The Sacred Balance

A sobering reminder of mortality in the mountains

PHOTO: Caitlin Kelly

It was late afternoon by the time Abagael and I began descending San Joaquin Mountain in the Eastern Sierra two weeks ago. It was high summer, so we weren’t concerned about losing daylight. We were concerned about timing though, as the ridge traverse had taken a little longer than expected.

The excursion was my first after having reconstructive surgery on my ACL five months ago, and coupled with the need to reacclimatize after living at sea level, we were moving slower than expected. We hiked along the ridge, starting at the Minaret Vista and walked north, scoping out lines for the upcoming ski season, while taking in views of the Ansel Adams wilderness.

Earlier, our map had blown away down an unstable scree field and we were relying on topographic maps on our smart phones and Abagael’s previous research regarding how to safely descend this mountain and into Yost Meadows. We took the most obvious path down, our route dancing between a promising-looking ridgeline and an avalanche gully.

Without the map, things became a little tricky—screens are only so big, and topo lines fade away when zoomed in too close. After thirty minutes of sitting and deliberating on the side of the steep mountain, we chose the path we had initially been drawn to, down the gully, following the sound of moving water, around the bend, and past a daunting cliff-face jutting out from the ridge to our right hand side.

The going was slow, especially when a fast-melting snow bridge came between us and the other side of the gully. We found another route, and carried on. Every step I took was conscientious of my new ACL and my weak quad muscles, but I was happy to be in wilderness again. Happy to be reunited with Abagael who had shown me her love for the mountains in so many ways while at school together at St. Lawrence University in upstate New York. I was happy exploring her new backyard.

* * *

When Abagael picked up the battered ski helmet, we had been hiking in the streambed for twenty minutes. Only a few minutes before that we had smelled the pungent scent of death—rotting flesh from what I presumed to be some kind of animal. When Abagael picked up that battered ski helmet, I looked away.

Signals of alarm were firing in my brain—something is wrong; something isn’t the way it should be. My vision delivered me only to that helmet. The weathered black color told us it must have been from the most recent winter, not quite worn enough to be any older.

The dents on the side were sizeable, sand and gravel were caked inside, and the broken helmet strap was eerily hanging from one side, still clipped together. People don’t just leave behind their helmets—this isn’t a ski pole, this is a helmet.

I tried to come up with best-case scenarios but I couldn’t escape the image of a massive avalanche thundering through this gully, taking this skier or snowboarder for their last ride, their helmet broken upon impact from the maelstrom of the event. I wanted to believe that it wasn’t true. I realized, though, we were probably one of the first to have come down off-trail through this gully since the snow had melted.

Abagael put the helmet on the side of the streambed, right side up. We agreed it was best to leave it there. For the rest of the hike out, we didn’t mention the smell, or discuss what might lie in the thick sagebrush along the streambed. It was late and we needed to get off that mountain, and back into the valley.

* * *

Two weeks after hiking down that avalanche gully, the thought of the helmet stayed with me. Even after Abagael reported what we saw to a ranger station, knowing it was out of our hands, it haunted me. I tried to piece together everything from that day in a way that made sense to me, only to realize that sometimes things like that aren’t supposed to make sense.

I felt as though there had to be a deeper meaning to finding that helmet during my first time in the wilderness after my ACL surgery, an injury that has humbled me in so many ways. What was the universe trying to tell me? I shared my experience with Angel Collinson in a recent interview about her own recovery from the same injury.

She told me about a painful memory from five years ago, when her boyfriend Ryan Hawks died after doing a backflip off of a 60-foot cliff, landing on rocks hidden under the surface. She had to ask herself if skiing was worth it, and how she was supposed to manage the risks that come with being a big mountain skier.

The conclusion she came to is skiing is not worth dying for, but it is what makes us live. We’re supposed to be as happy and joyous as possible while we’re here on this beautiful planet and to not do things out of fear is not the way that Collinson wants to live, she said.

Her advice to me as I return to the mountains this winter: “You need to trust yourself and listen to your intuition. And once you do that, you come away from your decision feeling much stronger and more empowered—your voice gets stronger every time you’re out in the mountains.”

There is still only one thing I’ve been able to fully understand about that day in the high Sierra. To not do something out of fear is not the way that I want to live either.