Paul Andersen: Fair Game

The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado

Five snowboarders died Saturday in an avalanche on Loveland Pass – risking it all for a few powder turns. Daring mixed with naivete is a recipe for such tragedies, especially among the “invulnerable” young.

We see this all the time in the mountains, where testosterone and adrenaline create a volatile mix that often ends in grim statistics. No wonder my wife cautioned me a few weeks ago when my friend Graeme and I decided to ski over Pearl Pass to Crested Butte on wooden skis.

“Why would you want to do that?” she asked incredulously. “Isn’t it dangerous enough with regular skis? Aren’t wooden skis known to break?”

My wife is smart – sometimes overly cautious but smart. She knows the risks inherent in my various exploits, hoping, I think, that I’ll grow up one of these days and find contentment in domestic tranquility sipping tea in front of the wood-burning stove and reminiscing about the good old days.

Worse still are my family members in the Midwest – folks who don’t know the difference between klister wax and sealing wax – who raise their eyebrows at my geriatric gyrations, unable to fathom what a man nearing retirement age would gain by tracking across the high mountains in the winter on anything other than a snowmobile.

They shake their heads uncomprehendingly as I explain how these experiences add to a series of life choices that translate into a sense of vitality to which I’m addicted.

I don’t ski over Pearl Pass “because it’s there,” to quote George Mallory, but rather “because I’m there.” Skiing over Pearl Pass stirs something in me that goes way beyond physical prowess.

I’m not prone to quoting get-rich-quick hucksters, but a statement by “Power Negotiator” Roger Dawson rings true for me: “An adventurer has chosen to forget boundaries and limitations. Instead they work diligently to fulfill their dreams rather than to spend a lifetime dreaming of fulfillment. For an adventurer nothing is too far away to hope for or too difficult to reach. The moment that we surrender to the thought that circumstances or other people can control us, we surrender the right to make our lives an adventure.”

Dawson describes the successful person as “someone who has a zest for living that transcends the ordinary lifestyle and derives an uncommon joy from the privilege of being alive.”

I like the idea of viewing life as a privilege that produces joy. What better starting point for the enthusiasm and passion life can provide? As for breaking free from the controls of circumstances and other people, this has been a lifelong mission for me and remains so today.

Aldo Leopold, in his famous essay “Thinking Like a Mountain,” warned against an excess of control. Leopold defended wolves as top-down predators that prey on, reduce and ultimately strengthen deer herds. Otherwise, he wrote, deer populations would grow until they decimated native plants and caused erosion. To Leopold, wolves represented something wild and free and very necessary in the delicate balance of nature. Thinking like a mountain means having a long-term and expansive view of life.

“We all strive for safety, prosperity, comfort, long life, and dullness,” he wrote. “It all comes to the same thing: peace in our time. A measure of success in this is all well enough, and perhaps is a requisite to objective thinking, but too much safety seems to yield only danger in the long run.”

That danger, suggested Leopold, goes beyond the extirpation of wolves from the natural landscape, and he cautions all of us for a need of balance in our lives. The word “dullness” signifies a willingness to accept controls and thereby lose something of ourselves that is as natural as the howl of a wolf.

A wise measure of safety is essential, most of all for the young, but as we age, the acceptance of too many controls may sap the vitality from our lives. I will strive to avoid that kind of dullness at all costs, especially if the antidote includes the gratification of crossing Pearl Pass on wooden skis.

Paul Andersen’s column appears Mondays in The Aspen Times. He can be reached by email at