Skiing Muir's East Buttress — Page 5

Mount Muir's Southeast Face

Of Sample Paths and Uncertainty

We three part company briefly after collecting our stashed gear at the base of the east buttress. I traverse toward Trail Crest with the Nikon, wanting to get one more look at Muir's southeast face.

And that look proves to be the last piece of the puzzle. From below Trail Crest, through the window of my zoom lens, I can see that the hanging snowfield does indeed connect to the Exit Couloir. When I get home I'm sure of it: the route exists, albeit with some notable difficulties.

And I find myself wishing, damn it, that the route didn't go. Because what the hell am I supposed to do now? The week passes slowly. At night, I lie awake in bed, tormented by images of Muir's discontinuous snow and horrifically steep granite. By day, when I'm not chasing my children about our home, I re-read sections of Nassim Nicholas Taleb's Fooled by Randomness. As a preparatory material for a man contemplating an extreme ski descent it is perhaps the best and worst possible book on Earth.

Taleb argues we should judge an outcome not by its actual result, but rather by its expected result: the sum of all possible outcomes, multiplied by their respective probabilities. It is an interesting way to view reality, one in which a small town dentist's earnings vastly exceed that of a lottery winner's—and also a particularly illuminating way to analyze the game of Russian Roulette.

If my brain is good at anything it is good at rationalization, and this Muir proposal is the rationalization mother lode. It's got it all: a chance to do something significant, consequential, extraordinary... In my mind's eye I can already see the photos, the video, the story I'll come back with. All I have to do to get there from here is stay alive.

I can rationalize the problem all I want, but I already know there is no way to justify taking the risk of skiing something like Muir's east buttress. Too much lies beyond my control. However great my skills, my judgement, my experience, if I choose to do it I will be betting my life on a roll of the dice. And for what? Will it make me famous? Rich? Happy?

I like to think of myself as a family man, an informed and rational human, one who weighs risks and rewards carefully, one who considers not just the result but the expected result of any trial. But that is all blowing up in my face, now. I am, it turns out, not at all the person I thought I was. I'm turning out to be someone quite different. A fence-swinger. A shoot-the-mooner. A bet-it-all-on-black.

I want it. That's the bottom line. It makes no sense whatsoever. It is stupid, pointless, irresponsible on an order of magnitude beyond anything I've ever done. But none of that matters. I want it, and I will pay any price—any price at all—for a chance to have it.

next: The Rock Garden



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