Friday, October 24, 2014
Book Review: Buried by Ken Wylie
2003 was such a horrific year for avalanches that it changed the face of backcountry skiing in Canada forever. 29 people would die in avalanches that year. Arguably the most infamous in the long list of tragedies was the Connaught Creek slide in Rogers Pass which hit three teachers and 14 grade 10 students. Seven fifteen year old students died in that avalanche, an event that galled the nation. But that wasn't the only major slide incident that year. Just weeks before the Connaught Creek slide, 13 skiers including guide Ken Wylie were hit by a slide while skiing with Selkirk Mountain Experience. Once again there were seven dead at the end of the day. Fourteen people dead in only two incidents. Jesus.
Out of these incidents, the Canadian Avalanche Centre - now Avalanche Canada, was born. If you had to find some good to come out of these events, it would be that it woke us up to the need to get our shit together. To figure out training, better assess danger, to communicate with each other.
Ken Wylie was an assistant ski guide working for Selkirk Mountain Experience at the time of the slide. Buried for over 30 minutes, a guide who led his clients to their deaths. When I heard that he had written a book about the event I expected something like Krakauer's Into Thin Air. I expected something slickly written, a clinical assessment of what happened that day, maybe a bit of back story on the cast of characters so you feel badly when they die. I expected the book equivalent of a movie 'based on a true story'. I expected some finger pointing, some technical reasons why Ken wasn't responsible for what happened.
That isn't what this book is.
Buried isn't a clinical assessment of what happened. In fact, the avalanche itself is only a small component of the book. The book breaks down into two halves. The first half deals with the slide and its aftermath, and not just the immediate aftermath but several years worth of dealing with the psychological trauma.
The book isn't slickly written. It isn't badly written, but it's awkward in places, uncomfortable. There isn't a hero, Ken is savage in his self assessments. You aren't watching a movie, you're living his life. The periodic stumbles and awkward, uncomfortable passages make it impossible to feel like an impartial observer. Ken's humanity, his flaws, his pain is inescapable.
Ken made mistakes, people died. He then made more mistakes. At times it felt as if this brutal self assessment, the agony of living with these mistakes led to a sense of despair. It felt like Ken was desperately searching for some good to come from his life - not to his life, but from. He wanted to feel as if he'd contributed something, but he'd fucked shit up so badly in his life that maybe the best thing he could do would just be a warning to others through this book. 'Look what happens when you fuck shit up like I did; don't be me.' It's brutal and it affected me deeply.
The second half of the book takes an altogether different tone. Ken looks back on his life and sees that he's made all of these mistakes - repeatedly, lived through so many experiences that should have been formative, but he failed to learn lessons at the time; so he re-examines these past experiences, past mistakes and tries to learn those lessons. What should he have learned, how can he take these experiences and use them to move forward, to grow as a person, to figure out how to live life.
The book takes you from a place rooted in despair and looks to build something positive out of a godamned mess. So many of us have felt incredibly lost and as though we've backed ourselves into a corner that it's hard to imagine escape from, and that resonates clearly here. It's incredibly powerful. Ken went through an experience that I pray is significantly worse than anything I ever have to deal with. Ken made the same mistakes over, and over again, just like I do. But Ken also seemed to figure a way out of his hole or at very least he found the strength and courage to try and I cannot overstate my respect for that.
Buried was not an easy book to read. By the end of the first half I found myself emotionally incredibly raw, I didn't want to keep reading but I also couldn't put the book down. I was watching a car wreck, but it felt like my car wreck. The second half of the book you get a bit more distance from Ken, which to be honest, is a relief. But you also get hope, inspiration to look at your own past mistakes in the same unflinching manner and learn those lessons you didn't learn at the time. If Ken can do it, after being through so much, fuck, maybe so can I.
You can get Ken Wylie's Buried from the Alpine Club of Canada.