Avalanches Teach Well. Nature Is The Ultimate Teacher. 

George from the New York Times is “saddened to learn of … a near record of avalanche deaths, nearly all in closed areas… I spent countless days on the slopes and never once did I ever think it wise to risk my life on un-groomed or out of bounds areas. I appreciate the thrill of skiing on virgin snow, away from others, but at what price? These senseless deaths and the risk of life of those tasked in recovery is too much a price to pay. Substantial fines should be levied for those daredevils, lifelong suspensions and cost of rescue should be billed.”

I replied this:

@george You propose “substantial fines” for “daredevils” who… dare to go out in nature? “Senseless deaths“? When does death make sense? Worldwide, the number of deaths by avalanches of the “daredevils” who dare to go in nature during winter is less than 150 a year…. while traffic accidents on roads kill 1.35 million a year. Everyday, 3,700 people are killed in collisions on roads.

I doubt that all these road trips “made sense”. One thing I am sure of, is that many things do not make sense nowadays, precisely because people have lost touch with nature, its beauty, its perils, the intelligence it requires, and the sense it provides. We need leaders who remember nature, because nature still rules. 

Another point is that condemning people to only go to resort for the wealthy is in poor taste, and feeds the engine of inequality. Traditional ski resorts are immensely expensive, both to those who go there, and to the planetary environment. One could actually wonder why they are not submitted to hefty carbon taxes. They are churches of environmental destruction where the faithful gather among the fuel, noise and machinery. Is that what we want to teach and encourage? Bring crowds, machines, pollution to pristine nature, and fine those who get out?

Avalanche in Sion vallee, Suisse: the Rhone flows through it. Sometimes avalanches, even in Switzerland, have been known to flatten entire forests. In the 17C, French peasants in the Vars area sued to Royal government for having cut giant meleze trees (larches) for building forts, exposing thereafter their villages to avalanches. The trunks of such immense trees can still be seen at the Montdauphin fort, and are much larger than any in existence today… A testimony to the ravages of man upon nature…

Cost of rescue is another matter. Generally European “daredevils” all have insurance both for health and rescue. The former comes from universal health insurance in Europe, the latter is readily available and covers dozens of millions of people there, because it is very cheap. 

Nature is dangerous. Danger is how nature teaches best. Life is a deadly disease, after all, but it’s also a mistake to focus on that. I was caught once in a giant rock avalanche above an unfathomable icy abyss. My survival, and that of my partner, was so miraculous that, would someone tell me such a story in its gory details, I would not believe it. Never. It is actually a most unlikely story of survival. To this day, although I was there, saving my life by playing superhero with inhuman powers, I cannot believe what happened. I know what happened, I can describe it, in detail, but still it was such a miracle that I understand why miracles make people believe in divinities.  

My two closest friends, and other friends, not as close, died in avalanches. In the Alps, in Himalaya. All of them, before they had children. Untimely death goes with mountaineering. I miss them, but since we will all die anyway, we may as well do it learning tough lessons. Because we can teach them, to all of humanity.

One lesson avalanches teach? It is not because it looks extremely unlikely, that it will not happen, and then, worse than imaginable. 

Other activities in nature can teach similar lessons. For example I swam many times at a place called Black Rock in the Hawaiian island of Maui, a towering cliff of black lava, overhanging, twenty meters above the water, twenty meters below, 400 meters long. I would swim in the shadow (the cliff is north facing), on the theory that I would see sharks if there were some, and they would not see me, if they were in the lighted part, out at sea. I got to befriend a giant green sea turtle, the largest I have ever seen, who would come visit me at the tip of the cape. Nobody was swimming that north facing cliff. But the south side, next to a honey sand beach, with short rocks, was very crowded, including swimmers who would jump  in. The north side was, is, super wild, with magnificent corals… I was super foolhardy to swim there without the full armament suite I used in Africa: harpoon and extra long, sharp combat knife for fighting off sea creatures… But, besides sea turtles, I saw no sharks. However I noticed the paucity of large fishes, which told me that there were sharks around. Later there were two lethal attacks, including one on the safe side of the rock, where the crowds were. A large, experienced 60 year old man was attacked and bled to death, in spite of immediate rescue from life guards. The shark, of unknown species, was not caught.  

Still, should one avoid the sea? No, but, should I go back to Hawai’i, it would be wise to go dive, fully armed. Some will sneer that I exaggerate… But I am familiar with long swims in the ocean. I have seen white sharks in the water twice, and one was the biggest white shark I have seen (including in videos). When one sees documentaries with plenty of sharks swimming around innocently, those sharks are not behaving like the sharks I have known in the seas; they probably bumped into cameras, or cages, or were otherwise trained… Another pitfall is the artificially low number of fatalities reported from shark attacks; the danger on a solitary diver is much greater than for a group; in underdeveloped regions, many deaths go unreported, or people are smart enough to not go swimming… 

Ah, lightning… Lightning kills a lot in nature. I am familiar with it as a mountain runner: I prefer to run with clouds, to avoid thirst and heat stroke, and mountain clouds have the tendency to turn into spectacular storms, which provide the natural caffeine of . The closest I have seen lightning was as a child, three meters away… I got caught by super intense lightning storms four times while climbing.

From all this, I learned how precious life was, and how close to disaster one can be. Not just for oneself, but for others… Some claim to be “Stoics”… The “Stoa” was a pillar in Greece, and some guy talked from the bottom of it. Ever since so-called “Stoics” have taught each other, the two most famous being those old crooks, yet excellent writers, Seneca, who led the Roman empire for five years (when his student nero was not paying attention yet), and Marcus Aurelius (who ruled the empire 20 years).  Marcus harassed to death a small number of christians, for no good reason, Seneca was well known for his astronomical corruption (while teaching that riches impoverished). Seneca himself, and that is not commented on usually, admitted in his letters that, in his times already, “there are no more philosophers”. Why? Because Romans had learned to only listen to their master’s voice. Romans were not listening to nature anymore. If one wants to be genuinely stoic, one has to learn to listen to the snow in the woods, because yes the snow talks, while contemplating the fresh mountain lion tracks one is following to ease one’s way (yes, another of my pastimes; I got mountain lions warnings more than once; the first time I heard the sound I had no idea what it was). 

Nature is the teacher. That’s where history, logic, science and the imagination come from. Nature is truth. We need nature raw, untamed, free to express itself.

Patrice Ayme


P/S: And we need philosophy schools learning from nature to have the largest following, rather than herds praying to a nailed scarecrow, a caravan raider, a guy below a pillar (stoa), a replete prince watching his navel, or a docile submissive anxious to please masters (Xi’s idol, Confucius)… Actually none of these is as much of a problem as Putin or Xi, the worsts popes today. President Biden, observed that he had spent longer with Xi than any other US citizen. In a refined analysis, Biden said that, just as Putin, Xi is persuaded only autocracy, by opposition to democracy, can resolve the complex problems of today’s world. This is of course absurd. But, as Biden pointed out this leads to, once more, a conflict between oligarchy and democracy. If Xi and Putin had learned from nature, they would know that they are inviting disaster: if anything, the law of averages always win, and having two gigantic countries led by just two men, that’s completely out of average behavior…

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