these moments.  This awareness is what will allow us to flow through life with more ease, even when things go awry- just like my back roads.  The traffic on the main roads never really goes away, stop lights don't always stay GREEN, but if we are aware of the back roads we can begin to flow with what is happening around us.  Instead of remaining controlled by our ego, which was fixed on taking the main road, we open our eyes to other options.  When a light turns red ahead of us, we turn; where there is traffic, we get out of it.  We begin to see that there is more than one way to our destination and our future doesn't have to be exactly as we had envisioned.

Every now and again life catches up with us.  Our goals and dreams suddenly seem more daunting than motivating, we dwell on the past or fret about the future, instead of staying grounded in the present moment.  Once again this year, the path that I had outlined had taken a major detour; the future I had envisioned hadn't arrived.  The path to fulfillment is often a challenging one.  We set our heart's intent on achieving something outside of ourselves, something over which we don't have complete control.  Whether this goal is ending a war in Congo, like my friend Sean Carasso founder of the Falling Whistles Campaign for Peace, or winning an Olympic gold medal, there are only so many aspects of the pursuit that fall directly in our control.  The important part is following our hearts and creating the path along the way, remembering always that there is more than one road. For me right now, this means taking a little more time off of snow and a little more time giving my body what it needs more than anything: a break.  What does it mean for you?

"You do what you can for as long as you can, and when you finally can't, you do the next best thing. You back up, but you don't give up." - Chuck Yeager (first man to break the sound barrier)

Each Step Must Be Itself A Goal

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"As a single footstep will not make a path on the earth, so a single thought will not make a pathway in the mind. To make a deep physical path, we walk again and again. To make a deep mental path, we must think over and over the kind of thoughts we wish to dominate our lives." Henry David Thoreau It has been over a decade since I set out to become an Olympian in the sport of halfpipe skiing. When I began there were only a handful of contests a year, and only a handful of competitors.  There were no Olympic Games for us, just the idea of them.  Many of us take on goals that initially seem insurmountable.  Some of us achieve them, others fall short; but reaching a goal is not the entire purpose of having a goal.  Besides loving skiing, the concept that has propelled me to continue over the years is the process of self-reflection & growth that comes with the journey and the notion of self-actualization.  It is for these reasons that I have been able to come back from several knee surgeries, dislocated shoulders, broken eye sockets, wrists, elbows, and ribs; that is why I am continuing to fight through my current limitations with my knee, to pursue my goal of becoming one of the first Olympians in the sport of halfpipe skiing.

For some time, I got caught up in the winning- the piece of the pie that seems to illustrate one's success.  It was in this time that my experiences had very little to teach me.  Sure, I was acquiring feedback that confirmed that what I was doing was good- more sponsors, awards, and attention, but it only made me temporarily happy, until of course, there was even more of that, which there not always is.  We enter this world with nothing and we are going to leave this world with nothing- material possessions, wealth, fame, and success will all be left behind. So why get caught up in trying to attain such things?  Why allow those concepts to determine our worth?  If we are too focused on the finish line we won't see the speed bumps and pot holes, twists and turns, that may set us off track.  And if we only see them as obstacles in our way, challenges to merely 'get through' because we have to in order to reach our goal, we will likely burn out before we ever cross that finish line.

As I sit here writing this, I am sidelined from my sport once again because of a fractured tibial plateau.  In the year before our sports' Olympic debut, returning from a major knee surgery in 2012, I have yet another obstacle in my way.  But instead of getting frustrated this time, I am loving it.  I have embraced this opportunity for what it is- a chance to be home, sleeping in my bed, going to my gym, eating home-cooked meals, focusing on health and healing.  It is not often in the life of a professional athlete, that we really get to just sit back and enjoy our lives, there is always another goal to be attained, or record to be broken.  But now I have realized that each step is a goal in itself, regardless of what that step may be.  These steps are no longer just inching me closer to my ultimate goal, these steps make up my life.

This is the same for everyone, regardless of what it is he or she is trying to achieve.  For me it has been rehabilitation and time in the gym, for my graduate school sister, it is writing papers and creating presentations, for the aspiring musician it is teaching music not just performing music, and for the photographer, shooting weddings not just landscapes.  But learning to LOVE these other aspects of our journey that allow us to work toward our goals will make all the difference in the world.  Putting these steps into the category of a "goal" themselves is a good start in making each step more fulfilling.

