Skiing in the Shower

Confessions of a Mountain Girl

I want to say thank you to everyone who worked hard to make this dream come true. Shackleton is dear to my heart, and the expedition I began to see as the ultimate expression of my life in skiing, a mountaineering and sailing adventure which was also a pilgrimage to a sacred place of endurance, perseverance, and optimism.

I was heartily looking forward to being a member of the team, to testing myself, and to share with all of you what it was like to be right there, in that spot, where Shackleton's crew was saved, 100 years after the fact. I'm so sad not to be a part of the expedition, but I could not be happier for the reason that I am not.

The story of how this all happened is one of the most astounding personal experiences I've ever had, and I wanted to share with you, my friends and ski clients, just what happened, what we learned, and what's next.

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Just after I was named to the Expedition, I began a campaign of fast track training and fundraising which many of you participated in. We had a short time to raise a lot of funds, and my sponsors, my employer, my friends, family and ski clients all pitched in heartily. Tom and I went to hone up our crevasse rescue skills, ascension skills, and uphill running is still not my favorite thing to do. I began to really feel that even though time was short, this expedition was in reach, a real possibility. And then everything changed. One of my friends, who I knew had cancer, had a worse prognosis than we thought. 

In March of 2017, Weems Westfeldt and I had taken a group of people on an amazing ski trip to Wengen, Switzerland. (We are going again this year! More to follow on that, but you should really come. It's silly fun in a breathtaking place.) We had a motley crew on our trip, ranging in age from 35 to 81, and ranging in abilities from riding a sled, to beginner/intermediate skiing to heli-skiing on a glacier. It was fantastic.

One of our group was a man I didn't know very well at the time. I've met him at the Magic of Skiing, a wonderful event in Aspen which I am fortunate enough to be a coach at (That's happening again this year as well, it's profound and intense and beautiful, you should come... more on that later as well...), but we haven't ever really talked. We'd never skied together. 

This man's name is Richard Segal, and with his permission, I'm going to share some of our story. Richard has late stage cancer of a nasty type. Not that there is a non-nasty type, but this particular form is known to be aggressive, have a high mortality rate, and be very difficult to treat. While we were in Switzerland, I got to ski with a man whose views on life are painted with the heavy brush of knowing that whatever amazing moment he is having may be the last time he experiences something like this. 

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Because Richard's Mortality stares him in the face moment after moment, he grapples constantly with how to face it. There is an energetic combination when you are with him of absolute openness to the moment, absolute joy as he squeezes every single droplet of life out of this moment. And right next to that big, beautiful, vulnerable openness is fear. The fear that all of us face when we realize we don't go on forever, this life is finite. That finality sat with us on the chairlift, ate lunch with us in the shadow of the Eiger, walked down the path to the fondu cabin, slid on skis in the slush and watched the Alpenglo paint the Jungfrau stunning pink every night. 

Because I met Richard when he was dying, (although he might argue that he met me while I was doing the same...), I felt the urgency of a lifetime of friendship being squeezed into the two weeks we had together in March. One evening, as we sat on a bench watching the stunning, Crayola colored Alpenglo catch the snowy peaks on fire, I shared with Richard (who is not only an MD but a Psychologist and a practicing Buddhist) that I myself was having difficulty letting go of some things in my life. This wonderful new friend, who was in the midst of dealing with the thought that this may be his last "big trip" before returning home to aggressive chemo treatments sat on this bench and just listened with an open, welcoming heart. He didn't try to fix it, he didn't judge, he just held my hand. His compassion cracked me open and I couldn't stop crying as this little hard but in my heart cracked open for the first time. 

Once it was out, my eyes were puffy and the glow was fading, we walked to the restaurant where the rest of our team was eating and having fun, and I looked at the life I have been so fortunate to find in this world, and I looked at Richard, for whom meals like this are numbered, and I realized that I had been given an even bigger gift than I ever could have guessed. Sitting at this table was a happy crew of people newly in love, people moving to a new stage (one member of our crew has to take some time out to have her first child this year!), best friends... we all had our stories and our fears, but together, we were just this beautiful mess of happiness. (Right. Seriously, you should come to Switzerland, it is so special.)

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I looked at Richard and said, "I don't want this to end. I want to bring my kids here, see this place in the summer, with the waterfalls..." and he looked at me and said,

"Me too. If I'm healthy, let's do it." 

"Are you serious?" I asked.

