A little over 20 years ago, in British Columbia, the mountain community suffered one of its greatest tragedies ever. Seven people, including snowboarding icon Craig Kelly, perished in a massive avalanche on the Durrand Glacier near Revelstoke, British Columbia. One of the survivors, Ken Wylie, was buried for 40 minutes before being rescued. As the assistant guide on the trip, he bore a burden of responsibility few of us will ever understand.
He tried to explain that burden in his 2014 memoir, Buried:
The rotors pitch with a thump as they grab the air and lift. I see the skid leave the snowy ground below; we take flight and a weight comes off my shoulders. I have struggled deeply with being in this situation in the first place, and now I get to leave. Being a victim might be my escape from it, but part of me knows there is no easy way out of this one. I have no idea what to do with this knowledge.
In the book Wylie shares his personal experience of how that day unfolded, as well as profiling another tragic accident only a few weeks later involving the deaths of seven teenagers in which he was a first responder. Both tragedies were due to a persistent weak layer in the snowpack that had been around all of the 2002-2003 season. Through these events the avalanche safety industry (especially in Canada) began a full-scale renovation in how it communicates to the public, resulting in new tools to help people make decisions in the backcountry, such as the Avaluator and the Avalanche Terrain Exposure Scale.
These tools have become indispensable components of the decision-making process for people stepping into avalanche terrain. But what Wylie found out, and explains in further detail in both his book and his blog, was that beyond the natural hazards in the mountains, the hazards of the human psyche, and more specifically, the ego are very real contributors to avalanche fatalities. Ken found a new calling which he describes in his book:
…I realize that what I fear most is to become one of those broken members of the guiding community that everyone talks about but never engages; a man who gets through his life with a bottle of scotch and a long list of denials. A light comes on when I think about how I want a dialogue with people about the human factors that led to the disaster. I do not know how to do that. I am also afraid. Then it comes to me as a flash: “To use mountain experiences as an educational tool for myself and for those with whom I travel.”
Human hazards lead us into danger through various motivators; far too many to detail here. In Ken’s eyes, it was his lack of seniority in the group that had him keeping silent, and the power dynamics between himself and the lead guide, Ruedi Beglinger. Beglinger publicly called out Wylie as a liar in an interview with Powder magazine, retorting that Wylie’s book was “full of lies from the first page to the last, but sometimes I feel sorry for Ken.”
The two guides had very different approaches in recovering from the trauma of such a deadly accident. A few months ago, Beglinger posted about a splitboarding course he was hosting in the same area, only a week before the anniversary of the accident he was responsible for. When I asked him about whether or not he would discuss the event in the course, he responded via private message with vitriol that I’ll spare here. As the discussion went further, he remarked: “Avalanche accidents are deadly for people buried. For non-buried people, but involved, avalanche accidents end up in a very serious traumatic experience. People who (criticize) avalanche accidents don‘t just show inexperience in the mountains, snowpack evaluation, they also don‘t understand the human factor. They mentally destroy the involved survivors.”
So the two of them agree somewhat, yet where their thoughts diverge is in how survivors deal with tragedy. Beglinger chose to stay mostly silent while Wylie opened the whole kimono to reveal his journey of recovery from abject trauma and guilt. The journey, mind you, is likely never over, and is a process that may not be entirely straightforward. But throughout the process, Wylie has been committed to sharing his learnings. After his book was published, he ventured further into reconciliation by creating an entire business out of educating others on a more personal level. Archetypal is the result, where he delivers courses on how to manage risk, and the even more nebulous human hazards.
The courses are rooted in his decades-long career as a guide and adventure-seeker in the mountains, but claims that it’s really for everyone, no matter how much you’re willing to toe the edge of danger. His philosophy is that we all have two sides; and much like the Cherokee legend of the two wolves, the outcome depends on which one you feed.
We chatted for over an hour about his courses and life as an adventurer in general; as well as being a member of a larger community of adventurers. He says we all have a role to play in the larger society, of which they can learn much from people who live life on the edge. “The process of adventure is so needed,” he said, “as opposed to the narrative around risk as in risk is something we want to avoid. Well, no… risk is just uncertainty. Risk means the potential for good — or the potential for harm. And we step into that uncertainty and we try to mitigate the actions that will reduce the potential for harm, and take actions that will amplify the potential for good. When we enter into adventure with this idea that we’re doing this to grow as a human being… then we’re amplifying the good.”
The main point I took from it is that he hopes to make the entire process a journey from fragmentation to wholeness, both as individuals and as a group. Facing fearful situations leads to courage. “If we recognize the process of moving through the fragmentation of the fear to explore courage,” he proposes, “I think that’s like the most beautiful process to recognize what adventure does for us.” As a group, the fragmentation of individual thoughts, egos, and assumptions will ideally lead to wholeness as a group united in their decision making. Without it, we have chaos, as we have seen time and time again in the mountains.
So if someone like Ken can learn from the pitfalls of tragedy, we all can in our day-to-day lives, and hopefully avoid further tragedies such as the ones he experienced 20 years ago. Those of us who identify as adventurers have more to offer the world than our own selfish ambitions, for if more people can look at uncertainty with a level head, walk through danger into safety, and come out able to do it all again the next day, then we have moved our society a bit further ahead. And while this year is strikingly similar to 2003, both in the snowpack and in fatalities as recent as this past week, there is much room for both individuals and the adventure guiding industry to take heed and correct course to prevent more tragedies from unfolding.
To learn more about Ken Wylie’s courses on Human Hazard Management and other topics, visit archetypal.ca