Rick Collier on Mount Chown in Jasper National Park. (Liam Harrap/Revelstoke Review)

Liam’s lowdown: Do what you do what you do

What’s your “thing”?

Oh that dreaded question.

I never know what to say. I probably get awkward, my face will go red, I’ll splutter and probably try to change the topic to something like the escalating situation in Syria. A few weeks ago I was working on a hockey story and admitted to my interviewee that hockey wasn’t “my thing”.

“So what is your thing,” he asked.

“Plants or lichen,” I replied in panic.

*Crickets*

In retrospect, plants and lichen aren’t really my thing. I like them but know little. I just knew hockey wasn’t. That question reminds me of one man. There are few mountains in the Canadian Rockies that Rick Collier hadn’t summited. He bushwhacked, thrashed, scaled and climbed more than 1200 different peaks around the world. He was second to ascend all 11,000ers in the Canadian Rockies. Sadly, as Ponyboy once said nothing gold can ever last. In 2012, at the age of 71 Collier fell to his death on Mount Geikie in Mount Robson Provincial Park after the rock face gave way. The B.C. Coroner said he died within moments. It always frustrated me that news articles at the time barely mentioned that he was a climber. Instead focusing on his environmental activism and that he was a former NDP candidate. But that wasn’t what he was known for. Sometimes the media gets it wrong.

Collier had invited me on that trip. I always wonder what would have happened if I had gone. What if?

Collier was a literature professor at Mount Royal University and once wrote a piece that has resonated with me ever since.

“Early on I realized that tennis, baseball, or any sport requiring the careful management of a spheroid was beyond my capabilities; indeed, most activities demanding agility and coordination were best left for more competent others. However, I was exceptional at something quite different — suffering. Give me sweating, gut-it-out, muscle-aching recreations. I excelled at long-distance running, cycle touring, multi-day ski trips, mountain climbing. By age twenty I understood that this was not merely neurosis: bushwhacking through a remote valley or hauling my carcass up the rubble and cliffs of yet another unremarkable summit was transfiguring; I was clawing myself out of the boxes that imprison us all: education, job, debt, responsibility, others’ expectations. I could breathe and smell and taste exquisitely, and, for a time, see into the life of things.”

I, too, excel at suffering.

My entire life I’ve groveled from one mountain to the next. I’ve climbed more mountains than most, but I don’t call myself a climber. I lack the finesse and courage, more important are the tennis ball pikas and brilliant blue forget-me-nots. My summers are usually spent pouring over maps and looking for obscure peaks that aren’t in a guidebook or really have any notability except for existing. I crawl up slopes with a mountainous pack filled with cheese platters and watermelons. At the end of the day, my body is broken. But I’m happy. It lets me “see into the life of things”.

I’ve skied all my life, but I’m not great. I have little form, grace, or style. I just point my skis downhill, wiggle my bum, and hope for the best. I’m good at enduring, at least in the physical aspect. I’m an emotional marshmallow inside that sobs in movies like Seabiscuit and Babe: Pig in the City (that scene where the pit bull is chasing the pig with a lawn mower attached and Babe’s minuscule life flashes before his eyes…Jocelyn I need a tissue).

One time at a first aid course, we went around the circle and the instructor asked what people were good at.

“You’re good at talking with people? OK, you’ll console people after an accident? You have a communication job? OK, you’ll talk with 911.”

When the circle came to me, I for some stupid reason said I was good at suffering.

Again, awkward silence.

“You earlier said you have a biology background? OK, we’ll put you in charge of pets.”

And so on this Christmas Eve, I raise my glass to those who excel at things not celebrated on glossy posters, adventure videos, universities, and postcards. As Collier wrote, if they help you claw out from the boxes that imprison us all, keep doing them.

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