I Wanna Talk About Ben

I want to tell you a story about a classic weekend. Originally, it was a story I was not going to write about. Why? Because at the time I decided it was going to be a break from documenting. It was going to be a true vacation with two good friends. Two good friends who flew all the way across the country to spend a weekend with me in my childhood hometown doing things we loved doing together. I had just moved away from these two friends and was so excited to spend the weekend with them that I did not want to take too much time away from the experience doing my typical documenting that I do. I did not take an incredible amount of pictures like I usually do. I do have some. Mostly because I just love taking pictures, but now more then ever I am glad that I did take these pictures. I am glad because it was the last weekend I spent with my very dear friend, Ben Geiger. Also, in thinking back on the story of the weekend it really encompasses nearly all the beautiful aspects of my friendship with Ben. The story has inter-workings that speak directly to the wonderful man, friend, business partner, and mentor to me that Ben has been to me. I knew I needed to write about his death at some point, and I feel like I am in the right place to do so now. So I will weave in and out of the story of this one particular weekend, and about my relationship with Ben. It will get long. We've been friends for twenty wonderful years in the prime of our twenties and thirties. 

Paul, Me, Ben (L to R)
^Ben and our buddy, Paul Wright, flew in from Utah on a Thursday night, and we had a classic weekend in
Southeast Wisconsin. Two weeks later, Ben died. He had a massive sudden heart attack at work and died instantly. By the time I am writing this now, a month has passed since Ben's brother, Bob, called me to tell me Ben had died. To be honest, I am still a mess. I am going through the stages of grieving, and I am really struggling. None of us gets out of this life without knowing loss, and I am no stranger to losing my friends either. My shoulders are adorned with tattoos reminding every day of dear friends of mine that have died young. I was strangely prepared to be able to be helpful to our friends and Ben's family in the aftermath. I had our business deals dialed. I stayed composed in my eulogy. I helped organize efforts to cope together. I did what I do. I kept the program rolling and helped all our people as best I could. The college ski crew friends of ours call me "the godfather" because I am the one who keeps shit dialed, keeps us on time, and is prepared for anything. Ben was our "director of stoke" he brought the spark. He was the one to talk us all into following the shift in the wind direction, and I brought the first aid kit with us and made sure we got out by dark. We are ideal compliments to each other. We make each other better. I helped him dial-in, he helps me let go.

On this particular weekend Ben pulled the trigger. He initiated the weekend in buying the Dead & Co. concert tickets, he sprung for the condo, he rallied Paul, and he left the rest up to me. Just like we always did. He was the spark, and I laid the plans.

Ben and Paul flew into Chicago's O'Hare Airport and I scooped them up! Their plane was running late, and I had planned to take them to the local bar near my parent's house where we would sleep the first night. Ben had been to the Lily Lake Resort before as part of my wedding party many years ago, and he was stoked to show Paul the place. We met my parent's there, had some grub, and spent the rest of the night with all sorts of the best kind of local folks that I call my tribe. We all laughed the night away like we always do. They listened to "back-in-the-day" stories of me from my local childhood friends, Paul saw a firefly for the first time, and they both got to see my Dad's famous karaoke rendition of Clarence Carter's famous hit single, "Strokin" as my mom busted up laughing out loud like it was the first time she'd seen it! We stayed up way to late, and we slept in just as late the next day. Just as I had planned that we probably would. My mother had breakfast and hangover cures dialed up for us in the morning. My preparedness is partly genetic. We carried on the rest of the day getting checked into the condo in Lake Geneva and procuring supplies for the adventures ahead. Ben bought tickets for two nights of Dead & Co. concerts at the iconic Alpine Valley Music Theatre near my hometown. I was shuttling us around all over in my van and before we knew it the show time was upon us.    

^We made some time for tailgating in the parking lot, and then filed into the Friday night show. The crowds were pretty big, but the vibes and weather were ideal. The week leading in was mired with six days of rain storms, and six inches of rain. We were worried the outdoor venue was going to be a total shit show, but the rain stopped. Some light winds helped dry everything out, and the conditions could not have been more perfect. The flow was in our favor.

^Ben and Paul are pictured here in lower right corner at our blanket base camp early in our Friday night show as we enjoyed the clearing weather and some green landscape views of the beautiful countryside around Alpine Valley Music Theatre. Tailgating and pre-show conversations drifted back to skiing, the old days, all our good olé times, and all our good friends we've shared over the last twenty years.

