email a friend iconprinter friendly iconHow to Survive Almost Anything '09
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“Anyone object if I close the hood over Katy’s face?” Liz asked.

And then we tried to lift her. Katy’s living weight would have been featherlight for the four of us, but we were barely able to hoist her water-saturated body up the cut bank. Carrying her back to camp was out of the question. Night was falling. Liz decided that she and I would stay with Katy’s body. It would serve as a vigil of sorts, but it had a morbidly practical purpose as well—we were in grizzly country.

Throughout the course of the endless-seeming night, Liz and I talked to keep the silence at bay. Eventually we were quiet. I thought of how wrong it felt that we knew of Katy’s death when her parents were at home, unaware. We took turns scouting for firewood, venturing farther and farther into the night, relief always accompanying the return of the other from the blackness. We secured Katy’s body in a sleeping bag just beyond the direct light of the fire. A few times small animals had to be discouraged. I felt myself alive in a way I hadn’t before. I was aware of thinking, The most important thing in the world that could have happened just happened, yet simultaneously feeling how little any of it mattered—the river still roared by in the dark, the stars were still blazing in the sky. Nothing seemed different at all.

Dawn brought rain for the first time in a month. Radio contact was eventually made with an overflying plane that alerted NOLS (these were the days before easy satellite communication), and that evening, under a florid red sky, a helicopter shattered our insular world. Our makeshift campsite was blown to tatters by the backwash of the furious blades. And Katy’s body was removed. It took the rest of us two days to reach the roadhead.

KATY’S DEATH STUNG THE NOLS community hard. There have been other deaths at the school over the years, as there have at other outdoor programs, but last year Gary Cukjati, a NOLS instructor since 1986, captured what was different about this one: “Katy’s death went to the core of the school, because it wasn’t some random accident. It happened while attempting to apply everything the school teaches and encourages—students making their own decisions, independence, leadership, and the power of the group.” Which leads to the questions that John Kanengieter, NOLS director for leadership, then asked. “Who are we, and what is our place in the world? And is a death acceptable? To which the answer, the only answer I can come to is, No. It is not. And yet what should we do? Not go outside? Not teach? It’s something I have thought about endlessly, had countless meetings and discussions over. There is no simple answer.”

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