A year ago, almost to the day, I came home from this same annual snowboarding trip at Retallack, near Nelson, BC. I was feeling elated and proud of myself, only to have those feelings come crashing down when I discovered that the minor throat problems I had been experiencing were from cancer; tongue cancer.
The trip this year was supposed to be my victory lap after beating cancer and surviving a very tough year. For the last few recovery months, this had been my goal.
Well, the trip was a victory of sorts, but not what I had expected. Even though there is “no quit in me”, it turns out that there is at little common sense.
Of course, all 24 of the guys, the guides and staff at Retallack were full of compliments. They made me feel glad I was there. They were impressed that I had come back so soon to challenge the steep mountain runs and the deep snow. However, there were concerns about my strength and stamina. Personally, I was pretty sure I could handle it.
Turns out I was wrong.
The last thing Linda said to me on the way out the door was, “Don’t try show off to those young guys. In your case, showing up is showing off”.
She was right. The best I managed to do was show up.
After my second run through the deep snow and trees it was clear to the guide, and to me (reluctantly) that I had overestimated my strength and ability. It was time to recalibrate.
At the top of the hill I had been very confident. It looked steep and there were trees beneath me but there were openings between the trees that I knew I could navigate through. The snow looked deep and soft. What damage could I do? I had done this before so I could do it again.
Wrong. I had trouble with my toe side turns and pretty soon I was picking up too much speed and had to fall in order to stop. Once I had fallen I realized that getting up was going to be hard. The snow was deeper, wetter and heavier than last year. My ski buddy, Sandy, helped pull me up using his ski poles. I got up but my snowboard was embedded under the heavy snow and struggled to get the front end up and free of the snow so I could start again. It took effort and time, but I got going.
I fell at three or four more times on the way through the trees to the bottom where the others were waiting. The falls were not dramatic. Getting up was difficult each time and it was already starting to drain my energy. But, I felt my riding getting better as we approached the end of the run. I was confident I would get myself under control the next run. The first run is always the hardest.
Back in the cat and going up the mountain I got into a deep discussion with Joey Hundert, one of the really good skiers, about “Flow” experiences and how skiing and snowboarding can get you into a flow state. After the discussion, he decided he would be my partner on the next run. I welcomed riding with Joey because he is one of the stars and, I guess, I was also trying to impress him with my riding or at least my courage.
Hmmm? Not a good idea to will myself into a flow state before I had even established that I could snowboard in this deep wet snow. Naturally, I tried to ride faster and actually did. It was exhilarating when I was hitting my turns, but scary when I was out of rhythm and loosing control.
Once out of control, of course, I fell. Joey pulled me up and away I would go again. I fell a couple of times with no consequence but the last two falls were into tree wells. Tree-well falls are dangerous.
Once you are in a tree well you generally need help to get out. The snow is deep and you have nothing to grab on too. If you fall face first you can really be in trouble. People suffocate in tree wells. Both times I fell backwards and slipped under a big tree. My board stayed uphill with my body and head below. I was deep in snow, wedged under the big branches with my back against the trunk. No leverage. But my face was not buried so I was OK. Just embarrassed to be upside down in a tree well. Especially the second time.
Getting out was exhausting. Both times, with lots of help from Joey and the guide Chris, I managed get my snowboard off and I squirmed up and out of the tree well. Once out, I had the challenge of strapping my boots to the board. With all that wet snow built up in my bindings I struggled to get the bindings to connect.
I started to realize that much more of this would eventually sap my already limited energy. It became clear that I was not as strong as I needed to be. I was also acutely aware that I was taking way too long to get down this run. There were guys waiting at the cat who had paid big money for this adventure. Wasting their valuable cat skiing time started to weigh as heavy on me as the deep wet snow. Watching Joey ski through the snow liike he was in a beer commerical made very concious that i was riding with some elete skiers and riders and I was holding them up.
At the bottom, I talked to Chris and Savage, our guides, and we decided it would be wise to wait out the next few runs. The idea was to find runs that were more open, less trees, and maybe flatter so the boarding would be less challenging. That never happened.
