When I’m at a loss for words and answers, I like to defer to people much wiser than me. So it was when Mike Bowen was killed in an avalanche last December 17 on the Slate River side of Mt. Emmons in an area known as the “Happy Chutes.”
Bowen was a good friend, and we spent many picture-perfect days riding in the local backcountry. Though he wasn’t the best backcountry partner in the “procedural sense,” there were few other people I’d rather spend a day in the mountains with. Bowen’s number one rule? Whoever gets to the top first gets first tracks. And he pretty much always topped out first. But even if he didn’t, he’d drop in while the rest of us weenies were discussing the best way down, and laugh over his shoulder as he was blinded by face shot after face shot.
When asked to read at Bowen’s memorial service last January, I panicked, and immediately started rummaging through the writings of George Sibley, a longtime Gunnison Valley resident and writer who’s gleaned more “wisdom” about Crested Butte and mountain life than most of us combined. I chose to read an excerpt from Sibley’s book Dragons in Paradise, which summed up the sense of community that felt so vibrant at the time. His words reminded me why I live in Crested Butte, and why losing Bowen, part of my extended mountain family, bowled me over like a CDOT plow truck.
It captured the essence of why we’re all here, in this together, for better or worse. That spirit can’t be captured by bumper-sticker slogans, political rhetoric, or acts of community separation. I digress… Sibley says it much better below:
“It wasn’t ‘love of my fellow man’ that drove me to a mountain town, but I have found here a higher proportion of fellow spirits than I’ve found before or since anywhere else—fellows (of both sexes) with a yearning to be at least something other, if not something better, than the society we grew up in expected of us. There were enough of us here—discovered, uncovered to each other in subtle and oblique ways—so that we could probably agree that while, yes, it wasn’t love of fellow man that brought us to mountain towns, it was interest in fellow spirits that keeps us here, as well as interest in the mountains themselves.”
When Bowen was reported missing, it was “fellow spirits” who went looking for him in the mountains, and put themselves at risk in the face of high avalanche danger and harsh winter weather. In the aftermath, I interviewed search and rescue volunteers around the country while researching for a Backcountry Magazine story, trying to understand what drove them to such lengths, without earning pay or prestige.
One simple theme recurred time and time again: “It could be one of our own.”
And more often than not in Crested Butte, it is. Out here, at the end of the road, we need each other more than we’d like to admit. That might be the greatest lesson we can learn from Bowen. Well, that and never turn your back to a man on a mission for first tracks.…