^We met up with some local family friends of mine, Chad and Nora Hart, whom I know from Chad and I growing up in this region. Chad and Nora also know Paul from the days when they used to live in Ogden, Utah as well. Chad was pivotal in my moving to Ogden all those years ago when I was 18 years old looking for a western mountain college. Chad moved to Ogden with help from my Uncle Doug who used to work at Snowbasin in the 80's where Chad got a job just before I was on my college search. Chad became friends with Paul at Snowbasin where they both worked together in those days. I stayed with Chad on a couple Weber State University visits in Ogden where I ended up going to college. Ben was among my first college friends I met when I moved there. Ben and I had skied with Chad when he ran the cat skiing operation at Powder Mountain. Then, Ben just happened to book a condo for this particular concert weekend at the resort where Chad currently works in our hometown. The whole damn scenario was a cloud of "small world" irony that we could all barely believe. It all came together for this picture above at Friday night's show that was the exact kind of universal energy that Ben always talked about. We are all connected to each other, in these moments, in these places, and on this planet. 

^ The band's deep beats and riffs knocked the clouds out of the sky. The moon and stars emerged over the trees and the illuminated ski slopes surrounding the stage. This group of people came together in a cosmic chain of relationships and harmonies that was nothing short of magical. The whole thing was just flowing with a spirit that I could never have planned for and was beyond any level of stoke that Ben could have dreamed up. The vibes were chill, deep, real, genuine, and lifting us to the heaven's like a Dead & Co crescendo. I set us up a nice concert base camp spot. The crowd was not too big, and the evening rolled out with a perfectly chill vibe.  

^The next morning we got up, I made us a hearty breakfast, and we sat around and talked about life, family, business, and all the other random things between friends. Eventually we got all set up for a day on the White River that flows from Lake Geneva. All the rain storms the week prior meant that the river was flowing rather strong despite being a sub-class one river, and some deadfall made the river even more interesting then usual. At one point early in the paddle Paul got caught by surprise on the wrong side of the river with a huge deadfall tree down in front of us and he actually got pinned against the tree trunk, sucked underneath, and spit out the backside. The incident was super sketchy! However, Ben and Paul and I built our friendships around being backcountry ski touring partners in the Wasatch Mountains of Utah the last twenty years and we all went right into "game mode" when Paul got flipped. The three of us snapped into rescue measures and careful maneuvering just like we had in sketchy scenarios we had come across in the mountains time and again together before. In thinking back on it now, I am grateful it was the three of us. We simply handled the business of the situation in harmony with each other. None of us freaked out. We all just focused and coordinated like we'd done many times before. Mostly because we have. 

Clarity in the fog of chaos is a treasured trait in the backcountry that we have dialed in together over many years. Ben and I literally grew up in this backcountry world together underneath mentors of ours like Paul. Ben was my backcountry partner. In the backcountry community there is a saying about being an apprentice, a peer, and a mentor. 

Ben and I each were apprenticed by many mentors. Paul was among them. As an apprentice you soak up everything you can following along as much as the mentors will allow. Ben and I went out together and on our own to get that mentorship from so many of our respected elders. 

Then one is supposed to develop a peer that they are equals with that one can go out and test that knowledge with to gain the experience and wisdom of the backcountry. That was Ben and I. We were each other's backcountry peers. We shared what we learned from mentors, and we pushed our personal boundaries to learn and gain wisdom by exploring and making mistakes. We had a crew of buddies that were in this peer group with us, and together we grew to unbelievable heights in our skiing and backcountry lives. It culminated for our crew in sponsorships, ski movie parts, publishings in ski magazines, and all of us exploring terrain and opening un-skied backcountry lines in the Ogden Wasatch and around the world. For me personally, it was the start of building my career.

Our backcountry peer partnership is something we both valued immensely. Those same traits carried over into our lives where we shared our mentors advice with each other, took business risks together in projects and partnerships, and gained wisdom in our family lives together. We struggled through learning to become husbands and fathers together. Our backcountry partnership blossomed into regular good old-fashioned friendship. On our skis, on mountain bikes, summer terrain scouting, concerts, and through all of the life that happened to us while we were on these adventures together for twenty years. We kept growing up, and became the best kind of buddies. Paul turned from our mentor to our peer as well. Other mentors of ours did too. We were growing into men of our own. Stewards of the backcountry community of our own. 