"Yes. I can't think of anything I'd rather do with my last summer on earth than spend part of it with you and your teenage boys bumming around Europe while you train for your expedition." 

And then the daydreaming begin. Wengen is a great place to train for mountaineering, the tiny town sits in the incredible Jungfrau region, thousands of miles of hiking and climbing in every direction. This was possible. "Listen, Kate. I have the cash for this. What I don't have is time. Let's spend my time well. Let's do this."

And so we did. The nature of our trip changed, and I realized it probably would as we were putting it together. Training for an expedition and raising a year's worth of funds in three months is a tall order, which requires 100% of focus to complete. I knew that complicating it with a six week trip to Europe would put a dent in fundraising. I also knew that while I wanted badly to be a part of the expedition for my own gratification, adventure, and growth, Richard was asking me to share the end of his life with him. And I was not going to turn that down. 

For various reasons, we ended up spending the majority of our trip in Paris, where Richard studies in a Zendo and living there part of the time. The boys, Ethan and Bodhi, now 13 and 15, were comfortable in the Zen Center after having lived in monasteries and yoga centers all over the world with me as I worked on my own studies in Tibetan Buddhism and Yoga. 

Early on, I let go of trying to cross-purpose the trip. The funds would either come in time or they wouldn't. But it became very clear to me the moment we saw Richard in the airport in Paris that we were here to wrap our hearts around each other, to heal, to feel as much love and grace as we could in the time he had left. And not to be distracted from this, the most important thing we can do with our lives. Bodhi and Ethan met Richard for the first time in the airport, and our trip started with huge hugs all around. They knew they would have a short time with him. They faced it unafraid. We knew we couldn't save Richard. But we were going to give him a lifetime's worth of love in the next six weeks. 

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What we didn't realize was that we were going to get as much love, growth, and happiness as we gave, times a million. The trip was challenging. Richard's kids are grown, he lives by himself, retired, in Salt Lake. There are no bottomless pits of smelly teenage boys in his life anymore. And now he had chosen to spend what was likely his last summer ambulatory with two teenagers he'd never met before. And off we went. 

There were moments of deep fear, we could feel it when the late evening sun was perfect, reflecting off the water on the Sien, and the wine was flowing and the kids were full and content, and there were art and politics to talk about... we could feel how beautiful that moment was and how hard it was, Richard would get quiet, realizing it was almost over, and he was here with us, and not with a lover or a family member, what if it never happened again...  And then we would talk about it. About staring down the barrel of What If? 

What if, when he got home at the end of our trip, and he took his tests, the doctors said "Okay, as suspected, time for another surgery, a massive dose of chemo..." or even worse... "palliative care." What if this was the end? How do you live and keep growing when the finish line is rushing toward you like a vengeful enemy? Together, Richard and I wrestled with this moment and that, the incongruity of the incredible beauty of the now, with the impossibility of the unknown standing right next to it.

Part of the problem was that we both (and I can only speak to my part of the equation here, Richard is the one who had to directly deal with this...) would look at that appointment looming at the end of the trip. And we would try to guess, what would the outcome be? Would he be giving a few more months to live? What would that life look like? Just how bad was it going to be? 

We decided that Richard really couldn't do anything until after he knew the results of the test. Which means he had to take the test first. Which wasn't for six weeks. So, rather than try to control, or plan for the outcome of a test that he hadn't even taken yet, we went to dinner. And the museums. And the gardens. And out to music and theater. We danced salsa on the riverbank at 2 am. We lived like we dreamed we could, as though there was no future to worry about. As though there was no expedition, as though there was no moment other than this one. We all fell in love with each other, and with Michelle and Katrin, the Roshis who run the Zen Center in Paris. 

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We found freedom in our decision to be alive and to contain that life to this moment and the next rather than what felt like the terrible truth that must be revealed at the end of the trip. Dedication to life and love like this takes more effort and energy than anything I have approached before. Loving Richard became the practice for all of us, most of all for Richard. Finding grace, and patience, letting go of wishing and wanting, being able to love the messy teenagers who loved him back, it was all a beautiful and really wonderful challenge. 

Richard looked healthier, and healthier, and happier and happier as we went along, even as we wrestled with the insanity of navigating cities we'd never been to on bicycles, in traffic, with huggy, lovely teenagers. (I know, right? You'd expect the problem with teens to be that they are eye-rolling and disengaged. Our problem was the opposite... they were in love with Life, Richard, Europe, and Food, in that order. It was like spending all your time with golden retriever puppies who never sleep.)

