Words: Jonathan Van Elslander
I sat in a chair at the end of the hall. Looking out the window at lake. The wildfire smoke had softened since yesterday and I saw the mountains for the first time in days. I had moved to the end of the hall mainly for the window. The bed they gave me wasn’t by one. I need a window. I can’t do basement suites anymore. I’d rather live in my car than a basement suite. That’s part of the reason we we’re in this mess. But I also moved to the end of the hall because my new roommates were in an argument about the Soviets. They thought it was still the 80s. If the doctors put me in this place to show me the virtues of peacefully growing old, then I was missing the point.
They let me keep my phone. I was surprised by that. They took my bike wrench and a glass bottle I had kombucha in. They poured the kombucha in a paper cup and let me keep it. It helped my stomach; I hadn’t eaten in a day. But they let me keep my phone. I’d been lucky enough to get a 10-minute video call with my partner, helping me more than I could say, from a remote bush camp that only gave her internet in quarter-hour bursts. The smile and the laughter I needed.
They hadn’t expressly forbid retail therapy. There wasn’t much to do sitting in a hospital all day. By this point, three days in, I’d read two books twice each. I saw on my feed a post for Dustbox t-shirts. I’d wanted one for a while. The crew, the idea, the feeling, that is The Dustbox was something I’d be happy to wear.
I opened their website. A photo of them all, only a couple noticing the camera in time to smile. It looks like the hilarious chaos that is rolling in a group of 15 friends. And the words “We Are All We Got”. And the phone number for The National Suicide Hotline (1-800-273-8255). They’re sold out of t-shirts of course. Perfect timing.
I don’t think I am exaggerating when I say snowboarding has gone through some shit this last year. The whole world has gone through some shit of course. Whether that has been worse for snowboarding than the general public or not, I’m not privy to say. But I can say this: snowboarding has a mental health problem. I’m not going to try and go into detail on the causes. They likely overlap with the causes of mental health problems in the general public. The problem itself, is bigger than snowboarding. But, we do have substantial issues surrounding head injuries. One bad fall can result in cognitive problems resulting in irritability, depression, and anxiety for years following. And we have to be cognizant of the position snowboarding, a hobby fuelled by passion, has in our lives. Withdrawing from one’s interests, hobbies, and passions is a well-known sign of mental health issues. Athletes are often susceptible to mental health issues when they move on from their sport. The loss of their regular social structure, routine, and physical activity can precipitate declines in mental health. Quitting snowboarding, or withdrawing from snowboarding and their social circle, could be intimately linked to a decline in someone’s mental health. But we also have, wrapped in that problem, some help. If you go watch Tim Eddy’s Pursuit of Righteousness, you’ll hear where that help might be. In those same passions. A geneticist who researches how people deal with depression tells Tim that in order for him to be mentally healthy, “Doctor’s orders: don’t ever give that stuff up.” Boarding. His passions. Remember that.
In the last year, snowboarding, mental health issues, and the intersection of those two, have been defining factors in my life. I am a snowboarder. It is the first adjective I use to describe myself; before man, queer, ecologist, climber, forester, Canadian, Winnipegger, lover, fighter, loner. But snowboarding has fucked with me this year. I’m not going to give you the story of my life that led to this moment. A lot of it is irrelevant to you. But I’ll give you a story of snowboarding. That’s relevant.
I’ll start a while back. Before the pandemic even. On Christmas Day 2019, Jaeger Bailey died by suicide. Jaeger was famous in snowboarding for a few reasons. He was probably one of the only people to ever “make it” by aggressively emailing Pat Bridges and Snowboarder Mag his season edit. He pioneered the on-purpose rail hang-up to front flip. He revived the backflip to knuckle front flip. And he has an absolutely enormous smile on his face all the time. Jaeger’s style was not what I associated with my favourite snowboarders, but I loved watching him snowboard. When you saw him on the board, he was smiling. He was having fun.
Four months later, on April 12, 2020, a few weeks into the pandemic, Chris Larson died by suicide. In his obituary his family wrote that “few understood how his heart hurt for the world.” I won’t claim to know. But I know what they mean by that. There are some people who just can’t let the world go. I can’t. It bothers us too much. Chris was one of those people. But what made his death shocking to so many was how he caried himself in the world despite that hurt. Go watch him snowboard. He attacked rails and jumps like he was fighting them. He emanated passion on the board but always made it look good. But despite all that aggression, he emanated kindness off the board. He made people laugh. He was always nice to groms. He showed his friends what they meant to him.
Then last year, I went to work in the woods for the summer. I moved back home for the first time in 8 years. I started a master’s degree. I fell in love. We moved to Nelson, British Columbia for the winter. I worked on my research and tried to be supportive to my partner. In the spring, she went away for work, and I was left all alone in a strange town that I didn’t get along with. As most people’s season ended, I went splitboarding every day. Alone. Every day. 5pm after work. 7am on the weekend. I hiked fast. I dropped into lines sight-unseen. I rode fast. I tried to ollie as far as I could. I ticked off every noteworthy line I could see with a vengeance. I refused to be turned away from the ones that looked good from the bottom. I unstrapped mid-line to downclimb over cliffs that would’ve broken my legs. I put it on Instagram and people heaped praise on me. Told me I was killing it. That I was an inspiration. A dear friend whom I love told me “I wish I had your brain. I wish I could go up there and do that.”
