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New Film “Strong” Reminds Us to Be Safe, But Live Wild – Interview With Fitz Cahall

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“We are all going to make mistakes. It’s truly learning from them that makes life really sweet,” says skier, climber and parent Roger Strong. On April 6th, 2011, the veteran backcountry skier was skinning up his favorite backcountry run when he triggered an avalanche that swept him and two friends hundreds of feet through steep trees. When the snow settled, his tibias had been ripped from his femurs. But he was alive, along with his friends. In the months that followed, Strong, confined to a wheelchair, was left to sort through his decision-making. Had he failed as father and a husband? What would he take away from the experience? And if his body would allow, would he still want to ski?  Miraculously, a year later he was skiing the pass again.

Here filmmaker Fitz Cahall talks about his personal connect to making this film about his friend.

Adventure: You said you admired Roger for a long time for his spirit of adventure. Tell us about this.
Fitz Cahall: Oddly enough, I first met Roger five years ago on a backcountry skin track a few hundred feet below where the slide took place, and it was clear that Roger was one of the most passionate people I’d ever met. We discovered that we lived a few blocks away from each other here in Seattle. Not long after Roger and Merridy had their incredible daughter, Maya. I watched curiously as Roger, Merridy, and Maya carved out their own life, on their own terms. As parents, they managed to ski more days than I did that ear. That’s hard to do. Life on your own terms is deeply rewarding, but hard to attain. Roger remained at the heart of the outdoor community here in Seattle, always taking the time to help others or calling to check in on someone even as his life seemed improbably busy.

A: Did the idea for a film about him come after the accident?
F.C.: It did. I only wish I had started filming earlier—I was just too busy—when he was struggling to recover a bit more. I’d sometimes stop by his house on my way home from a run and there would always be two to four people there bringing food by. It was clear in that moment how many people Roger had inspired and that’s when I thought, we should do something.

A: Roger’s story has run parallel to you own, as a father and as an adventurer facing recovery after serious injuries. Can you explain this?
F.C.: It unfortunately did. Last summer, I was out climbing with my good friend Mikey Schaefer. We were trying a difficult, somewhat serious route (at least for me), and I broke a hold. I had no gear and fell 50 to 60 feet onto the belay. The rope ended up partially cut. I broke a few bones in my foot and ankle and my organs took a beating and began to swell because of the force of the fall. I got off really lucky. Mikey dragged me down for nine hours. Roger was the first person to call.

I had been in that same position a few hundred times during my climbing career. This was the one in a hundred where it went wrong. And as parent, as a husband, as a son, as a grandson, as a friend, I realize that I matter—it took many years to understand this, and I was a bit careless with my choices in my early 20s. So sitting on the couch, you are left asking “What matters?” My son Tep matters. My wife Becca matters. I matter. And yet so do the mountains. even with their inherent risks. My experiences have shaped who I am, who I fell in love with, how I’m raising my child. The whole “you could die walking down the street or driving a car” doesn’t work in my opinion. It seems like sloppy thinking. There is no neat way to solve this contradiction. And if you spend enough time thinking about it you can come to accept that we all contain contradictions. I think both Roger and I came to a place where we thought, Okay, do the best you can to make smart decisions—these sports can be done pretty safely, not entirely safely—and hope that when you make a mistake (because we all make mistakes) it’s a small enough mistake that we get to learn from it. In sense, be safe, but live wild.

A: In the mountains, it doesn’t matter how good you are, when the accident happens, it happens. Do you think, eventually, it’s more likely to get taken down, than not?
F.C.: We love something that does not love us back. I can get pretty frustrated when someone makes a mistake and some people in our community dog pile in with armchair quarterbacking. I’ve seen some people who take a safety third mentality have long and prosperous careers in the mountains while some of the safest, most conscious lose their lives. I don’t necessarily think we are all going to get taken down, but there are just some situations that aren’t safe no matter how much planning your put into it and the key is to get out of those situations asap.

A: How did you get that beautiful skiing footage?
F.C.: I’m glad you think it’s beautiful. The light wasn’t perfect, but yes the moment was beautiful. Bryan Smith and the crew that was there the day of the accident carried a giant Red camera up to the site of the slide. It wasn’t much fun, but it was.

A: How’s Roger doing now?
F.C.: Roger is doing really well. He has to really listen to his body and he can’t do everything he used to be able to but he’s still trying to work towards it. It’s Herculean that he made it back within a year. The University of Washington Medical Center here in Seattle decided to make him their poster child. So he did something right. He is still just as excited about the mountains and his family.

A: Having dealt with your own recovery, do you have any wisdom on the resiliency of the human body and spirit?
F.C.: How about this—I’ve always wanted to learn how to break dance, but I’m probably better of trying to do yoga five days a week if my mountain passions revolve around climbing and skiing. I think that it’s important to accept that you won’t always have the body of a 23-year-old. Experience and wisdom can bridge that gap, but it’s important to grow into a deeper understanding of why we climb, ski, kayak, and mountain bike. And some things maybe are just meant for the next life. Like BASE jumping.