In the fall of 2013, Andy Wirth and a few other extreme adventurers – professional skiers and BASE jumpers J. T. Holmes and Timy Dutton and other friends arranged to jump in Davis, California, and finding the zone at Davis was closed for weather conditions on Sunday, October 13, 2013 – they moved the jump to nearby Lodi. On that fateful day, there was a perfect storm of mishaps, creating a very bad situation that would call upon every mental, physical, and emotional resource available to Andy Wirth. In a dangerous and unexpected headwind, he was forced to make an emergency landing in a vineyard strewn with wires and poles that tore away his right arm.
As he lay there – all alone and fading fast – he saw that he was bleeding profusely from his brachial artery, and had only scant minutes left if he did nothing. He couldn’t tie a tourniquet with only one hand, so he made use of his own fist instead, to stop the bleeding, despite the pain, which saved his life. In his mind, playing in the background now – over and over – were the lyrics of the Pearl Jam song, “Just Breathe.”
As he notes himself, that song provided spiritual direction, as it kept running in the background. In the foreground – through the power of those lyrics – he was also able to sustain a stunning vision of his three children and his wife, Karen. He drew great strength from that vision, finding the peace of mind to breathe slowly, in and out – ‘just breathe’ – as he waited calmly for 30 minutes, until the rescue team arrived.
The same force that puts the ‘dare’ in dare-devil is probably based largely on an informed, rational decision. It is an abundance of training and discipline and the ability to fix the mind one-pointedly on the task at hand that allows someone to accept great challenges. In this case, that also saved the day for this relatively young man that afternoon, and for anyone bold enough to follow the narrative in any of the cliff-hanging re-tellings of his riveting tale – that are easily accessible online, there are any number of valuable lessons.
One of the most useful observations has been his capacity to calmly reflect upon his situation – rationally and deliberately – as if it were happening to another person. This is what saved him.
Not the least of the ‘reasons’ he was able to do this, perhaps, was recalling that Eddie Vedder song – as performed by Pearl Jam or as performed by Wirth himself on a lone guitar, as one of his wife’s favorites – that played itself over and over: Just Breathe.
This particular song embraces the contemplation of one’s own mortality – celebrating a life of having loved – and been loved by others – that allowed for the kind of grace to flow from an inspired and well-crafted piece of music or from the majestic reality of the great outdoors.
It also demonstrates the respect for life that inspired Wirth to have been a volunteer firefighter, a member of the Hot Shot Wild Land Fire Crew based out of Northern New Mexico; or a to have been a back-country ranger in the San Pedro Parks Wilderness Area, in New Mexico. All this while being beloved in his community.
This spring, Andy Wirth and Squaw Valley Ski Holdings announced plans to build a gondola connecting Squaw Valley to Alpine Meadows, operating base-to-base in three parts: “starting at the bottom of Squaw Valley, up and over the ridge between the two mountains, and down to the bottom of Alpine Meadows.”
It’s clear that it’s more than luck that Andy Wirth can count on.