Then, on April 25, 2021, more than a year into the pandemic, Ben Lynch died by suicide. In the outpouring of memoires, it was consistent: Ben loved his friends. He would do anything for them. He lived loose, just like he snowboarded, so everyone had a story. He didn’t give a fuck what anyone thought of him, but he really gave a fuck about everyone. He put smiles on his friends’ faces. He made them feel loved. He also made cowboys cool. He backflipped off everything. He rode faster than you. If you have never seen Ben snowboard, go watch it. It will give you something. After he passed, Satellite Boardshop posted a photo that I tear up looking at now. Ben, toe side, high on a berm, rounding a corner in a banked slalom. His duct-tape bib is ripped. He lost his hat at some point but caught it in his hand. He’s got his shirt buttoned all the way to the top but he looks like he’s soaking in sweat. He’s squinting at the next turn, in a deep crouch, his heel side edge up in the air far from the snow, his whole body forcing him forward as fast as he can. He embodies conviction. He’s snowboarding.
I didn’t know anyone of these young men. I read an awful lot about them after they died. Despite not knowing any of them, all of their deaths hit me hard. Particularly Ben’s, so long now into the pandemic, when I like so many people was feeling so horribly alone. I’ll try to explain. What affected me so much wasn’t just that they’re gone. It’s who they were. It’s how much they are all loved. Still loved. By all accounts, Jaeger, Chris, and Ben were three of the most lovable, fun, and funny people anyone knew. And now they’re gone. And everyone who loved them so much is left to pick up the pieces.
After Ben’s death, I got more remote. I completely burnt out. I became paranoid about everything. I bothered my partner at all hours, though due to work she had no cell service. I texted no one else. I didn’t reach out to my mom or my dad or my sister or any of the friends that I know would help. On one really bad day I went to the emergency room. They calmed me down, made a file on me, gave me phone numbers to call. I drove 9 hours through the night to Squamish to see my best friend. He gave me a hug and dragged me into nature. We hiked and climbed. I ran up my lead pitches. I only placed one or two pieces of gear per pitch. A fall would’ve meant rolling 50 metres. I “forgot” my helmet. I giggled like a little kid and yelled at the top of my lungs.
Then I went back to Nelson, alone. I spent a few days outside for work and felt fine. I spent a few days in the office and felt like shit. The snow was all gone and I wasn’t boarding. I wasn’t climbing or taking photos or doing any of my hobbies. I had no interest in doing much of anything. I sat around. One night, a minor tech-issue – a dropped call – and for some reason that I can’t quite understand, I lost it. I started sobbing. I yanked at my hair and could barely stand. I am ashamed to admit this, but I could think of nothing in the world to live for. I broke. My brain stopped working.
I think we all can agree that The Bombhole, Grenier and E-Stone and everyone involved, have done something important for us as a community. Made us all feel a little less alone over this terrible, lonely year. But at that moment, sitting there in the park, I was alone. I sat on the sidewalk sobbing. I tried to break the bottle I had so I could use the glass shards. I mumbled “this isn’t real” over and over. And then for some absolutely ridiculous reason that I will never be able to explain, I thought of The Bombhole. I thought of Desiree Melancon telling Grenier that he was the first person they called after a suicidal episode. I will never forget the tone of his voice when he heard that. He was hearing it for the first time. He was floored. He seemed to be processing real-time what he had done for his friend. What their friendship meant.
That thought got me off the ground. Then I thought of what Desiree said after that. “When you have the choice, you have to choose to choose life.” I hauled ass up the hill to the hospital. I poured sweat. I couldn’t swallow. One more time I thought briefly about breaking the bottle. But non-stop through my head rang Desiree’s words, words which they meant for both their self and those people we had lost to suicide already: “They had friends. I have friends. I have family.” I was in the middle of a serious breakdown and I am ashamed to say that I could not remember who those people were. Or where they were. But I started saying Desiree’s words out loud. I didn’t stop saying them. “I have friends. I have family.” They are out there somewhere, and they love me.
So yeah. Snowboarding did save my life. A lot of things, a lot of people saved my life. But in that moment, completely lost, alone, running up that hill, snowboarding saved my life. Probably not in the way most people mean it, as in the act of snowboarding. But in the way that snowboarding really does save lives. It brought me to the people I need. In this case, a person I’ve never met. A person who lives thousands of miles away and I had only ever heard speak in this one two-hour interview. They carried me up that hill. Because they snowboard and because I snowboard. If it wasn’t for that, I never would’ve heard those words.
