Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Before it gets dark

I learned about Rob's death the way many of us learn about tragic events involving friends and acquaintances these days — on Facebook, a day before any concrete information was out there. From the timing and a few vague statements, I could only discern that the likely cause was an accident during the Alaska Wilderness Classic, an unsupported adventure race through the Wrangell Mountains. The news had a somber impact on the early part of this week. I did not know Rob well, but he was someone who was kind to me when I was scared and vulnerable, and left a lasting impression.

Rob was a perennial volunteer for the Iditarod Trail Invitational, and always manned the checkpoint in Rohn — a remote, spartan outpost on the far side of the Alaska Range. We first met in 2008 when I stumbled into his lovingly outfitted wall tent after spending nearly thirty hours making my way over Rainy Pass. I was physically shattered, emotionally spent, frightened by my night out at thirty below, and had a wet boot and frozen drivetrain after accidentally dropping my bike in Pass Creek. And yet I was in the middle of this race so I felt obligated to either quit or keep going. "Just sleep for a while," Rob encouraged me. "It's okay to sleep."

We met again in February of this year after a tough slog through the slush, mud, glare ice, and puddles of a freakishly warm Dalzell Gorge. Rob greeted me with his characteristic big bear hug and an offer of bratwurst that he was warming on a tiny camp grill. Although it had been six years, he remembered a lot about our first encounter and teased me about leaving my bike at home. "Last time you told me you always felt sorry for cyclists and their anchors," I reminded him.

"Yeah, you certainly picked the right anchor this year," he said, jokingly referring to my sled and the fifty-odd miles of bare ground beyond Rohn.

After too few hours of rest, I was waiting for Beat to finish packing up and chatted with Rob about the upcoming winter version of the Alaska Wilderness Classic, which he planned to start a few weeks later.

"The Ski Classic is something I would love to try someday, if I ever actually learn how to ski," I said, and then continued to ramble about how I could never aspire to the bushwhacking-and-packrafts summer version of the Wilderness Classic because of a paralyzing phobia of moving water.

Rob told me that he, too, felt nervous on the water. "But that's what we do, isn't it? Go beyond where we feel comfortable."

Rob was the type of experienced outdoorsman and endurance athlete who knew how to achieve the edifying balance between comfort zones and reckless risks. He turned back from the Ski Classic this past March after his partner came down with stomach flu. During last week's summer Wilderness Classic, he and his partner hacked through the brush several miles out of their way to avoid a section of Class IV whitewater before preparing to launch their packrafts on the Tana River. Shortly after Rob put in, his boat disappeared into a swirling eddy. He never emerged. A search party located his body 2.5 miles downstream.

When things like this happen to people we know, people who lead lifestyles that we admire or aspire toward, it's human nature to look for the reason. What mistakes were made? How could this be avoided? We cling to illusions of control, whether it's asserting confidence in our own skills or assuring ourselves we'd never do something so dangerous as we sit complacently in a thin metal box hurtling down a freeway at 80 mph. Life is fatal and only we, as individuals, alone, can determine its value. I feel saddened by Rob's death but comforted by the notion that his life was filled with moments that were meaningful to him, and actions that had a meaningful effect on people who knew him, and people who loved him. Ultimately, regardless of how we go, that's all that remains.

John Muir said, "The world is big and I want to have a good look at it before it gets dark."

Rest in peace, Rob in Rohn.