What’s the difference between fiction and nonfiction? According to author Stephen King, fiction has to make sense. Trying to make sense of events that occur in real life, particularly where tragedy is involved, can be a conundrum.
Two presenters at this year’s Vancouver International Mountain Film Festival (February 7 to 15) tackle that puzzle head-on. Outdoors educator and backcountry guide Susan Oakey-Baker and local explorer Martyn Williams (the first person to lead expeditions to all three earthly extremes: Mount Everest and the North and South poles) each have their own take on how to resolve the unsettling lesson that when you’re living life close to the edge, the smallest twitch of bad luck can kill you.
As author and adventurer extraordinaire Jon Turk outlined during a live presentation at a previous VIMFF, you never know where the edge is until you step over it—and then it’s too late to step back. “If you reduce your risk to zero, you’ll never leave home,” he said, with the cautionary caveat that if allowance is not made for random chaos or bad luck, sooner or later death comes calling.
That fate befell Oakey-Baker’s husband, mountaineer Jim Haberl, who was caught in a slow-moving slab avalanche while climbing in Alaska in 1999. As detailed in her 2013 memoir, Finding Jim (Rocky Mountain Books), it took her a decade to come to terms with his demise. In conversation with the Georgia Straight at her Whistler home, Oakey-Baker said she doubts she’s ever accepted the loss.
“Even though I still grieve, I’ve got a great life now with my husband, Joe, and our son, Sam. For me, the key is committing to the present on a daily basis. That’s the theme of my festival appearance, where I don’t so much tell my story as present themes accompanied by slides to show how wilderness survival overlaps with emotional survival. At times when Jim and I adventured together, I was out of my comfort zone. That scared me but also made me more aware of my vulnerability. It bonded us. Outdoors survival skills help a person maintain in healthy daily life by showing us how vulnerable we are. That’s what I learned from Jim.”
Wisdom often comes with a painful price tag. Was the enlightenment worth it? “Of course I question that at times,” she admitted, “but then I look at my son, who we took on a wilderness camping trip last fall. He told us, ‘I love this world. This is the best hike ever. It’s freedom because there are no signs!’
“Such is the wisdom of a seven-year-old. Anything that helps us live with an open heart does this. Outdoors adventure encourages hard and soft skills that we learn together, person-to-person, on an observational basis. Kids learn about themselves and their vulnerabilities and how to come to terms with their imperfections and what to do when they aren’t strong.”
Oakey-Baker singled out child-advocacy expert Richard Louv’s 2008 book Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder (Algonquin) as having had a profound effect on her approach to early childhood education. “His depiction of nature-deficit disorder resonated with me. Kids in elementary school are so strong and such sponges. We’ve lost touch with risk assessment as to what risk is worth. We’re happy to roar down the highway at high speed, but rock-climbing looks extreme.
“Building a connection with the land as well as between themselves and others is really important for kids, which is why I’m modelling a K-to-7 outdoors program for local francophone schools in the [Sea to Sky] corridor based on the Wildsight educational program in the Kootenays. The number one request from teachers is to get kids outdoors. It will be mostly science-based, integrated with art and exploration, deducing from observation, and exploring different ways things are done in nature.”
In conversation by phone from his Vancouver home, Williams laughed when asked if, after journeying to Everest, he had come down from the mountain knowing the meaning of life.
“Life is this totally joyful, blissful experience to be lived to the fullest,” he said. “In over 30 years of adventuring, either guiding in the mountains with people of Jim Haberl’s calibre—a really sweet guy whose climbing partner Dan Culver was with me on Everest in 1991 before the two of them became the first Canadians to summit K2—or on the Pole to Pole 2000 expedition I organized with a team of young people from around the world to spread the gospel of helping humanity, the Sherpas and Inuit are some of the happiest people I’ve met. They live in the toughest parts of the world and are more surrendered than anyone to living life as it is and the constant challenges they face with blissful acceptance.”
When queried as to how Oakey-Baker and Williams’s live presentations might dovetail with this year’s selection of films, festival director Alan Formanek told the Straight by phone that mountains are metaphors for spiritual journeys. “Our ‘Everest to Enlightenment’ evening [February 10] with Sue and Martyn is as much about the quest for enlightenment as it is about the adventure itself.”
He might have added that you can’t make this stuff up, either.