The trail was 45-minutes long. One of those long, windy black diamond numbers over steep moguls, through unconsolidated snow. My bindings were acting up. One turn, two, and my ski would fall off. Walt was getting frustrated. Down on his hands and knees for the fifteenth time, he’d attack the problem with his portable screwdriver. “How about you calm down,” I told Walt, who was frothing at the mouth, “You go on. I’ll wait here for the ski patrol to show up.”
See, I’ve always been a firm believer that when I’m in trouble, nice people in red jackets will show up to rescue me. I might have to sit a while, maybe bat my eyelashes and play cute, but invariably, if I’m patient, and friendly, someone will solve my problem.
“We’ve got two choices,” Walt said. “You walk down. Or you stand still long enough to let me fix this goddamned ski.”
Not surprisingly, I spot lots of people with this ski patrol mentality. Like the young woman on Mt. Washington a few winters back. Sitting down on the icy path, her arms folded across her chest. The hired guide coaxing her to take another step, so they could get the hell off the mountain. Her refusing. Pouting. Crying. As if he could actually pick her up, throw her over his shoulder, and cart her 7 miles down hill.
And then there’s our friend Patrick. A Special Olympian we guided up Mt. Rainier. Who had a rather nasty habit of flopping down on the trail when he got tired and saying, “I don’t feel like carrying my pack anymore.” Innocent, he couldn’t comprehend the fact that, under heavy loads, struggling up relentless slopes, everyone feels like lying down and giving up. (Sorry, but at 11,000 feet, no one was in a position to relieve him of his burden.)
While many of us have been trained to play the helpless female, I blame our society in part for this passive mindset. We Americans, we Westerners, are taught that someone else is responsible for our safety, our comfort, and our satisfaction. Don’t like the movie? The food? The service? The snow conditions? Complain loud enough and you’ll get your money back. Get hurt on that ladder? In the game? On the highway? Sue, and you’ll be set for life. Someone, not you, will always be held liable.
Far from insurance commercials, and lawyers (if you don’t count Walt), and patrolling police officers, I think the high mountains are a wonderful place to learn about personal responsibility.
Denali, for instance. Late in June, at the end of the climbing season, on the lower, sunbaked glacier. One minute you’ll be walking along, the next, you’re dangling from a rope over a newly exposed crevasse. No way out but straight ahead. No ski patrol. No park ranger. No rescue helicopter. It’s you, and your rope team, and one long stretch of snowy Swiss cheese. A hundred miles from civilization. You have two choices, and two choices only. Move forward very carefully. Or settle in to die.
Here’s the thing. It doesn’t matter if the conditions suck. Or that there’s a clear and present danger. It doesn’t matter that you’re tired. Or that it’s not your fault. It doesn’t matter that you never bargained for this kind of trouble. Or that bad things shouldn’t happen to good people. Or that you paid perfectly good money. Or that you’ve fully invested.
Sometimes you have to stop looking around for the red jacket to come and rescue you. Sometimes you have to give up on the way it should be. Sometimes you have to take stock. Figure out the options. Steal yourself for the discomfort, or the inconvenience, or the Godawful effort. And you just have to forge ahead across the minefield. You’re on your own. More often than you think.
Take responsibility. Suck it up. Stop waiting. Stop looking around. The ski patrol isn’t coming.
If you just can’t do it on your own, actively seek assistance. Hire that person, or call in that marker, or get that training. Take action. Take responsibility. Take control.
The Zen Patriarch Lin Chi used to say to students, “ You who don’t have enough confidence in yourself, you go around seeking these things outside. You need to have confidence that you have the capacity.”