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April 29, 2014

The Illusion of Control. ~ Erin Walton

Ruth Glacier

My husband and I were headed on yet another Alaskan adventure. If I am honest, I felt hesitation regarding this trip for several months.

In retrospect, I should have heeded my anxiety-ridden dreams of earthquakes, elevators and avalanches. But like many women eager to experience something sweet with their significant others, I kept my premonitions to myself.

Surely my anxiety was simply a natural part of preparing for a big adventure.

We would be spending a full week on the Ruth Glacier, in a hut, isolated from the familiarities of modern life: cell phones, computers, grocery stores, hospitals, toilettes and showers.

To abate my anxious spirit, my husband promised me that our trip would be grand.

The serenity and magnificence of the Alaskan range would speak to my sensitive soul, despite my hesitations. And because my husband has never yet lead me astray, I believed him. Clutching to his promised words like a frightened child to her blanket, I naively believed that the trip would be perfect, void of any obstacles.

With bags packed to the brim, weighing nearly 250 pounds altogether, we stepped onto the Bush plane. Having never stepped foot on such a small, unsteady plane, I felt my anxiety rise. My thoughts raced erratically to every possible scenario for destruction:

What if the plane crashed?

Or what if we ran into horrible weather and the pilot lost control of the plane?

Were we destined to be like those from the show Lost, forever stranded in purgatory?

I could only hope so.

45 minutes later, my hands still tightly clutched to my warm water bottle, I opened my eyes to the pilot’s soft landing. We had arrived safely atop the Ruth Glacier. Slowly stepping outside the plane, I saw only blankets of white and mountains, more enormous and majestic than those in any Disney movie. The air was cold, biting our cheeks, yet the sun felt brilliant. I remember thinking that perhaps my fears were irrational.

In this place of immense beauty, surely we would celebrate: life, nature and a God so graceful that only he could create such a sanctuary.

And so, for the next few days, I set my fears aside. Knowing that I craved safety and structure, I created new routines to claim my own. Each morning, I awoke early with the sunrise, wrote in a journal of my latest insights and allowed my steaming hot cowboy coffee to warm me.

With optimism and a courageous willingness to accept the gifts of this magical place, my husband, Phil, and I spent our days cross country skinning and skiing any powder that caught our eye. The Ruth Glacier was our private playground and we celebrated.

On our third day, we felt particularly bold.

There was a beautiful line across the glacier and we were hungry for better powder and sweeter turns. On this particular morning, I felt a sense of uneasiness. While my anxiety was slowly dissipating, I could not rid myself of this feeling.

Although beautiful and striking, these mountains were ominous. They held stories of climbers and skiers, adventuresome souls of all kinds, who had tried to conquer them. Some had triumphed and others had died, and these mountains held their stories. And try as I may to ignore my awareness of mortality, I could not.

Perhaps it is because I am highly sensitive, a little irrational and anxious. Years ago, I had experienced and survived a horrific car accident that could have killed me. I had danced with death and knew the unforgiving way in which nature could greet us.

Ultimately we were not in control.

Despite my enjoyment of the skiing and the complete isolation from civilization, I was not yet convinced that these mountains were forgiving.

After two hours of skinning, safely roped together with two dear friends, we arrived at the seat of a glorious hill. Relieved and happy to have traveled safely across the glacier, we set down our packs, lathered on more sunscreen and drank some hot tea.

Within moments, Phil calmly commented that he felt an avalanche. The others in our group commented they had felt shaking as well, but could not discern what caused it. Phil then pointed out an enormous avalanche across the way.

Moments later, several more serac avalanches fell, two crashing down right behind our hut. Suddenly we heard and saw an avalanche directly in front of us. As the snow and ice came tumbling down, we saw only the billows of debris heading slowly towards us.

Panic stricken, I began to hyperventilate and cry. A wavering and whimpering, “Oh my God” was all I could muster. We are going to die, is all I thought. Here, in this ominous place, covered in snow by an avalanche, we would take our final breaths.

As the avalanche continued to fall, slowly inching its way to us, Phil, myself and our two friends, stood stunned and powerless.

In full, the 5.2 earthquake caused nine avalanches, each of which fell in the panorama of mountains surrounding us. While the most terrifying was the one heading directly towards us, each avalanche was immense. Had I been safely in the hut or even in a small bush plane looking down on the course of events, I suspect I would have been awestruck: by the beauty, the unwavering strength of the ice seracs and by the apocalyptic nature of it all.

I waited with panic for the wave of snow to smother me. These breathes would be my last, and I felt ill-prepared to leave the life I loved so deeply.

Like most things in life, the earthquake ended within moments, with the avalanche debris never reaching us. The impending fear of another avalanche falling from the mountain behind us slowly faded, as my husband, I and our two friends sat on the glacier in bewilderment.

It is odd how differently people respond to trauma and in life-threatening situations.

Panic attacks and tears seem to be my way of coping with the fear embedded deeply in my soul still days later. My husband, like some of the others in the group, responded in awe. For him, the event was phenomenal and something few people have the opportunity to experience; a story he is proud to share with others. The other woman in our group was equally frightened, although her fear dissipated the moment we returned to our hut. Somehow her boyfriend seemed to be untouched by the event.

The apocalyptic avalanches, the enormity of the Ruth Glacier and the ominous high peaks will forever haunt my dreams.

I returned from the trip still fearful, yet transformed. I was a little more aware of my mortality. The most profound lesson was the illusion of control and my inability to accept its release.

Standing at the mercy of Mother Nature, her death and destruction, was one of the most powerless moments of my life. No amount of warm clothes, down booties and perfect travel checklists could have possibly prepared me to for that moment.

But isn’t that the thrill of life?

For us all, despite our differences, the event was profound.

Few things, places and experiences can remind us of our mortality and sense of powerlessness. It is easy to find comfort in control and many of us choose to remain within the safety of that structure, myself included.

Through routines, habits and addictions, we convince ourselves that we are in control. And somehow, this illusion creates a sense of safety, wherein we can go about our daily lives. Try as we may, at some point, the universe dispels this illusion.

While we can live under a blanket of superficial security, we cannot ultimately control the one thing we fear most—death.

From a Buddhist perspective, death is simply another transition and perhaps the most delightful of them, granted we can embrace the uncertainty. Many other religions also view death with positivity and yet we remain fearful.

Oftentimes we avoid the fear by pretending it doesn’t exist. Mother Nature has a strange and sweet way of speaking to us. We have the luxury of choosing to heed her wisdom and subtle hints. When we choose to not listen, she will speak to us with greater assertion, more power and without hesitation. I suppose that one day I will offer her my thanks.

Someday.

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Apprentice Editor: Carrie Marzo / Editor: Travis May

Photo: Courtesy of author

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Erin Walton