In its absence, we could do anything. But would it mean as much? For some, fear is a matter of circumstance, while others seek it out directly. How we confront our demons is often what defines us. Meet six Kootenay residents who’ve met fear— and conquered it.
You can be free from fear, if you realize that fear is not the ogre...you can attain what is known as fearlessness. But that requires that, when you see fear, you smile. —Chögyam Trungpa
I KNOW FEAR. As paramedics drag a stretcher up our stairwell, I am lying in bed, holding my son’s hand. I am haemorrhaging from a cerebral aneurysm, blood flooding my brain’s vacant spaces. I say, “I think this is it bud.” I want to say all the important things, the clichéd deathbed ramblings: how proud I am of him and his brother, how much I love their mom. I fear I’d leave something out, so instead I worry that in 50 years someone in a second-hand bookstore would find my hidden fortune. “One last thing,” I say. “There’s $1,200 in poker winnings stuffed in a cut-out book on the shelf.”
Three weeks later, as I’m released from Calgary’s Foothills’ neurology ward, my winnings spent on hotel rooms and hospital food, the head nurse says, “It’s a miracle you’re alive, but I’ve never seen someone so freaked out about dying.” I can’t help think, isn’t everybody? Don’t we all fall asleep, one eye open, the other clenched tight, dreaming we are infinite? Well, apparently not. Some of us kick fear’s ass.
The Kootenays are full of the fearless, those who approach danger and consequence with a fresh, stalwart set of eyes. They become consummately intimate with what scares them. They pay attention to what’s happening in their bodies and the subtleties of distraction. They live in the moment, and not in the imagination of what could go wrong. They adapt. They overcome adversity. They know where courage begins, and their ability ends. They respect fear. They smile in the face of fear. And there are a ton of them in the raw and wild Kootenays, Here’s but a smattering of our region’s most beautifully fearless people.
Photo: Paul Morrison
IN THE DARKEST moment of his life, strapped to a spinal board, unable to feel anything from the waist down, Josh Dueck composed a mantra: “Everything happens for a reason, nothing happens we’re not strong enough to deal with, and everything in my life has prepared me for this moment.” Six months after becoming paralyzed from a freestyle skiing accident, Dueck was on the mountain learning to ski again. Within two years, he was sit-ski racing, with his eyes on the 2010 Vancouver Winter Paralympics. Dueck’s philosophy of “allowing my intuition to guide me and not letting fear define me” has earned him some outstanding accolades: most recently he received a gold and two silver medals at the 2014 Winter Paralympics in Sochi, Russia, and became the first sit-skier to complete a backflip on snow, which Dueck says was “to redeem a jump gone wrong."
Six months after becoming paralyzed from a freestyle skiing accident, Dueck was on the mountain learning to ski again
In the 10 years since his accident, Dueck has evolved into an inspirational, holy mountain man, whether in front of a full high school auditorium, on the Ellen DeGeneres Show, or giving a 2013 TED Talk on overcoming adversity. The 33-year-old, who grew up in Kimberley and now calls Vernon, British Columbia, home, speaks with a contagious stoke for life, then quiets down to a contemplative whisper. “I focus on the process,” he says. A process where race speeds can peak at over 140 kilometres an hour, rattling his eyes so violently he can’t see clearly. Dueck reflects on how he replaces fear with a much more powerful and positive energy. “I create a game plan on how to work in harmony with the environment,” he explains. “I visualize it repeatedly until I am a master of it. I breathe. In the moments before the race, I let go of all distractions. From then on, I just send it and honour the mountain. The universe determines the outcome.”
Photo: Jeff Pew
SUSAN BOND stands in front of an East Kootenay audience, a cane by her side, describing the sunny November 25, 2012 afternoon when she and her husband, Peter Moody, surprised a grizzly sow resting with two cubs after feeding on a fresh deer kill. Just seven months after the violent encounter, the couple are on stage with Bears Without Fear author Kevin Van Tighem. They want to get the message out that people in the Rocky Mountain Trench should always be prepared for grizzly encounters, even at low elevations close to home.
The Kimberley audience winces at Bond’s graphic account of a startled mother bear repeatedly attacking them before finally moving off when the couple played dead. Mangled and bleeding, they waded through an icy creek, then stumbled nearly three kilometres before being rescued. As she speaks cautiously and tellingly, most of Bond’s wounds are concealed, including the titanium plates used to reconstruct her right eye socket and cheek.
The Kimberley audience winces at Bond’s graphic account of a startled mother bear repeatedly attacking them before finally moving off when the couple played dead.
To no great surprise, we often desire to kill that which we fear the most. Susan Bond feels otherwise, publicly recounting the most terrifying moment in her life with compassion and grace. “We’re grateful to the mother bear that left us alone once she saw we weren’t a threat to her family and their food.” Yet when approached for this article, Bond stresses that the experience has left her fearful, that she no longer walks out her front door for her once daily hikes into the woods. Perplexed, she asks, “How does that fit into an article on fearlessness?"
Fearlessness is not static, nor one-dimensional. It is always unfolding into ever-changing terrain. In sharing her experience, Bond moves into the heart of fearlessness, and towards a time when she can open her door and once again walk the countryside, home to both her and the bears.
Photo: Jeff Pew
THE FIRST TIME I saw Jeff Holden was on the 1999 cover of Powder magazine. You had to squint to notice the tiny figure of the Jaffray, British Columbia-born World Champion freeskier launching a 150-foot Alaskan cliff, hurling towards the snow at 100 kilometres per hour. Five years later, in Kimberley, just northwest of where he was born, Holden walked barefoot on stage for a poetry reading, stood at the mic, closed his eyes and breathed deeply for a minute. I couldn’t help but think, “Who is this guy?” Others have wondered the same.
