Where jubilation and despair meet
Aspen CO, Colorado
Sometimes it’s hard to reconcile the great joy and tremendous sorrow that can exist, side-by-side and day-to-day in a town full of people who live, work and play in the mountains. The contrasts and contradictions are not always opaque, but more often cast shadows of translucence that move us alternately through a myriad of strong emotions as we each follow our own path.
Thursday last week, I had the extremely good fortune to ski with Penny Pitou, the double silver-medalist at the 1960 Squaw Valley Olympic Games, a member of the visiting International Historical Skiing Association, and one of the heroes of my youth. She is the embodiment of the tenacity and talent that has shaped the history of skiing in the United States and around the world. One thing the IHSA members don’t like to do is sit around and shoot the breeze, not while the lifts are running, and if you stop to find a tree, you’ll have to catch up later.
Friday, my friend Valerie and I had just slung our skis for the Highland Bowl hike when a serious-faced youth on a snowmobile began ferrying fellow ski patrolmen up to the closure gate. Such a focused concentration of energy alerted us that an event of potentially catastrophic proportions was unfolding. We later learned that 22-year-old Aspen native Wallace Westfeldt, pioneer snowboarder of a younger generation, had died.
By Monday, some folks had developed theories about how such an accident could have happened and how it might have been prevented. Such conversations ran the gamut from “kids will always be kids” to “it’s about time those types of activities were banned or strenuously regulated.” Too, the powder was perfect, the mountain almost deserted, and the pure joy of lap after lap through untouched stashes brought forth the juxtaposition between pleasure and sorrow.
My friend, photographer Burnie Arndt, always the philosopher, tried gently to engage my interest in writing a column examining the relationship between independence and safety, but I felt ill-prepared to engage intelligently with anyone about such a sensitive subject.
I do know, however, that the split second between jubilant high-fives and dejected feelings of deep despair is immeasurable if it goes the wrong way, but doesn’t count unless misfortune appears. The beauty of a well-executed run, the thrill of watching a daring drop off a cliff, draws our attention, and always we must remember that such grace originates from within, from the spirit of the person catching our eye. It’s a gift, from them to us. Sadness emanates from the heart, but so does the raw elegance of putting the moves out there for the world to see.
“Who are you to say I can’t do things like that?” There is no consolation in the knowledge of freedom of choice when it ends in tragedy, except that the integrity of all our lives is held sacred by such freedom. The days will go on ” skiing, riding, laughing, taking it to the edge. It doesn’t eliminate the pain or fill the void, but as time goes by, it gives you increasing strength to keep going on.
I know what it’s like to lose a brother in his early 20s, but not a child, and I can only imagine the profound thoughts and feelings that Wallace’s family must be enduring.
Inherent danger is what makes riding and skiing exciting sports to watch and participate in. As it’s always been and forever shall be, some will be called to pay the ultimate price in realizing their dreams. For those of us who remain, the laughter and sorrow all come together in a powerful vortex of swirling hopes and desires, all pinned to the snow and the blue skies.
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