I started thinking about it on a beautiful March day in Telluride. I was skiing solo and boarded my first chair of the day with two really nice older men from Vail. We introduced ourselves, chatted and said goodbye, only to find ourselves in line together at the next chair lift. Soon, it became clear that we were going the same direction. It also became clear that we wanted to ski the same terrain — challenging, steep terrain — and that I would be better off skiing with them, than skiing alone. They became my “buddies.”
I don’t mind skiing alone. There are times when I really like the solitude and the quiet. Riding the chairlift alone allows me time to notice the fall of fresh snow on trees, to hear the call of birds and to take in the overwhelming blue of a clear Colorado ski. Skiing alone means I never have to stop and I can take whatever run I want to — except that I won’t ski trees or chutes by myself. Why? Because the stakes are too high. Drop into a tree well, fall off the beaten path and if you’ve got a friend, you’ve got assistance. If you’re alone, well, you’re all you’ve got. And in my case, that’s not very comforting.
Grade School Rules
We learn the buddy system as kids, usually on our first school field trip. You remember, right? You either chose a buddy, or if you’ve got a savvy teacher, you’re assigned a buddy. You and your buddy sit together on the bus, you hold hands as you walk along, and at the end of the day, when the teacher asks if anyone is missing, you sure as heck better raise your hand if your buddy isn’t beside you.
As you get older, and better able to keep track of yourself, the buddy system changes. It’s less about getting back onto the bus, than staying safe: don’t climb alone, don’t ski alone, let someone know where you’re going. We all know these rules.
An Arm or A Buddy?
In June, my husband met Aron Ralston at a conference. Ralston spoke about the 127 hours he spent alone in the Utah desert before he freed himself from death by cutting off his own arm. When my husband joined me (at the pool) after Ralston’s talk, he was a bit pale and shaken. I made him relive the event, demanding a sanitized blow-by-blow of Ralston’s talk. I came away with two conclusions: (1) if you’ve got to cut off your arm, it’s best to be a trained engineer like Aron and (2) if he’d used the buddy system, he still might not have been able to free his arm, but EMT’s could have given him an almighty dose of morphine and used a sharp scalpel. By the way, Ralston has learned. He continues to adventure solo, but he always lets a buddy know where he’s going and when he’ll be back.
Buddies for Life
Over the past few weeks, I’ve spent even more time thinking about buddies and their importance. And not just buddies, but friends, connections, the people we’ve known in the past and perhaps lost contact with, even family we don’t see very often.
You see, on July 3rd, a close friend of ours, someone I’ve known since we were children, took his own life. He was one of my favorite ski buddies. Endlessly enthusiastic, ripping high-velocity tele turns through any terrain, and with an infectious smile and contagious laugh, he brightened and enhanced our days on snow. He was a talented cyclist, with God-given speed, drive and stamina, and a loving husband and father to two beautiful girls. Brilliant, vigorous, admired and well-loved, we couldn’t understand what had happened.
To reach some level of comfort and understanding, I turned to my phone. My girlfriends and I talked about him, reminisced and cried together — as you might expect girlfriends to do. My husband surprised me. He took to the telephone as well, only in his case, his response his friend’s death was extraordinarily meaningful. For in addition to calling his friends who were mourning, he called his brother with whom he hadn’t talked much in a few months, his out-of-town friends whom he’d been meaning to contact but hadn’t, and others near and far with whom he’d lost touch.
100s of Buddies
My husband didn’t always tell his friends why he was calling. He just let his buddies know he was thinking of them and then he told them something profound. “You know, you’re important to me. I don’t always stay in contact, but I want you to know that you’re important to me and to a lot of other people,” he told them. “And if you’re ever feeling like you need help, like you need to talk to someone, just remember, there are at least 100 people who love and care about you. I’m one of them. I’m here for you and I hope you’ll be one of my 100, too.”
A very good buddy, he was offering to watch his friends’ backs, to ride the chairlift together and ski the trees. He was letting them know that no matter what happens or how much time goes by, he’ll make sure they get back on the bus after the field trip.
I’m fortunate that he’s one of my 100. Fortunate, and in this case, mighty impressed with his version of the Buddy System.
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