Revealing ourselves by talking about others

Two people I would recommend to everyone in the world

Last week I listened to an episode of Eric Johnson’s new podcast Follow Friday. I expected it to sound good because he’s a professional, but I wasn’t sure if I was going to like it. I loved it! What makes it work is the idea itself. Eric interviews his guests about who they would recommend you follow on social media. Because of this, the conversations he and the guest have are about other people.

Listening to how someone talks about other people, you learn more about them than listening to them talk about themselves. What’s important to them about other people? How do they talk about their friends? As you listen, you feel like you’re part of the friend circle because the conversation is more like the ones you might have with your own best friends. It works especially well because the other people that Eric and his guests talk about are people that you can find on social media. You don’t feel left out in the cold while Eric and his guest have a conversation about people you don’t know and will never meet.

In the spirit of Follow Friday, today I’m going to tell a story about two friends. Not so that you’ll follow them on social media, please don’t, but so that you can get to know me by seeing how my life has been improved by my relationships with them. I’m writing this to work through some grief, so here’s your off ramp if that’s not for you.

The first person I want to tell you about is Peter. He’s a fifth generation Coloradan who has spent his entire career as an attorney fighting for the protection of public lands. We all owe Peter a huge debt of gratitude that natural gas drilling in the pristinely beautiful Thompson Divide in Colorado has been brought to a halt.

Two weeks ago on Monday I woke up to a Facebook post from Peter’s wife Katy that he had been in an accident. I spent the rest of the day glued to Facebook and texting every mutual friend of Peter’s hoping and praying for his recovery. The story came in bits and pieces throughout the day, and it was gruesome and a testament to Peter’s physical strength and will to survive.

What happened is that he was hiking with a new friend in the Colorado National Monument. They were walking deep into a canyon that didn’t have a proper, safe, wide trail. Peter loves to show people places that most people never get to see. While they were back there, they came to a place where the canyon ledge they were walking on narrowed. It would have been easy to shuffle around the narrow section of ledge by holding onto a rock on the canyon wall. Peter went first. The rock he was holding onto dislodged from the wall and he fell 40 feet to the ground. He shattered both legs with open fractures, got a severe concussion, and had a terrible open head wound on the back of his head. His friend needed to get help, but there was no cell phone service. His friend hiked for 20 minutes to reach a cell signal, and called for help. Help came, but due to the difficult nature of the terrain, it took search and rescue operations five hours to get Peter out of the canyon and into a helicopter.

Peter survived. I texted with him yesterday. He’s in good spirits in a hospital bed in Grand Junction. The first couple of days we weren’t sure he would make it and if he did we weren’t sure what level of brain injury he had sustained from the head wound. I’m so grateful that Peter is still Peter. Everyone he knows has been helping his family—including building a 35 foot wheelchair ramp to his house. Every time I think of him, though, I feel full body tension because it’s not certain that he’ll fully recover from his leg injuries.

When this happened to Peter, one of the first things that came out on social media and in text threads was that it was another “Peter story.” Everyone that has ever spent any time around Peter has a Peter story. He is a magnet for adventure. He has a swashbuckling spirit that’s only visible in the glint of his eye the moment his feet touch wilderness.

Twelve years ago, my wife Kelly and I decided to join Peter, his wife Katy, their new baby, and their two dogs for a night of camping followed by a group hike with his non-profit public lands advocacy group. We met at a dispersed campsite near a reservoir in Eagle county and setup camp in the dark. Katy was already stressed. Their newborn baby couldn’t have been more than 6 weeks old. He was still so young that he made those really tiny baby gurgling and grunting sounds. It was at that time of life when we were maybe too determined not to let being parents ruin our adventurous spirits.

I don’t have any photos from the camping trip story, but this is Peter and Katy from a hut trip 5 months later (2010) as proof of how little the baby must have been on that camping trip.

During the night, Kelly and I kept hearing Peter and Katy argue and the baby gurgle and coo. The three of them were in a two person tent with their two dogs. The dogs were not small—a wirehaired pointing griffon named Griff, and an airedale named Mr Biggs. Maybe around 3:30 in the morning I heard Katy yell that if one of the dogs stepped on the baby and killed it that she would kill Peter. I think around then is when I heard the tent zipper, and Peter and the dogs exited the tent.

Kelly and I drifted back to sleep. But maybe an hour later we awoke to a cacophony of barking. The dogs were going crazy, but they sounded far off. We didn’t get the full story until we woke up. Peter, who’s pride shone through a bashful grin, told us that the dogs had found and chased a bear up into a tree. This was turning into an adventure.

We got dressed and had a quick breakfast, then we drove down the road to meet the people for the group hike. If you’ve ever been on a group hike with a public lands non-profit, you know that the age range tends to skew retired. Peter introduced the hike as a venture into national forest to a hidden gem called Lost Lake. His non-profit was on a campaign to expand official wilderness designation into some important lower elevation areas and doing so by inspiring people to see that there is natural beauty in the parts of Colorado that are below the snow capped peaks. As he described our route, it seemed a little vague.

We started off straight into the forest. Peter was confidently leading a group of a dozen retirees and a six week old baby into a strenuous bushwhacking adventure. Within fifteen minutes there was grumbling. After an hour we were hopelessly lost. This was before the days of GPS.

I mean we were all fine. Some of the retirees were putting on quite stern faces but they were safe. Peter felt awful for putting them through that workout, and lead them back with his wife and baby. A few of us continued on determined to find Lost Lake. We turned westward and within a hundred yards discovered a wide trail that lead straight to the lake and straight back to the cars. That whole adventure was caused by being off the mark by 100 yards. But blazing trail with enthusiasm over planning is classic Peter.

