Usually when people start a piece of writing by saying “there are no words” I cringe a little bit, because A) there are always words and B) if there actually aren’t any words, then why are you writing words?!? However, occasionally you run into a situation where there are honest-to-god no good words. This past weekend was a situation like that. Everything that follows here is a collection of insufficient, mediocre, half-assed words that will do no justice to this weekend’s tragedy, or to Will’s life, or to the pain that his friends and family are feeling right now. Because, for that, there really are no words.
This isn’t a tribute to Will, because I never met him, so it’s not my place, especially not right now. This is a tribute to everyone who stood on top of Star Pass with me and felt their reality shift, even if only slightly. People like to say “life changes in an instant” but the truth is that it doesn’t, because the human mind is incapable of shifting so fast. The shift from the elation of reaching the top of a mountain after pushing your bike for two hours to the depths of tragedy and mourning is too big a jump to conceptualize and accept. The 40 minutes that I spent on top of Star Pass on Saturday were some of the most surreal of my life. We knew that the medics had been doing CPR for almost an hour. We knew that race officials had asked if anyone was carrying epinephrine. But until we really knew, there was a chance. And we held on to that chance like we were drowning. No one was fully prepared to believe that someone had died — surely not here, in this almost unbelievably beautiful place. Looking around, you could tell that everyone was in a different stage of processing. Some people were laughing and joking. Some people were crying. Some people wanted to keep racing. I just become unhealthily preoccupied with the weather.
It seems like every time I am involved in some sort of crisis, my brain picks something to fixate on, usually something shockingly practical. Like when Macky was stung by a bee and ended up going into anaphylactic shock, I felt the need to call my professor from the ambulance to explain why I was missing our meeting. Later she was like, you know, that was one of those times where it would have been totally acceptable to not show up and explain later. But at the time it had seemed so.damn.important. On Saturday all I could think about was getting everyone off the mountain and below treeline before the storms rolled in and someone got struck by lightning. This was a legitimate concern because there were 100 some people standing on a mountain top at 13,000 feet watching black clouds congregate on the horizon, and I suppose someone needed to be thinking about it, but later I felt callous for how completely I had blocked out all thoughts of what was going on on the trail below.
It has taken awhile for the full ramifications of this weekend to sink in and I suspect I’m not the only one who feels that way. It’s scary and unsettling to realize that someone died doing what you were about to do, doing what you do every day. While Will’s death was clearly “freak accident,” this is somehow even less comforting because it comes with the realization that we are all straddling that line between life and death with far more regularity than we know. An accident like this prompts a lot of hard, probably unaswerable questions and I’m sure I’m not the only one scrambling this week and trying to think of ways to make sure this never happens again. The problem is that the Big Mountain Enduro and Enduro World Series did everything right. The racers behind Will were CPR certified and started CPR within seconds of finding him. Medics arrived in minutes. Everything was textbook. And it still wasn’t enough. So what are we supposed to think? Is backcountry racing simply too dangerous? Is racing downhill tracks in half shell helmets stupid? Do we need to change the rules to mandate back and chest protection for all EWS stages? Should we all be carrying SPOT devices? What exactly should we have in our first-aid kits?
Or maybe mountain biking is just one aspect of a life littered with danger, no less risky than driving a car or mowing the lawn or standing under a coconut tree (which apparently is an extremely dangerous activity). There are so many things to be scared of and the boundary between prepared and paranoid sometimes seems murky. The only appropriate response, I suppose, lies somewhere in the middle — understand that you can’t prevent all risks, but work towards preventing those you can. There is room for better protection in enduro — lightweight but effective back and chest protection that people will actually wear, full-face helmets that aren’t miserable to pedal in, and regulations that encourage intelligent helmet and body armor choice — but nothing will ever make this sport safe.
I guess its human nature to try to find a lesson or a meaning in every tragedy, because its so damn hard to believe that fate can be so senseless and cruel. But maybe there’s no lesson here at all, beyond the aching, painful lesson that comes with every tragic death — give out more hugs, do what you love, don’t put off that thing you’ve always wanted to do.
After Crested Butte, things are going to be different. I think we will all be more grateful for the opportunities we have had to ride our bikes and travel the world, and I think we will all be more focused on living each day in the present. I also hope that we can maintain the sense of community that arose this weekend. With so much on the line and so much bickering over course decisions and practice policies, etc. etc., the EWS scene can sometimes feel a little divisive (not to mention extremely intimidating). But we are better than that, and that was abundantly clear this weekend. It was beautiful to see so many elite athletes put compassion and love ahead of racing — this is a damn good group of people, each and every one. Ultimately, we race enduro because we love riding our bikes and exploring the world’s best singletrack — not for glory or money or pinkbike views. In honor of Will, let’s never lose sight of that.
Please keep Will’s family and friends in your thoughts, and if you are able, consider donating to his memorial fund here.