It is more than two weeks now since Chris died. I think most of us are still experiencing a fair amount of denial; I know I am. Brian Story, Leah, and I skied Warren Peak the Sunday after his memorial service, and on the summit Leah sang kaddish while we all looked toward the Bitterroot to the west. For me, skiing in the mountains will never be the same again. For a time perhaps I will face the mountains with sorrow, but over time I hope to find the sense of peace I have always had when backcountry skiing, especially in the company of good friends.
A number of people have asked me to share the words I spoke at Chris' memorial service. I'm pasting a draft below, but keep in mind that during the service I added some asides that I can't really remember. It all seems a little cloudy at this point. I hope you are all finding some solace. Best wishes, Colin
Memorial Service Transcript
My name is Colin Chisholm; I first met Chris eight or nine years ago, when our girlfriends set us up to go skiing together. He was immediately one of my favorite backcountry partners, and since then we have shared countless days out in the mountains. He was also my roommate for about eight months, which was entertaining because of his love for wild meat and my vegetarian diet. He was sworn to secrecy, but I will confess now before all present that Chris successfully corrupted me with his elk jerky, which I practically begged from him every time we were out skiing together.
This last week has been filled with sorrow. My heart goes out to Chris' mom Susie, his dad Mike, and his brother Rick, as well as to his many other family members, whom I have had the pleasure of meeting this week, although under tragic circumstances. Also to his wide circle of friends, and his workmates at St. Pats. The immensity of this loss is difficult to bear, let alone to put into words. It is an incredible honor to be speaking about Chris with you today.
Before I begin sharing my memories of Chris, I feel this time deserves a brief description of last week's events, to dispel any misinformation or rumors, and perhaps to provide a bit of peace to those of you thinking about Chris' final hours on Lolo Peak. I was one of those who searched for and located him on Friday, June 18th. We believe he died on Monday, June 14th, while skiing the Lantern Lake Couloir, which drops northwest off the summit of Lolo Peak's north summit. He had skied the couloir numerous times before, once with me, and it was not a particularly challenging line for him, in relation to many other things he had skied over the years. Chris was likely caught in a medium-sized but fast-moving wet avalanche that carried him about 800 feet into rocks. He was not buried, and died instantly of a head injury. It gives me a great deal of peace to know he did not suffer. Based on what he was wearing, it is safe to say he was having a sun-filled and relaxed day in a place that he loved. He was in his element.
There is so much to say about Chris, and only so much time. Chris was a beautifully complex human being. A few days ago an acquaintance of Chris' said to me, "He just seemed so peaceful all the time; I wish I could be that peaceful." And I thought, well, yes… and no. Chris was sometimes serene; and he sometimes struggled mightily. I could stand up here and speak only of his serenity, but that wouldn't be the Chris I knew and loved. Or I could speak of our adventures in the mountains, and of his extraordinary strength and talent as a ski mountaineer and athlete, but that would also be only part of Chris' story.
For me, what made Chris such a compelling and rare person was the deep and intense approach he took to life. Chris' journeys took him far and wide in the natural world, but his inner and spiritual journey is what always struck me as remarkably courageous. A few years ago I gave Chris a book by the Swiss psychiatrist and philosopher Carl Jung, and Chris immediately became fascinated by Jung's belief that the human psyche is "by nature religious" and that to be fully realized as a human being one must explore the psyche and the soul in depth, including its darker places. This related to many other things Chris was exploring, as he tore through the entire collection of the German writer Herman Hesse, and much of the works of the philosopher Joseph Campbell, whose writing about the Hero's Journey is familiar to many of us. As much as Chris and I loved discussing these topics, there isn't time for that today, and the challenge is making sense of it all in relation to Chris' life and death.
I believe that Chris was on a hero's journey. This journey took him outward into the world, and into the mountains where he often risked life and limb to put himself closer to the edges of existence, and to peer into the void. We spoke of this many times out in the backcountry, how risk made clear how imperative it is to live every moment as if it might be your last. Chris understood well how easily the thread is broken between this world and the next. I don't think it was easy for him to live in our civilized world. He felt depressed by our consumer culture and by its sometimes crushing superficiality. Nature was his refuge. Like the ancient Buddhist monks of Tibet, Chris found in mountains a doorway to eternity.