Just as I had started feel optimism that Peter survived and started to look forward to new, possibly modified and reimagined, adventures with him, another Facebook post shot into my world about a different friend, Adam. He’s the second person in my Follow Friday inspired story.

Tuesday morning I saw a post by the Colorado Avalanche Information Center that a major slide had occurred near Silverton Colorado on Monday afternoon. It said that search crews had looked for victims caught in the slide into the dark and were resuming their search. Even though surely hundreds of people had been skiing near Silverton mountain last weekend, I Immediately I felt concerned for my friends Adam and Lachie. I knew they were in the area.

As I began to ask around to people that knew them, it appeared that it might have been their group that was involved in the avalanche. The slide had occurred near a favorite hut of Adam’s called the Opus Hut. I first met Adam at the Opus in 2013 on a trip with Peter!

Throughout the morning Tuesday as information trickled in from text messages, I learned that three people had been buried in the slide and hadn’t been found, and I also, gratefully, learned that Lachie wasn’t among them. He had been skiing with the group over the weekend but left before they went into the backcountry.

The three people buried were Adam, Andy—a local brewery owner that I know of, but don’t know personally, and another guy named Seth who is well loved by the community, but who I didn’t previously know. Throughout the day Tuesday, I, the rest of the community of Eagle, and a greater community of people that know and love these three men held out a small hope that they might be found alive by the search and rescue team in the avalanche debris.

I spent the day flashing back to that 2013 trip to the Opus Hut where I met Adam. He had immediately struck me as a fantastic person. We shared mutual friends, enjoyed backcountry skiing, and discovered a common passion for the ocean and surfing. He also was genuinely interested to get to know me and connect. I was so drawn to him that I asked if he wouldn’t mind if I joined his small group on the next day’s ski outing. He enthusiastically invited me.

The next morning of that trip, within twenty minutes I realized that I wasn’t a good fit for Adam’s group. They were too fast, and I wasn’t going to be able to keep up. Since my daughter had recently been born, maybe I was a little out of shape from young fatherhood?

I fell back and joined the other small group that included Peter and a few others. They were taking the day at a more relaxed pace. Outside, the mountains were incredible, and snow had started to accumulate. We skied for eight hours straight. Climbing, then descending, and repeating without a break for lunch. Every run the snow was better. I was so exhausted by the time I returned to the hut just before dark that both my legs were cramping with every step, but I was proud that I had put in such a huge effort.

This is me in 2013 returning to the hut exhausted after skiing all day. The slope with the trees in the background is the slope where Monday’s avalanche happened.

While we were relaxing back at the hut and the sky was darkening, Adam and his small group arrived. Adam stood by the door covered with snow and visibly stoked by how good the skiing was. He had found a low angle run behind the hut that was safe from potential avalanches with good visibility in the moonlight. He wolfed down some meat and bread with his ski gear still on and headed back out alone.

An hour later he stopped back in, asked for a shot of whiskey, and headed back out.

Thirty minutes later he stopped in again and had another shot of whiskey and headed back out. We saw him like clockwork every thirty minutes.

Adam skied from 8:30 in the morning until 1 am the next morning in deeper and deeper snow before finally calling it quits. I’ve not seen a feat of athleticism like it since. When I bring it up with Peter he says, “Yeah, Adam just has a different kind of motor in him than most people.”

Since that first hut trip, I’ve had more adventures with Adam from mountain biking, to ocean surfing, to river surfing. And in those times I learned that he had the same unstoppable motor for his friendships as for his legs. No matter when I ran into him or who he was with, he immediately made me feel like I had been invited—that it was always supposed to be a group that included all of us. And I know that most other people in our small town feel the exact same way about him.

Recently I ran into Adam somewhere. I can’t remember the setting. Maybe the grocery store, maybe the post office, maybe a mountain bike trail? These are the places you run into people in Eagle. He told me that he had just been at the Bonfire Brewery (the one owned by the avalanche victim Andy) and was reminiscing with Lachie about the time the three of us surfed the Eagle river at its record high water mark. And in that quick exchange, he made me feel special like he had brought me to the bar with him and made me a part of the conversation even when I wasn’t there.

Tuesday night, as snow continued to fall near the Opus Hut, search and rescue determined that conditions had become too dangerous for continued searching. The chance of another avalanche sliding into the search and rescue team was real, and they had to leave the area. Adam, Andy, and Seth were presumed dead, and their bodies remained under the snow.

Along with the shock of this loss, all of us that know both Peter and Adam felt a moment of dissonant, guilty, thankfulness that Peter’s tragedy had prevented him from joining the trip with Adam. He was a regular on Opus trips and certainly would have been standing next to Adam when the avalanche hit. (Peter is not the only near miss of this story, but I don’t know the other victims and near victims well enough to write about them.)

I went for a walk and noticed that friends of Adam, Andy, and Seth, were all out on walks too. Some in small groups and some alone like me. We all shared shining-eyed nods with each other, but it wasn’t time yet to talk about it.

Online, the community outpouring of support has already begun for the families: the Caring Bridge site, the donations, the tentative plans to get together by the river in honor of friends we lost too soon.

We don’t know how this will change our community yet. I don’t even know how to finish this newsletter.

These two men would be in my Follow Friday episode, and I have another dozen stories I could tell about each of them that would blow your minds. Every one more important than the hottest take you’ve ever read on Twitter. The thing I keep thinking about is how with Peter I have an opportunity to tell him how important he is to me and how happy I am he survived his fall, and with Adam, that opportunity is gone.

Peter, me, and Adam on a mountain bike ride that, since Peter was there, of course included nearly an hour of carrying our bikes through brush and ravines.

Hug your kids, and take care of each other.

—Jon Christensen