When returning to a place marked with death stirs appreciation for the living.
“My emotional strength finally broke after witnessing a loved one transition to a shell of something that once lived.”
They asked me to cross the lake, but I’m not sure they knew what that meant for me. The place felt a bit forsaken now, though at one point the expanse held a magical mysticism where every jaunt ended in joy.
A couple years had passed since I’d been back to the lake in winter, having lost a close friend to an avalanche in 2012, then my boyfriend, Nick Gillespie, in 2013. Both incidents happened in the northern part of Grand Teton National Park across Jackson Lake, and the thought of returning felt like spending the night in a graveyard.
“I don’t know how I’ll be,” I said.
My friends reassured me that they were prepared for whatever the journey would hold.
Over the years other people who didn’t know me closely reassured me, saying things like, “You’re tough. You’ll get over this and get back there again.”
I never knew what to say to that. If I willed myself to be any tougher, I’d be a dried out piece of beef jerky on the dashboard, and I don’t think anyone would find my presence desirable.
After the loss of my boyfriend, the initial outpouring of friends and support dissipated because I wasn’t on the fun train. However, a couple stragglers believed I had some morsel of life left in me and kept me going, thus came their invitation to venture across the lake again in ideal conditions and while there was a stable snowpack.
Stable snow and conservative lines also existed last time I crossed the lake, and someone died. But the experts told me the past was a freak accident, wrong place wrong time sort of deal. The notion only fueled my fear.
Still, I told myself all the reasons that I should probably go. Ignoring fear doesn’t make it go away. And at one point long ago, I loved the exploration available through splitboarding, and the prospect of deciding where and how I could get from point A to point B. Part of me hoped that a slice of that free roaming ethos was still in me, though the fear of failure—in all regards—pervaded my mind.
But you see, failing did not exist in a mission-oriented excursion. Getting to a predetermined destination, labeled by others to be a summit based on a measurement taken in the early 1900s, never meant anything to me. Failing, to me, means rifling through little blue Rubbermaid storage containers with loved ones, breaking passwords on computers to make a slideshow, and figuring out where car keys are hidden. I’ve gone through the process half a dozen times throughout my adulthood. And my emotional strength finally broke after witnessing an exuberant human and loved one transition to a shell of something that once lived.
For a while I likened my existence to that of a tree who experienced a catastrophic event. I wore an open wound for all to see. Through the eyes of a most perceptive and patient observer, the bark slowly grew, each ring making the wound appear a little bit smaller. Years later, to the naked eye, the wound appeared fixed, gone, unperceivable. But for the lifespan of that tree the scar exists under its wooden casing, the same size and dimensions of when it occurred.
Some people might wonder why I’d ever want to cross that lake again. My parents would certainly be happy if I hung up my ropes and boards and instead cross-country skied around the flatlands for the rest of my life. Now please don’t be mistaken—by no means am I an aspiring alpinist of the great peaks of the world. I’m just someone that finds joy in experiencing the different tastes of human existence in the mountains, regardless of the season.
The mountains perpetually hold some level of risk whenever and however one ventures into them. For me, being present with others in these stoic peaks offers more reward than any monetary item. The bonds that I’ve created with my mountain partners in one long day would take decades to create at a coffee shop or a bar. While my lifestyle tends to be a little reclusive by some people’s standards, the friends I’ve made in the mountains know that I enjoy brief periods of socialization, at least at high altitude.
I decided to cross the lake after two years of avoiding it. Side-by-side, with a couple of close friends, I skied across the frigid abyss and skinned up a ridge to soak in the glory of the sun. But returning to this place, I was reminded that the greatness we experience in the mountains can swiftly bring an insurmountable cloud of grief at any moment. My vision quickly blurred with emotion and as tears streamed down my face, the group decided it was time to go home.
A quick ski down the ridge and after some swigs of hot tea and nibbles of pound cake, we found our way back across that long flat expanse of frozen.
For the first time in my lake crossing recollection, a northwest wind blew. We positioned our jackets vertically and used them, quite successfully, to sail back to the comfort of our vehicles.
There’s no fix to a landslide of grief, but death is one permanent thing that allows for deep, unyielding growth for the living. My situation is not unique to the human story. Death is inevitable and as life progresses many people will be crippled by its stranglehold. Some choose to live in fear, others push it into the recesses of their mind, and some decide that it’s time to look at it. There exists no right or wrong in this process.
People used to tell me that I needed to live on, carrying the memory of a love lost, and maybe that memory was all that I had going for me at the time.
While gliding back across the lake, I felt grateful for the two people that were by my side and I made a little note in the recesses of my mind to appreciate those moments of gratitude for life, for the now.
Elizabeth Koutrelakos passes time working on the trail crew in Grand Teton National Park, gathering snacks and existing in the mountains.