Naturally, Ben and I began to become mentors to younger guys stepping out into the Ogden backcountry as well. We debated over it together to know how much to show them, how much to get all "drop-dead serious" with them. What was our responsibility to them within our responsibility to be  good backcountry citizens. How do we fit in this system of perpetuating the ethics and mantras of backcountry skiing we'd learned, and were still learning, in the backcountry through the generations just as it had come to us. We grew in the role just as we also grew into fathers of our own children, and husbands to our wives. We matured. We slowed down. We learned.   

^After we recovered boats and got the situation back under control, the rest of the way down the White River that day Paul, Ben, and I simply paddled it smoothly through the various small rapids and riffles. Uneventful, and enjoying the nice weather and gorgeous river views. Ben gushed over one such amazing local farm spread that looms like a postcard around one particular bend in the river. He begged me to take his picture in front of it, but the current was too fast, I was too low in the kayak for the angle, and my camera was pretty buried in my vest because I was not as worried about taking pictures during my much needed vacation with my good buddies. I wish I would've because he was a glow in the beauty of that spot! He was going on and on about he'd have no problem living in a place like that. Ben carried on about how he wanted to bring his wife and kids to visit, and about how much fun our wives and kids would have together here in the summers. We made future plans. We actually dialed in our long-term real estate partnership plans throughout the day as well. Just the same as we always had. We believed at that time that we had our whole lives to be the best kind of buddies. Neither of us even fathomed it would be the last weekend we'd spend together alive on this earth. 

^The three of us rallied the rest of the river and rendezvoused with my Dad for our river shuttle pick-up. Then we all got ready for Saturday night's show. Ben insisted that my Dad come with us to Saturday night's show because he loved my Dad like a mentor of his own. We'd each shared so much of our father's wisdom with each other that we both felt a kindred fatherhood type love for the other's dad. He insisted my dad join us, and my dad was stoked to come! The Saturday night crowd was much bigger then Friday night, and the vibes were more chaotic and wild. At one point my OCD preparedness nature gave in to the night and proclaimed to our group, "There is no base camp set-up for tonight! We are in the ocean of Alpine Valley tonight fellas, and all we've got is each other! Grab on, and hold for dear life because we are but salmon swimming up this wild river of life tonight! Feel the flow! We are in it!" Ben, the ever ardent preacher of the universal energy and the power of life, ate that up with a spoon and we were all high-fiving, toasting, and hugging each other deep into the music of the night. We were flowing in an absolute river of love and joy.  

^This picture is from a moment where I was awash in the love and beauty of this life while I was in the least likely of places. I was standing in the line for the portable bathrooms. Just below the bottom frame of this picture was a huge row of dirty "porta-johns". However, awash in the love, joy,  the beauty of the weekend, my friends, and my dad I noticed the way the stage lighting lit up this lonely tree at the top of the venue seating along the fence. For some reason it looked gorgeous to me as the music played in my ears and the happy people danced along that fence line. Standing in line for a disgusting porta-john, and I still saw beauty. Ben loved that one when I told him about it when I got back from the bathroom run. He ate that kind of stuff up. He loved hearing about finding beauty "in the strangest of places when you look at it right"(a Grateful Dead lyric).   

^The end of the night on the final show and I snapped this picture of Ben and my dad laughing it up telling stories and watching all the party people filing up the steep hillside towards the exits. We chilled and waited for the whole place to clear out before we left each night because we were in no hurry. We were having as much fun just bullshitting with each other as the traffic cleared out as we did during any Bob Weir guitar solo. Ben insisted on including my dad on this weekend. I am forever grateful he did. So is my dad. The day we found out Ben had died my dad comforted me talking about how grateful he was to have had that weekend with him. That weekend will be among my most cherished memories for the rest of my life now. Probably would've been even if Ben was still alive, and we simply retold the story a million times to our kids over all the bonfires we had planned our families to share together in our futures. I will still tell those stories to our kids over the bonfires I am determined to share with our wives and kids in the future regardless now. Bonfires that I know that I will feel him all around us for. 

The next morning we dragged our weary bones out of bed, made breakfast, and I drove them back south to Chicago O'Hare Airport. We laughed all the way there about how exhausted we all were now that we were no longer doing weekends like this in our twenties anymore. I dropped Ben and Paul at the terminal. We hugged it out, and did our "see ya thens" until our next gathering. I drove away with barely any gas in my van. As I clamored over my phone to see if I had enough gas to make it to the gas station I wanted to stop at, my phone rang.  It was Paul. He exclaims through laughing that Ben had forgotten his cell phone in my van cup holder, the airline tickets were on the phone, and I would have to turn around and come back. I barely had enough gas and busted out laughing at the situation.

