Mind Full of Risk

A little more than a year ago, a friend and I set out to attempt a line that I had never skied. For the purposes of this story, I will call it the Tube. Walled in like a hallway down a sustained steep pitch, the run had tantalized me for years. I had skied similar lines adjacent to the Tube, which drops off the north face of a fourteener, but the Tube proper always seemed more daunting.

It was late April and the snowpack had solidified a couple of weeks before, all but eliminating the unpredictability of deep-slab avalanches. Then it snowed six inches one night, which, our experience told us, would still be soft and dry a few days later.

It was my idea to ski the Tube. My friend had skied it years earlier and was open to doing it again … but not anxious to. I scouted it from across the valley the prior afternoon. One blissful track down a nearby low-angle bowl told me all I needed—wanted—to know: The snow was still incredible. I called my friend and we decided to meet the next morning. But I felt immediately nervous.

For the past three weeks, I had been hunkered down at home with my wife and our newborn son. She and I would stare at him for hours, then smile at each other in a way we never had before. Life felt fuller than it had since we met.

I was also restless. April is usually when I can begin to let loose in steep terrain. But the most I’d done since becoming a dad was skin up behind our house and ski melting glades.

Now, I do not view myself as a risk seeker. By definition, however, there is no question—I am one. A lot of us are.

The Tube seemed like it would satisfy my restlessness that day, and, not surprisingly, the decison to ski it involved accepting an elevated level of risk. I justified it for two reasons: One, the risk, at least as I perceived it, was still quite low, and, two, I was craving a worthy ski experience and the feeling you get when it’s over—a charge as close to pure elation as I have ever felt in nature.

We climbed more than 3,000 feet from the valley floor. The wind picked up just as we got to the top. It started to swirl. Why that kind of elemental thing has such a fearful psychological effect as we stand on the side of a mountain, I will never understand. But suddenly, perched above the gaping entry that looked like a mine shaft, I was just a touch more gripped than I wanted to be.

Since I had proposed the line, I dropped in first. Of course, once the swirling wind at the top was neutralized by the couloir wall, everything got awesome again. The snow was just as soft and plush on top, with a firm base beneath, as we hoped it might be. We skied top to bottom without incident.

Right about then the darndest thing happened. Instead of the normal elation, a wave of guilt and shame swept through me. Had I really just risked my life, however minutely, for fun? After all the joy I’d experienced the past three weeks? For the first time ever, I felt selfish for enjoying the mountains. The whole point of skiing the Tube had been ruined.

Maybe it’s because I’m 36. I have long believed that my generation, for whatever reason, has more of an inclination—more of a need—to take risks in the mountains than those who came before us. Slowing down, simply feeling happy to be out there, absorbing the broad peace of alpine environments … such skills seem like they’re destined to die with the generation above mine. On a large scale, anyway.

Almost everyone I know who can feel fully satisfied on an adventure without taking any risk is 50 or older. The two I know who best epitomize that ideal are in their 60s. They take risks too, like most of us do, but I admire their ability to sit on their tailgate after a boring hike or low-angle ski tour and just appear wondrously content.

Dick Dorworth, a former Exum mountain guide and world-class speed skier who still racks up days at Sun Valley, Idaho, told me he doesn’t think young backcountry skiers “are even aware” of the peace to be gleaned from simply trudging among peaks, not skiing or climbing them.

Dorworth is 77—prime time to lament the recklessness of youth—but I have to agree with him. Mainly because my instincts during a ski tour tell me to: Hurry up! Get to the fresh snow! Ski it! Ski it again! I try hard to take my time; I stop and absorb the view, pause to continue the conversation, but I’m guilty of rushing sometimes. Worse, I feel it when I do it, yet I don’t stop. There is simply too little time to waste any.

That day in the Tube, I went because I thought it would enrich my life—like adventure, and particularly backcountry skiing, has done so many times before. I thought I would finish as a more fulfilled man.

Truth be told, the rush was undeniable and intoxicating, as it always is. But so was the guilt, and that was the problem.

Skiing back to the truck that day, I wondered what changed. Why was I suddenly so disturbed by the fun I just had? Was it my son? My wife? Just poor timing? A complete anomaly?

I became convinced it was an anomaly. There was no way that taking risk and having everything work out perfectly could be a negative. Or could it?

More poignantly, should it?

To reach the Tube’s entry that day, we skinned right by the low-angle bowl I’d seen perfect powder tracks in the afternoon before. I wondered why skiing that bowl seemed so inadequate as we passed it. I wondered if I might have viewed it differently if I’d taken the same route 20 years earlier, before everyone started skiing steep stuff on the regular, upping each other’s ante in a sociological phenomenon that can’t possibly be sustainable if it continues in future generations.

It is darn near impossible to live a risk-free life up here. If that’s what you want, you can get a much nicer house for your money in Topeka. The great challenge is staying true to yourself—honoring your desires, your instincts—while protecting those who rely on you. I’ve thought about that for months since our day in the Tube, and I still struggle to define a clear path from one decision to the next.

It’s too simple to say we should live every day like it’s our last. If we actually did that, we’d all be robbing banks and center punching avalanche paths on powder days. The reality is much more nuanced and personal.

And it is hardly confined to skiing. On the contrary, it stays with us year round, a constant internal dialogue for which answers always come with caveats and concern. There is a reason why I get nervous riding my bike 30 mph through a forest on my favorite trail. But it’s not because a friend died doing exactly that last year. It’s because I can sense the danger myself: sturdy trunks passing in a blur 10 inches away from my handlebars, with rocks and roots bucking me up and down.

Maybe it’s because I know the trail, but I can never bring myself to fully compress the brake levers.

And I feel as if I am better off because of it.

Devon O’Neil is a writer based in Breckenridge, Colorado. His work appears regularly in Outside, Bike and SKI. Follow him at

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