On the last day we skied together, two days before he was killed on Lolo Peak, Chris got in my car at five in the morning and immediately began speaking of a book he had been reading, called the "Autobiography of a Yogi," about an Indian spiritual guru named Yogananda. Let me be clear: this was not a dialogue. Chris had something he needed to share, and by God he was going to share it. Although at the time I was only half awake and slightly irritated by his almost wild energy, in hindsight I wish I had been paying closer attention. He was speaking about God and the collective consciousness, and about the illusion of experiencing life as separate from death. A passage from the book (highlighted by Chris) reads as follows: " When desirelessness is attained through wisdom, its power disintegrates the vessels of the body. The tiny human soul emerges, free at last; it is one with the Measureless Amplitude."
I am not a superstitious person, nor am I particularly religious. But in the days since Chris' death, I have not been able to suppress the idea that Chris was, in some very real but perhaps unconscious way, preparing for the ultimate journey.
I have been trying to listen a lot this last week to stories about Chris, and to people trying to make sense of what Chris meant to them. Some of the common themes have been his natural kindness, the sparkle and mirthfulness in his eyes, and the way he made us all feel loved by him, even if you were a perfect stranger. I think these are all true, but I think there is a deeper truth as well. All of us, every one of us here today, has struggled and will know pain as long as we shall live. Often our pain is private, and we suffer it in silence. Chris had his share of suffering: I know this, because he talked to me often about it. But I think one reason we all felt so drawn to Chris, is because his courage and willingness to explore his own suffering and to wrestle with his shadows, provided him a degree of empathy that few people achieve. Whenever I came to Chris' house, he always made the effort to stand up, to look me deeply in the eyes, and to hug me with his great bear hug. I am sure that many of you felt the warmth of this embrace, and long to feel it again.
Yet Chris was a very quiet and private person, who needed a lot of time alone. He seemed to understand the difference between loneliness and solitude. He rarely seemed lonely, though he spent a great deal of time alone, during his night shift at St. Pats, at home with Bitsy and the chickens, running for insane periods of time around Missoula's hills and valleys, solo motorcycle trips, and long days alone in the mountains. Solitude in nature was especially potent for him. I felt that our friendship was always solid, but it required on my part an understanding that Chris' free-spiritedness would not allow too much intimacy for very long. Chris was not the kind of friend to call me every day or even once a week or once a month. Perhaps some of you can relate to leaving endless messages in Chris' voicemail, because he almost never answered his phone, except if he was excited for some adventure. I never took it personally; this was Chris: mercurial, passionate, whimsical, restless, and sometimes darkly intense. There were days out on the trail when he wouldn't stop talking, and days when he barely spoke a word. Either way, there was never a bad day in the mountains with Chris.
There is no easy way to say goodbye. But it does help me to think about what Chris might wish for me, and for all of us. What words of advice would he offer? I think he might say something like this: May you go out into the world and live as if every breath were you last. Throw away your television, abandon your cell phone, leave the poor dandelions alone. Ride you bike, walk, run. Raise chickens, grow your own food, live close to the earth. Take time to be alone; find peace in solitude, so that your soul might rise above your earthly worries and be free. Love each other, even if imperfectly. Laugh, dance, be ridiculous and silly. Read books, lots of them, by really smart people. Listen to rock and roll. Lie in a meadow and do nothing for a long time. Take a nap on a mountain. Ask the questions that have no answers. Face the parts of yourself that scare you, and touch the void of your innermost self: you will not be burned, you will not come unraveled, you will survive. Follow your bliss; be true to yourself. Know that I loved you, and felt your love for me. Celebrate me by living your life with abandon, kindness, grace. Walk quietly through the woods, until you see the elk whose breath rises in the morning light. Feel me in those sacred places where I have walked. I am not so far away.
Goodbye, my friend, Spurge. I will always remember you. Thank you so much for sharing your life with me.