What A Near Death Experience Can Teach Us About Living
Several days ago, despite chilly temperatures and windy conditions, I decided to take a hike on the Mt. Sanitas trail in Boulder, Colorado, a popular hiking spot for locals and visitors alike. If you’ve ever been to Boulder, you probably know that Boulderites are an unusually friendly breed; They’re outgoing, kind and quite willing to share openly with anyone genuinely interested. So, I knew I would not be out of order when, noticing the rugged-looking man on crutches with a deep wound on one leg, I allowed my New York curiosity and outspokenness to get the best of me and ask, “What happened to you? Did you fall off of a motorcycle or bike?” He looked at me, smiled and proceeded to tell me the story behind his sorry-looking leg, a story that has stayed with me for days.
“No,” he said, “it wasn’t a motorcycle or a bike. I got caught in an avalanche six weeks ago.” I’ve been in Boulder for four and a half years. I’ve grown accustomed to the locals’ love jones for the Great Outdoors and their active lifestyles. Torrential rain, blizzards, hurricane force winds or unseasonal ice storms fail to slow people down; they continue hiking, biking, skiing, climbing, sledding, skateboarding, all the “ings” anyone can imagine. In fact, although roads aren’t plowed around here after big snows, the bike paths are, first thing in the morning, I might add. Still, I had never met anyone caught in an avalanche.
Despite my awareness of the growing knot in my stomach just picturing his plight, I just had to know more. So, in the same way that children might hold their hands over their eyes while watching scary movies, I inquired, “You were in an avalanche? What happened?” He told me that he had been skiing in the back country on fresh snow and he knew that the risk of avalanche was high. Nonetheless, he had skied dangerous territory many times before and he reassured himself that everything would be ok. He started out with a buddy, but his friend skied ahead and he was alone when the deafening thunder roared behind him. Instantly, he knew it was an avalanche and recalled all the training he had taken to prepare for this unlikely moment. “Swim,” he told himself. “Do the back stroke,” an instruction that ultimately saved his life. Within moments, he was pushed forward by unspeakable momentum and saw that he was just about to crash head-on into a tree. Then suddenly, silence. Trapped in snow up to his neck, he had managed to keep his arms up and was somehow able to reach the radio he carried with him for emergencies. He radioed his friend, saying, “I’ve got a problem.” As someone who can get stressed out when a newly polished nail breaks, I couldn’t help but think to myself, “Uh, that’s a bit of an understatement.” He went on to tell me that when friends and emergency staff rescued him, it was clear that his leg had swollen up to many times its normal size, requiring immediate surgery, skin grafts and who knows what else.
But here he was on crutches, on a cool March day, hiking up a steep trail, determined to make it to the top. His determination, rather than the altitude, took my breath away. I was fascinated by his resilience and the matter-of-fact manner in which he shared his story. I could not overcome the temptation to ask him how he was doing now. He started to tell me about the recovery of his scars, the grafts and the complicated reconnection of veins and arteries. But I interrupted and said, “No, how are you doing,?” this time pointing to my head. I wanted to know how he was recovering emotionally from a potentially traumatic experience. His response was yet another reminder that what happens in life is not nearly as important as the meaning we ascribe to what happens.
Like many others who have near-death experiences, he felt that the avalanche was a blessing in disguise. It prompted him to think long and hard about his life, his priorities and the choices he had been making on a daily basis. He mentioned that prior to the accident, he had worked long hours, was on the road a lot and was not particularly emotionally present when at home. He talked about the ways in which his drive to succeed had taken precious time away from family and friends. In particular, he sorely missed his kids. Having come face-to-face with a powerful reminder of the fleeting and transitory nature of life, he decided to make significant changes- he would appreciate the blessings in his life, cut back his hours and spend more time with the people he loves. Thanking him for sharing his story, I wished him a speedy recovery and continued my hike downhill.
As I neared my car, I couldn’t shake the image of this man getting trapped neck-deep in snow. But I also couldn’t stop thinking about his happy countenance and grateful spirit. Suddenly, a verse in an old Joni Mitchell song popped into my head- “.. Don’t it always seems to go that you don’t know what you’ve got till its gone?…” Vowing to use this chance encounter with the man on the mountain as a reminder to live each day more fully, still, I was more than just a little relieved that some of life’s most important lessons are vicarious ones.
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