Buried—A Forced Exercise in Listening
By Keith Liggett
A little voice lives in the head of every climber/skier.
You reach the base of a climb. Start flaking out the rope as your partner sorts out the cams and quick draws. The rock sweeps up. A single crack breaks the smooth face. The route clear as if painted and numbered on the face. The rock is warm to the touch. Piece of cake.
And the little voice says, “Not today.”
A or B.
You head up the pitch? Or pack it in for another day?
You’re touring with a group of friends. A couple are total gung-ho touring geeks. Always out. Always seeking the best, the steepest untracked lines. You reach a break in the trees. An avalanche path. The group gathers, with a little poking and digging in the snow decides, “It’s all good. We’ll just space it out a little.”
The little voice says, “This ain’t good”
A or B.
You go forward spread out across the slope? Or turn around and go home? There will be other days.
Ken Wylie spent years wondering about his little voice, usually deferring to A and going forward with the group.
In January of 2003, he joined Rudi Beglinger’s Selkirk Mountain Experience (SME) as the Assistant Guide. Already a fully certified International Mountain Guide, he was one test from completing his Assistant Ski Guide certification. He joined SME as the Assistant Guide to gain valuable experience and help him pass that last test. This was not his first rodeo. He’d toured and climbed around the mountains of North America for well over 20 years.
Selkirk Mountain Experience, Reudi’s hut and guide service is noted for accessing steep and yet safe terrain. The hut is fly-in at over 6,000 feet, but all the skiing is touring. Step by step, you earn every turn skinning to the top of the run. First opened in 1985, in the years prior to January 2003, SME operated accident free. Groups ski something between 30,000 and 50,000 feet each week depending on their conditioning and depending on their group. Ruedi is known for running a tight ship. Personally he skis a million vertical feet a year. All self powered. Ken notes some former guests refer to the operation as the Selkirk Military Experience.
From the start Ken had issues with Ruedi’s manner and approach. Ruedi has a temper that can flash out at any time for the smallest slight and put Ken on edge.
The guests are initially divided into two groups, roughly half each. The faster folks and the slower folks. Often there are great disparities between the slowest and the fastest even within the individual groups. This week is no exception.
The guests were a broad mix of the skiing world. One of the guests was Craig Kelly, a world-renowned snowboarder. A tele instructor from California. A chef from another mountain lodge. They came from the Netherlands, California, Calgary, Colorado and New York, Seattle and Alaska. A scattered collective of people drawn to the lodge by the lure of untracked powder.
The first couple of days of the third week passed relatively uneventfully. Shuffling people between the groups, trying to fine the perfect mix of conditioning and ability, the individuals became distinct. Some trying harder. Some laid back and taking the offered terrain, happy just to be in the Slekirks at the lodge.
On January 20, 2003, the third day of the week, the initial plan was to ski down from the hut, climb up to the Swiss Meadows near Tumbledown Mountain for a couple of runs. If the snow seemed good, after lunch go over to a stepper run on Tumbledown called La Traviata. Right before they leave the hut, Ruedi blows up at Ken for not knowing all the details of the SME uniforms and deferring a question from Craig Kelly.
All morning Ken’s little voice screamed. While taking a break before the climb up to Swiss meadows, “As the cool liquid pours down my throat, all I can think of is turning around.” (Page 48)
On the climb up to Tumbledown Lake, “If I were here alone I would turn around.” (Page 50)
Reaching Tumbledown Lake, they stop for tea. After the break, Ruedi set off with his group. Shortly after, Ken followed with his. He noticed Ruedi’s track headed toward La Traviata Ken’s little voice screamed, ”NO, DON’T GO THERE!!” (Page 53) He radios Ruedi to ask about the change and Ruedi jumps on him for questioning him. Ken, head down, obediently followed with his group.
At one point Ruedi’s group is some distance ahead and directly above Ken’s on the slope. “Behind me Vern says, “I don’t like it. . . being below the other group.” I reply weakly, “Neither do I.” (Page 55)
You read knowing there will be an avalanche. Knowing seven die. Not knowing Ken will be buried. Buried for 30 minutes, yet somehow, after a helicopter ride and a medical check, he walks out of the hospital without physical injury on his own power a few hours later.
There’s survivor’s guilt. There’s being involved in another rescue the next week. Another seven deaths. There’s wondering if he’d said something would things have changed? No chance. It was the Selkirk Military Experience.
Buried is a mediation on the little voice we all carry and learning to listen. Not to listen out of fear, but to listen and understand from where the little voice emanates. How to incorparate the little voice into an authentic life, into your relationships and into your activities.
Slowly Ken flays himself without blaming other people. He peels off one layer of skin at a time examining his actions leading up to the avalanche and then in other situations. The breakup of his marriage. On ice climbs. On rock climbs. On other ski trips.
There is no blame. No, “Oh, poor me.” Buried becomes an almost dispassionate examination. At the same time, the pain of the examination is clear on every page. The tone is understated. One line stands out. There is a debriefing at the Wintergreen Inn in Revelstoke the day after the avalanche. “Not all of the guests have come; some stayed up at the lodge to continue skiing” (page 77). There is no further comment about the people who stayed to ski the day after seven were killed. Or comment on SME so casually continuing their operations uninterrupted after the event.
In this day of memoir by “victim”, Buried is refreshing. Perhaps refreshing is the wrong word, but Ken’s book and unvarnished authentic approach is welcome. The arc of the story is not victimization, but of self-realization and personal growth. Of moving beyond. We all make mistakes. We must learn to live with them. That is the story in Buried,
To follow-up, here are two other pieces to read about the dangers of groupthink, of ignoring the little voice and blindly following the perceived expert leader:
Snow Fall by John Branch. New York Times, Dec. 2012
Should Airplanes be Flying Themselves By William Langewiesche, Vanity Fair Oct. 2014