So, get out there. Chase your dreams!  But don't forget to enjoy yourself along the way.

Stop Story-lining and Start Living

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We are told from a very young age about these things called goals and dreams.  Some of us are taught not to chase dreams because they are unattainable, others are told to “dream BIG!” because anything is possible, and some are just in between, directionless.  For those daring enough to dream, to set goals that will take some time to achieve, the road can be rocky.  Why?  Because that is how it is, the reward of chasing your dreams lies in the process, overcoming obstacles and growing as a person along the way.  But sometimes we make ourselves miserable during this process.  Why?  Because we write storylines.

When I first ventured into halfpipe skiing I didn’t really know what it was, what it would mean if I was good at it, or how it could possibly affect my future.  So I did it purely because I loved it, it was fun and it engaged every part of my attention, my body and mind at once. Absolutely enthralling!  Within a short period of time, I began experiencing success. Then I began to PLOT MY FUTURE (imagine this being said in Denzel Washington’s voice over a megaphone).  I began to imagine my future life (XGAMES GOLD MEDALIST, FAMOUS PRO SKIER, MAGAZINES, MOVIES, blah, blah, blah) down to the tiniest details.  But more than imagine, I began to feel entitled to this future, and when things didn’t fit in with what I had imagined, I struggled. Hard.  I would create such a concrete idea of “what my life was” that I would force-fit people, places and things into my imagined reality.  Trying to craft and mold and control the world around me.  I also fabricated this concept of “permanence” that once I achieved x, y and z that those things would be with me forever (true) but also that they would continue to happen on and on, for eternity; that the satisfaction in achieving said goal, would be one that would constantly bring my joy and satisfaction forever. False.

When you create such a false reality, when life throws you a curve-ball (like your dad has a very rare and aggressive form of leukemia) the illusion begins to crack and fade, become sheer, until you can see right through it.  That piece (dad with cancer) didn’t fit into your imagined reality, but it happened.  Then you start questioning what you’ve created. Everything you’ve convinced yourself of begins to fall apart.

We do this kind of story lining a lot.  Like when we me meet a wonderful person with whom we want to fall in love.  We focus on the aspects of that person that fit into our created, imagined reality of life, our ideas of what we want and need become the only pieces of that person that we see.  But eventually it catches up with us and this character that we created to fit into our fictional world is no longer hiding.  We begin to see the other pieces and sides that we chose to overlook in the beginning, and the pieces no longer fit- right shape, wrong color; right color, wrong shape.

I just finished watching a movie called Ruby Sparks about a writer, Calvin, who began writing a love-story about meeting his ideal woman, Ruby Sparks.  As his story went on and more and more details were created, Ruby became real, Calvin manifested her into existence, and she appeared living in his home. But over time Ruby needed to be who Ruby really was, not Calvin’s Ruby, and the love story began to fall apart.  The more Calvin tried to control her with his writing the worse things got.  Ruby was pushed away by this overbearing grasp.  It wasn’t until Calvin was able to release her and return her freedom to her, that Ruby was able to reenter Calvin's life in another form. This is an extreme metaphor for this “story lining” to which I refer, but it is surprisingly accurate.

We cannot possess anything in life fully, not a goal, not a person, not a dream.  The only possession that we have is within ourselves.  Everything else will come and go, some people and things will stay bonded to us for longer than others, but everything is temporary.  All that we seek in life, money, success, love, family, it is all fleeting.  So stop wasting time writing the storyline of your life and start truly living life for what it IS!

It begins with being conscious, being present and aware of your thoughts.  When they start running wild and taking you to made up places of the past and future, bring yourself back to the current moment- the reality that is unfolding before your eyes.  This doesn’t mean that we can’t set goals or dream BIG or imagine the kind of person we want to be with, it just means we need to be real. Real with ourselves about what IS here in front of us.    Let go of expectations, of definitions, and bask in the beauty of what IS.

Because ‘what IS’ is truly all we have.

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.