“I learned a lot from dropping cliffs: Emotions are teachers and have important messages to communicate. Befriend your ego. Make friends with your fear.” –Jeff Holden
One night, while playing didgeridoo in a stairwell, Holden shared with me his evolving relationship with fear: “I could tell you all the techniques I used to move down mountains but then I may be telling you how to over ride fear,” he explains. “Just because I dropped massive cliffs doesn’t mean I overcame fear. Nowadays, when I examine my fears, I go inward to the root of why the fear exists. What do I believe to be true? Fear can be instinctual and life preserving, or shaped by early imprints and beliefs. To know the difference empowers me to shift my perception and make wise choices. I learned a lot from dropping cliffs: Emotions are teachers and have important messages to communicate. Listen to them. Befriend your ego. Make friends with your fear.” Amen.
Photo: Jeff Pew
TA HAY THA waits outside his home in Kimberley for the HandyDART to drive him to school. It’s –15C and snowing. He sits in his electric wheelchair, the hood of his winter parka pulled tight around his serene face, which portrays the wisdom of someone well beyond his 15 years. He watches snowflakes fall to the ground and smiles. He’s always smiling.
Six years ago when Hay Tha, a refugee from Myanmar, immigrated to Canada, he was asked, “If you could have anything in the world to make your life better, what would it be?” He answered, “A skateboard,” which might be a typical response for a nine-year-old boy, only Hay Tha was born with shortened limbs and neither feet nor hands. A skateboard? Nothing scares Hay Tha. He doesn’t remember the last time he had a nightmare.
Since arriving in Canada, he’s learned to kayak, canoe, ski, play soccer, rock climb and do backflips on a trampoline, with a beaming smile on his face. His principal at Kimberley Independent School, Jennifer Roberts, explains Hay Tha’s impact on other students, “He teaches them about life, adversity and overcoming challenges. He teaches us all lessons.” When I ask him how he is so fearless, he giggles and shrugs his shoulders.
In the spring, when the snow melts and the dusty streets are swept clean, Ta Hay Tha hops onto his skateboard, gets a push from his sister, and coasts down the road, giggling like he’s the happiest guy on earth, not a worry in the world.
Photo: Jeff Pew
Adapt or Die
IN 2007, when the Resorts of the Canadian Rockies closed its big-air jumps across Canadian properties, Kimberley park skiers were gutted. A subculture of baggy-clothed teenagers who spent their days hanging in terrain parks were suddenly vagabonds and outcasts, with nowhere to shred. They feared they’d never watch each other fly through the sky again. Yet it wasn’t long before they improvised, without the weight of gravity to propel them, and an underground culture of renegade freestyle skiers was born. The entire town become fresh terrain for skiing.
In the beginning, they slingshotted each other with ski poles, barely making it onto the rail or jump. Eventually, they got wiser. They pooled their money and bought ski bungees, snapping themselves on features with greater speed than ever. Three seasons later, when they purchased a gas-powered high-speed winch, there was no feature they couldn’t hit. They leapt across goal posts, flung themselves down railings and grinded along school rooftops. They set up all-night sessions in junkyards and abandoned buildings, with the hum and hue of generator-powered floodlights.
Eventually, this culture spawned an impressive crew of fearless and accomplished skiers, kids like Zak Mousseau, who rode for the BC Freestyle Team and is one of the gnarliest urban skiers in British Columbia. Mousseau focused on the bright side of RCR’s decision to close jumps. “When you spend hours building your own jump, you get real intimate with it,” he says. “You learn which way it will throw you. You become a better skier.” Late at night, or in the far reaches out-of-bounds, a new generation of skiers continues to find their place in the skiing world, leaping from rooftops and soaring high above city streetlamps.
Photo: Bruno Long
WHEN GREG HILL shared his goal with Charley, his eight-year-old daughter, her only response was, “Daddy, please don’t die.” Last March, Hill lived up to that request and accomplished what no other backcountry skier has done—he climbed and skied 100 vertical kilometers in one month, the rough equivalent of climbing Toronto’s CN Tower six times a day, 31 days in a row. Every morning, Hill ventured to new terrain, breaking trail in deep powder in the Canadian Rockies near his home in Revelstoke, British Columbia.
Prior to departing, Hill reflected on the inherent risks. “I am most definitely nervous. It feels daunting, kinda intimidating,” he admitted on his blog, greghill.ca. “So much could go wrong. Avalanche hazard is high right now, but more than just being high, it’s how sneaky the weakness is.” Hill encountered various challenges on the way to reaching his goal, from the remorse of skinning up an exposed slope that hours later was wiped out by a 300-metre avalanche to waking up in the morning aching and wondering if he had the stamina to get out of bed. Hill took it all in stride. “Uncertainty in life is a good thing. Not knowing what can happen is important,” he says. “Try to do things that you may not succeed at. Dig deep and really find out what you can do.”
Hill doesn’t consider himself fearless. “Fear is essential in the mountains,” he explains, having set another record in 2010 when he skied two million vertical feet in one calendar year. “It’s what keeps you vigilant and safe. To walk around without fear leads to mistakes and bad consequences.” You can tell the ACMG-accredited guide and father of two treats fear with respect but isn’t going to let it get in his way. “Life’s really short. I’m going to live my dream.” On the first day in April, Hill helped his kids with their helmets and headed into the streets for a bike ride, his altimeter turned off, for now.