Learning From A Deadly Avalanche: 3 Life Lessons For Everyone


In 2003, Ken Wylie was an assistant ski guide who, despite thinking it was a bad idea, helped lead a group of clients onto a backcountry slope where an avalanche swept over them, killing seven of them, and burying Wylie for 30 minutes.

After the avalanche, in 2003, Wylie struggled to rebuild his life, destroying his marriage and battling to live up to career expectations. His new book Buried narrates his downward spiral, brutally exposing Wylie’s most negative traits and exploring the myriad human factors that led to the moment of the avalanche. But the sparkling beauty of the book is that from every black moment of insecurity, deception or denial, a gem of wisdom is mined and handed to the reader—whether or not you’re a skier or mountaineer. Here are a few.

Speak your heart. Throughout the book, Wylie wrestles with the need to please others and have them think well of him, as most of us do. Thankfully for most of us, the consequences of not speaking up aren’t life-and-death situations. But every job, every relationship, and certainly every time we venture out into the mountains, requires us to stay attune to what we know is right.

Wylie explains that, with all the technology and distractions available to us, it’s easy to try to look outward for answers—hoping to avoid actually making a decision ourselves. “While carefully processed experience may be an aid to developing good intuition, it is not the only important variable,” he writes. “We must also listen to our inner guidance system, and have the courage to act on it.”

Remember your purpose. In one striking scene, Wylie and a friend link up three spectacular big ice routes outside Calgary in a single push. The experience is beautiful and satisfying for him until he finds out someone soloed the trio of routes shortly afterward—and it crushes him. He had thoroughly enjoyed the climbing while he was doing it, but his ego took over afterward and he found himself imprisoned by his need for others’ approval, to impress. “I forgot the beauty of following my own voice: the real practice of climbing and skiing in powerful places—that self-discovery was all about finding out that the real self lives in the heart, not in the head.”

If you can’t see your faults, you can’t forgive yourself for them. Again and again throughout the book, Wylie exposes his faults and follies—from throwing a temper tantrum on El Cap because he’s afraid to admit he was too tired to lead and too afraid to fall, to getting involved with a married woman because she showers him with affection when he is weak for approval. Looking back on past mistakes, it’s always easy to see ourselves as the victim, or to let the mistakes haunt us, owning our failures and dragging them with us through life like a ball and chain. Through his brutal self-examination, Wylie comes to accept responsibility for his actions—and begins to address his issues that led them to make mistakes in the first place. And only by doing that does he find the freedom he seeks.

Wylie likens life to snowfall in the mountains. Sometimes—rarely—the perfect conditions come together to make safe layers of snow, very fun to ski and quite safe from avalanche danger. But more often, outside forces like wind, sun and rain combine to make unstable layers in the snowpack. “Some instabilities ‘heal’ with time, others do not, and need our constant attention, awareness and care, which requires vigilance and humility on our parts. If we neglect to pay attention to, manage, and learn about these persistent layers, and expose ourselves to the hazardous terrain they create, we can be caught in a devastating avalanche with huge destructive power.”

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