On October 7th of this year, internationally certified mountain guide, Ken Wylie published a book, Buried, analyzing his experiences and the role he played in a January 20, 2003 avalanche in the Selkirk Range of British Columbia on a mountain called La Traviatta. After a frantic hour of digging by the remaining group members, seven people were dead. Ken had been one of the guides on the trip.
As an avid backcountry skier and mountain enthusiast, I was excited for the opportunity to interview Ken. I was surprised, in both reading the book and speaking with Ken, how many parallels there were with his experience in the mountains and my coming home from war and the role mountains have played in my welcoming home.
Here is a part of our conversation from a couple months back:
Ken, the book starts out analyzing your experience up to and immediately after the avalanche, nominally investigating human factors, but quickly moves away from the avalanche and into a deep analysis of your own life. What was it about the incident that sent you deep back into your own life?
An alpine climber, mountaineer or even backpacker spends a great deal of time figuring out what to carry. Everything they have in their pack either sustains or protects them. I think I was carrying some heavy things about my role in the tragedy. These things were like carrying rocks in my pack; and one thing about carrying heavy items in ones life or in a pack is that one's body starts to hurt over time. After seven years my body was shutting down from the burden of knowing I played a role and I had, to date, failed to take any responsibility for my actions. Writing this book changed things that were a burden into knowledge that fuels me and writing gave me my health back. I was inspired by something much greater it seemed and ultimately I feel like I had little choice but to write.
We never really learn about what happened to the guiding company you were working for or what else happened following the avalanche, what lessons were learned, or what changes were made to how people move through the Selkirks. Can you comment on any of these unanswered questions?
The only recommendation made to Selkirk Mountain Experience by the Coroner was that they subscribe to the Canadian Avalanche Association's Information exchange (INFOEX); so that the business was in the loop of professional level information about snowpack.
Other than that the mantra has been, 'the mountains are dangerous", which is a statement repeated in a film called "A Life Ascending" about Ruedi's [the owner of Selkirk Mountain Experience] guiding life that touches on the tragedy. The statement, while in many respects true, is not the whole picture and is in fact problematic because it can lead to an absolution of accountability. I do know that privately Ruedi has made many changes to his operation, including ABS packs and a much more disciplined assessment of snow pack, along with becoming an infoex subscriber. However, I believe this event was completely avoidable, had we both bridged the gap and worked together.
You spoke in the book about the challenges of the 'ego game' vs 'the mountain experience' in the book. What direction do you see outdoor activities heading in now, and what can we do to prevent, or support one approach to the mountains / outdoors over another?
I think my involvement in my mountain career was about "consumption of mountain experiences" without taking time for reflection in order to grasp some of the important lessons that my adventures were trying to teach me. I was little better than my gear. My equipment goes on the journey and only gets dirty and a little worn out. It is now important to me to capture powerful lessons so that I grow and expand so that I am more than just a thing traveling through space. I am on a human journey of development.
In our profoundly busy society, I suspect that few take the time to reflect. I know I had physical courage in spades and this book was about cultivating social courage through a reflective journey.
What do the mountains represent for you now?
The mountains are my mentor. They constantly show me who I am, and how I need to develop as a man. They also keep my ego in check because they have and continue to be humbling. They are my home and while my risk tolerance has waned somewhat, I still love and revere these sacred spaces. I think this process is available for anyone and it is one of the bolder journeys to take.
What was challenging to me about the book is how when we go into the mountains, the human factor in relationship to trip safety and avalanche awareness isn't just about the day, or the season experience of the individual, but really includes the lifetime of the adventurer. It made me wonder what sort of extra baggage I was taking into the mountains, but I'm wondering what you think we can all do to investigate our own motivations in the mountains and what you hope people will get from the book?
Solitude is the place where we gain self knowledge. A balance "doing" with deep personal reflection so that the inner journey matches the outer one. I participated in creating the tragedy because I embodied the idea that the person I was did not affect my decisions as a professional guide. I learned the hardest way possible, that nothing could be further from the truth. I brought ALL of my baggage into my decisions and the result was tragic. I think we bring our unhealthy reactions and programed ways of being into high-risk environments, which adds to the potential for misadventure or tragedy.
The phrase "Human Error" is a vast ocean "catch all" that has not really been mapped in ways that serve understanding, accountability or awareness in the decisions we make. Perhaps, human virtue is a tool for being safer out there. Things like striving for peace in our groups, having social courage to speak one's truth and respecting other people's wishes all can work to keep us safer in hazardous situations. Knowing our own "stumbling blocks" in these areas will be of service to creating experiences, for both guided and recreational groups, that help bring us home safely.
You speak in the book about the value of knowing your own limits and being honest about what you feel can and cannot be done. How do we keep ourselves safe, but still push our own limits? What level of risk is worth it in your mind?
Intuition. Throughout my whole career, the days that were the best were the ones that I only experienced excitement and joy. Any bad feeling, no matter how silly it may seem, is worth listening to because there is a deeper wisdom to all of us that is beyond intellectual understanding. When in doubt, turn around. When "Clear" go for it! Of course we will always have a little fear or trepidation about pushing our limits, the challenge is to discern what is the greater challenge for us; facing the physical adventure, or having the courage to turn around.