The avalanche danger was high that day so the wide open areas were too dangerous. We could only ski in the steeper heavily treed runs. So, I just rode in the cat. One of the other skiers, Sean, also had some issues and sat out the rest of the day with me. At least I had company.
The next day I drove to a local ski hill, a couple of hours away, with Tommy Kalita. Tommy comes on the trip for the social life and networking but does not feel comfortable cat skiing so he drives to Whitewater, a ski hill near Nelson. We had fun. I can ride the groomed runs all day long and enjoy it.
When we got off the groomers and into the tree areas the snow was really hard and no fun to ride so we avoided the trees. We drove back to Retallack feeling good about our day. We arrived there just as the two cats were getting back to the lodge. When I saw how happy the guys were getting out of the cats I was totally envious and jealous. Everyone had had a great time, including the guys I was sure I could keep up with. I wanted some of that.
I decided right then that I was going with them the next day and I told the guides. The guides accepted my decision reluctantly and in the morning the head guide reassured me that it was OK with them but as we talked I could tell he was concerned. The avalanche danger was worse today and I started to realize that if there ever was an incident on the mountain I might be the weak link and the guy keeping our guides from effectively taking care of other guys.
Later on, Antoine Palmer, my good friend and the organizer of the trip, sought me out, looked me in the eye and asked if I really wanted to do this. He made it clear that, in fact, “showing up had been showing off” and no one would think less of me for not going. I already knew that but I had my own expectations of myself to live up to. We both knew what the wise choice was. Thank you, Antoine.
I went back to Whitewater with Tommy. We had a great time. The snow was really good and I got closer to a flow experience than I would have in the steep and deep. I even got in some good tree runs. The guys in the cats also had a good time and I am OK with my cat ski experience.
Later, we learned that two weeks earlier a skier at Retallack had almost suffocated in a tree well. That explained why the guides were hyper nervous.
Despite not doing much cat boarding, I had a great time and got my money’s worth out of the whole experience. Cat skiing is not for everyone but the guys who do it tend to be pretty interesting. This group were all friends and associates of Antoine and Joey, so they are amazing guys; like Antoine and Joey. Remember; “We all become a composite of the six people we associate with the most.”
These guys had a lot in common. Entrepreneurial – most of the guys owned their own companies. Successful – they were all playing at the top of their games. Nice guys – they treat people well. Socially conscious – they were all working towards a better world. Young – everyone was between 30 and 40 years old with one or two near 50. Fit and athletic – of course. Couragous guys who take calculated risks – the kind of guys that cat ski, own their own companies and might go to Burning Man.
Hanging out for five days with 24 high performing guys was a treat. Over the weekend I either participated in or overheard conversations about; Altered conciousnes techiques for performance enhancment. The metrics used to manage an internet sales company; the use of toy robots to teach children about complex decision making. The pro’s and cons of various construction processes – Design Build vs Cost Plus vs Design – Bid – Build. The math of investing in commercial real estate. The appeal of open marriage and poly-amorous relationships in today’s world. The challenges of creating robots to do day to day work. The reasons for going to Burning Man. The costs and paybacks for various forms of power generation. The challenges of hiring a GM to replace you at work. The best places to surf. What it feels like to be at own a company that is about to experience an exponential growth explosion. The challenges of raising kids in junior high. The social value of hedge funds. Mountain biking vs running as a fitness activity. The appeal of living in a sprinter van. The experience of leaving a safe job to start a new company. The excitement of concieving a product and bringing it to market. Being a dad (or not).
Yah, we also talked about Donald Trump. (How could we ignore him?) But you get the idea. It was fun hanging out with so many guys that live their lives on what most of us would think of as “the edge.” This whole experience was inspiring.
I am thankful for the opportunity to hang out with these guys and grateful to them for making me feel like I was one of them. For a weekend, I felt like I was a high performer, too. And I sort of am; but not really.
That I was with these guys when my cancer was discovered and was able to beat cancer and recover from radiation and then get back to join them in Retallach a year later is an accomplishment.
I am proud of my accomplishment. It has been quite year. Living on the edge. I am also thankful for all the help along the way and appreciative of all the caring and attention I have received in support of my recovery.
Special thanks to “you”, dear reader. You know who you are.