Later, calmed down, I remembered where my loved ones are, and it hit me. My partner and my parents and my sister mean the absolute world to me, and I could never fully thank them or describe their importance in words. But beyond them, it’s amazing how many of the people I live for are there for me because of snowboarding. My oldest best-friend Erik, the only person in my first year of university who also had a Mount Seymour season pass. Andrew, who uprooted his life and moved across the continent to come snowboarding, because we were High Cascade campers together once upon a time. Beatrice, the shredding PhD. experimental particle physicist who has led me through multiple breakups and showed me the meaning of creativity, a friendship I have because one year we were the only people still committed to boarding when it was beach weather. My other friend Eric constantly reinforcing my potential as a person and as a friend, we worked at the snowboard shop together. Al and Conor carrying me up a foreign mountain in the middle of a terrible travel depression halfway around the world. Jesse reminding me that passion is what makes me my best, he too needs a board as an escape. Andy unknowingly lifting me out of the worst of the pandemic depression with an aggressive rant about the true influence of Tom Burt. A hundred other people that I don’t have time to mention. Snowboarding introduced me to most of my favourite bands. It introduced me to most of my favourite hobbies. It introduced me to many of my favourite people.
The Dustbox is absolutely right. We are all we got. Write that down. Remember it. We do not have snowboarding. We have our fellow snowboarders. I may be the biggest loner you know. I may rearrange my entire life for a solo hike and shred. But even I know what makes snowboarding. I would trade every powder day, every summit, every big line, every trick I can do, for those days on my snowboard fucking around with my friends. Someone tries to find some very questionable transition. Someone tries to land fakie on a swallow tail. Someone tries a double or tries a switch straight air. Someone lands a new trick. Someone lands an old trick really fucking good. Someone sprays us while we wait in the jump lineup. You know what I’m talking about. You know the laughter and the chaos and the happiness. This is what I live for. These friends. On our snowboards, being friends. Let’s hold on to that feeling. Let’s share it. Let’s take that feeling and give it to everyone we can find. Regardless of gender, sexuality, race, socioeconomic background, let’s make sure everyone gets to know how good that feels, and make sure they don’t forget it.
There is a really good reason we are all so enamoured with The Dustbox right now. Besides how good they are at snowboarding. In an era of loners and strong personalities and all your friends moving away and losing touch, The Dustbox are a crew. We all know they’re homies. They are infinitely greater than the already enormous sum of their parts. They remind us why we fell in love with this. To belong. The Dustbox is the very personification of that feeling, of belonging. I am sure there are members of The Dustbox with mental health issues. These things are too pervasive for there to not be. But I feel much better, much safer, happier, and more confident, about those dudes and their future, because they have each other to look out for, than I do for a friend who moved away and rides alone.
Jaeger and Chris and Ben are gone. I am not. It’s not too early to say that survivor’s guilt is a big part of what I feel. No one can or should ever blame themselves for what happened to anyone that has died by suicide. Certain things in life we can not control. I don’t have a single ounce of blame for anyone in the world for what has happened to me but myself. But going forward we, as a community, need to be there for each other. I have pushed everyone away and tried to make it on my own for too long. I’m going to take the leap here and do the scariest thing I can do: ask for help. Don’t let me do all this again. Isolate myself. Don’t let me do that. Don’t let anyone you love do that. I’ll quote the author Thomas King: “Don’t say in the years to come that you would have lived your life differently, if only you had heard this story. You’ve heard it now.”
You might have watched the Pursuit of Righteousness and understood the advice but known there is a catch. If you’ve ever been depressed, you’ll know – that’s not always possible. You can’t always get up and go out the door and go snowboarding with your friends. I’ve been there the last few months. So, here’s what I need. Something tangible for you to take home. Here’s what we, as a community, need: go to them. Be there. Make sure they follow Tim’s doctor’s orders. Don’t give up on snowboarding. They might not be able to get up, but you can. Make a trip up there. Offer them a couch to crash on. Buy them a lift ticket or dinner. If you can’t be there, call them. Or call someone who can be there. If you don’t know for sure how they’re doing, check in. Be persistent. Show up randomly. You won’t know ahead of time what they need from you but go and learn what they need. They might want to talk. They might just want your quiet presence. But they don’t need to be alone. Sit on the couch. Shoot the shit. Cook them dinner. Force them to watch Afterlame. Then tomorrow or later in the week, when you can get them up, take them snowboarding. Take them to their friends. If you can’t, take them for a walk. Or skateboarding. Or climbing or surfing or whatever. Be their friend. Take them to something they love to do. Do it with them.
People may grow apart. It happens. You can’t be friends with everyone forever. But promise me this: Don’t let your friends fade away. Don’t let them stop boarding because they’re too depressed. Don’t let them stop calling and disappear into loneliness. I’m saying this twice for a reason. Call them. Go see them. Take them fucking snowboarding. In the last year, I have read “tell your friends you love them” too many times to count. We fucking mean it. Do it. And don’t stop doing it. And don’t stop at just that. Being a friend is more than kind words. Go there. Be there. Don’t let them go. Don’t stop snowboarding with your friends.