At the end of it all, we were a family. A sloppy, messy family focused on vulnerability and healing. The expedition fund slowed down as I focused on Richard and not on myself, the training slowed down as I taught Bodhi how to paint in oils and watched Ethan walk through the museums listening to every piece of the audio guide he could find. 

But my friend Richard was full to overflowing, and so were my kids. My boys learned on this trip that love spans ages, friendships can be across generations, grace is necessary at any age. My boys were brave enough to fall completely in love with Richard, knowing he was going to leave them. This fierceness of willful giving is one of the most incredible things I've ever witnessed. 

I learned a lot from those boys, all three of them, as I watched them navigate love and fear and the unknown together with the practical experience of not needing to order The Duck at every meal.

When we got home, I knew I was going to have to pull the plug on the Shackleton expedition. I was secretly heartbroken for it, I wanted this for me, for many reasons. I wanted the experience, the difficulty, the history, the stories, the lessons. But look what I'd already gotten all summer. Ultimately, our time here is how we learn from each other. And while I was looking forward to learning from my team on the Expedition, and learning from the elements as we endured, my commitment to the vows of Bodhisattva had taken me elsewhere. Oftentimes, they are compatible with a life in skiing. This time, it was very simple. 

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Richard. 

The expedition needed to fill my spot and find the cash to launch. I had made my choice, but really, what kind of choice was there to make? None at all. What a privilege to live life to bursting with a man who is learning to shed every protection he has in the time he has left. What a gift to me, to my boys, to his friends, to all who come in contact with him. 

A week after we got home, we were on the road again already, Richard was at home prepping for his blood test. Tom, Ethan and I were taking Bodhi to his first ever camp experience in Michigan (He won a scholarship in creative writing to Interlochen, a performing arts school, but had never slept away from family before. So we went with him.) I got a call from Richard. The results were in. 

Remission. 

.00001 is what they told him. They can't say "It's gone, we got it all"because they don't say that. But they did say, "What did you do?" they were flabbergasted. This was not the prognosis they expected. 

Richard told them, "I took a couple of people I don't know at all to Europe and blew all my cash on art and wine and feeding teenage boys." 

I think the doctors thought he was kidding. "Well, whatever it is, keep it up, it's working." 

We rejoiced at Richard's diagnosis. We laughed with relief that we hadn't wasted those six weeks dreading his prognosis, planning for the worst. I teased him that if I'd known he was going to live, I would have sent him to Europe with the boys and gone to Antarctica like I was supposed to. But while the loss of that experience is sad, it was truly just a tease, I wouldn't change a thing about the choices we made this summer. 

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Over the course of the rest of the summer, two friends died suddenly and unexpectedly, my mother had a frighteningly close call (which she has recovered beautifully from), and a family member was diagnosed with end stage cancer of the very same kind that Richard had, another friend is going through Leukemia treatments. We fought as hard as we could with the one that was in front of us, and it feels like others fall all around, like a precarious game of pick-up-sticks. All we can do is just keep fighting, filling each other up with love and hope and, as cliche as it sounds, living in awe of each moment with each other that we do get to experience. 

As I watch the leaves begin to turn, and my calendar in September and October, usually spent in Chile, is now suddenly empty, I find myself with time to be with my kids as they start school, to write, to paint, to plan the season's adventures on snow, to hear Richard's glee on the phone as he continues his travels and makes his immune system more and more robust, and to be grateful. 

I think the thing I've really learned is that we've got to fight for each other. We have to fight to have the love we want in our lives, we have to fight to stay together, we have to fight off the darkness even when we are forced to wear it like a wet woolen coat. In the end, the fight is what we are left with, and let it be a fight for deeper connection, for more love, for happiness no matter what we are staring down, no matter what is sneaking up, no matter the unknown moment after this one. 

I'm so looking forward to connecting with you all this winter. I'll be sending out another email shortly on the wonderful trips I'm putting together this year, and I can't wait to see what we all learn and where we go this time around! And thanks to Richard for letting me share his remarkable self, his story and his generosity with you.

With much love and gratitude, 

Kate Howe

Kate Howe

Global Ski Adventures

Aspen, Japan, Chile, Argentina, BC, Alaska, Italy, Iceland or wherever you dream of exploring the world.

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