Avalanche teaches mountain guide lessons in mentschhood

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, November 27, 2014

Ken Wylie shares wisdom learned from ski tragedy in Buried. Photo by Warren Harbeck

Last week’s column looked at what it means to become a real “mentsch,” that wonderful Yiddish word for a person who humbly listens to their inner voice and allows it to shape their character and actions.

For mountain guide Ken Wylie, formerly of Cochrane, that journey toward mentschhood took him through an avalanche that cost members of his backcountry ski party their lives and launched him on a period of self-reflection that has resulted in his just-published book, Buried.

His harrowing journey started at 10:45 a.m. on Jan. 20, 2003, when a massive avalanche swept down the slopes of La Traviata in the Selkirk Range of British Columbia. It tore into his 13-member group for which Ken was assistant guide, burying many of them, including Ken. After an hour’s digging by those spared, Ken was rescued, but seven others were not so fortunate.

He had felt uncomfortable about the route they were taking. Snow conditions didn’t feel right. But young and in awe of their head guide, he chose to ignore his inner voice and remain silent.

Over the following years he struggled with why he remained silent that day and the mistakes he’d been making throughout his life that led up to it. He zeroed in on seven lessons, each a step in his journey toward mentschhood:

Acceptance: An event from his childhood was an early indicator of how easily influenced he was by what others thought. His playmate had told him to pull a fire alarm, and eager to please, he did – and suffered the consequences.

So in the matter of the avalanche, he was more concerned to please the head guide than to follow his own inner compass, he says. “My desperate need for external validation clouded the realities and what would become the devastating consequences to my guests and their families.”

Courage: In his adventurous youth he’d grown used to taking physical risks. But social risks on that fateful day in 2003? “I made the choice to face my physical fear as I strode onto the slope of La Traviata,” he says, “but the situation required the social courage I lacked to be the man I needed to be.”

Connection: It was while climbing in the Andes back in 1989 that he entered the classroom of communication connectedness. His interactions with his climbing partner were superficial at best, he says. “I did not know how to go deeper, to a more meaningful place.”

In his communication breakdown with the head guide on La Traviata, he had allowed communication breakdown to set the stage for tragedy.

Self-discovery: It was while climbing ice columns at Mount Rundle with a friend that he struggled with the tension between the purity of his inner voice and the prison of caring only about his own accomplishments.

“Self-discovery is all about finding out that the real self lives in the heart,” he says, “not the head.”

Peace: Then there was that beautiful morning when Ken and his partner were climbing above Canmore. Suddenly their enjoyment was shattered by another climbing party that intended to pass them. Ken felt insulted and angry, and his need to prove himself wound up putting his partner in danger.

“I let others push my insecurity buttons,” he says.

Acting on intuition: “Intuition often gets a bad rap in a world dominated by the idea that everything is quantifiable,” Ken says, reflecting on some academic attitudes toward mountain leadership.

“Acting on intuition is critical and requires a large measure of social courage; the mysterious quality of the sixth sense is sometimes at odds with our science- and technology-shaped minds.”

Truth: In the fluctuating temperatures leading up to that day on La Traviata, crystallization had occurred, forming an impermeable layer in the snowpack that undermined that natural bonding quality of safe snow. More snow had fallen, resulting in instabilities that required constant vigilance – vigilance that was ignored that fateful day, Ken says, and his party was “caught in a devastating avalanche with huge destructive power.”

Coming to terms with this truth forced Ken to come to terms also with these seven “desperately unstable” buried layers in his life.

For more about this internationally certified mountain guide’s journey toward mentschhood, see mountainsforgrowth.com. Buried is available through amazon.com and directly from the publisher, Rocky Mountain Books.


© 2014 Warren Harbeck

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