You see, I had long ago created a nickname for Ben, "Floppy Socks". I could tell a million "Floppy" stories here, but the gist of it is that I compared Ben to the stereotypical kid we all knew as children on the school yard basketball courts that walked up to the game and enthusiastically wanted to play. He'd be sporting the strangest looking gear with floppy-ass gym socks that had no elasticity left in them. His jump shot would look ugly as all hell, and his energy would be through the roof... but the kid would just absolutely hoop! No one could explain why or how, but the kid just simply had undeniable game! He was all over the show, but the dude was cash money buckets! It made no sense to anyone watching, but he was a complete success at the game. The sentiment explained Ben to the tee. Skiing he would have haphazard gear, but his flow and style was undeniably legendary. In business he appeared to be all over the place and was often misunderstood, but he was incredibly successful. His wife and family will always be on sound foundation due to the decisions he made in life, but I am sure his accountant and life insurance agent each have a story about how they were bewildered at how Ben did his business with them. Ben went against all rational knowledge and went into a partnership with me and gave me a business loan for way too much money at a time in my life when any lender would have laughed me out of their office. Ben hired Paul and compensated him in ways that would make most entrepreneurs cringe at accounting waste and messy intrinsic value transactions like just giving him gifts, as many ski days as he wanted(even promoted), and a myriad other signs of gratefulness on behalf of a boss, a person, and a friend for that matter. Ben understood how to see people, what they valued, and how to show them love and gratitude in ways that they valued. As an entrepreneur he understood that it started at payroll, but also extended to the littlest of things to even the way in which you talk to a person. Ben was not always the greatest communicator. There were times in business and in life that his quirky and odd nature were misunderstood, but anyone who had the chance to get to know his heart understood that even when he came off the wrong way he really always had his heart in the right place. He always meant well, and always tried his very best. He is "Floppy Socks", but dude has a pure heart and serious game. 

As I pulled back up to the airport terminal with the gas needle tickling empty, Ben and Paul approached my van and Ben uttered with a chuckle, "Sorry for the floppy socks". I simply laughed along and said to him, "This weekend could not have ended in any better of a way!" We all laughed and they went on their way while I fumbled with my phone to find a gas station within 13 miles of the airport and an empty gas tank. I found one no problem. I laughed all the way there, and gave thanks for google maps. 

So, much akin to the way I stated it in my eulogy at his services, I want to say here that I am choosing not to talk about what he was, or what we used to do together in the past tense because I believe that when I put skins on my skis, a pack on my back, and venture out into the backcountry towards a distant peak that my backcountry ski touring partner, and very dear friend, will be walking with me. On that walk I will talk to him about all the same things we always talk about on our backcountry tours from the snowpack to life, to love, to energy, to politics, to our families, to our latest mind blow and time warp. I am gonna gather with his wife and kids as much as I can. I am gonna hike, bike and ski with his brother's, Paul, and our friends just like he and I love to. I am gonna take a day to go ski groomers with his dad like him. I am gonna cherish and work to do better with my own family like him. I am gonna keep exploring new backcountry terrain, checking off, and naming new zones and lines. I am gonna bring more stoke to our friends as well as being the prepared one. I am gonna stop being so sad about his death one of these days. I am gonna find happiness in my memories of him again like he would want me too. I know he'd want me too.

I know our pain we all have in loss is something he'd want us all to move through. He understood the dual nature of love for each other that makes it hurt so much for us, and we would push us to move passed the hurt of our loss to get back to the positive nature of the love that he believes in pouring over all of us so very much. I look to the hummingbirds and dragonfly visits I choose to believe is him coming to grace me with his undeniable spirit. I will tattoo my shoulders with art that reminds me of him so that I think of him each time I look in the mirror every day. I want the tattoos to take me to memories of him, and I want new friends to ask me about those tattoos when they see them because I don't want to try to forget about him to save me the pain. I want to remember the best of him every day, and I want people to ask me about those tattoos so I can tell them about him and my other dear friends that are memorialized on my shoulders. I want to tell everyone all those classic stories about all of them as much as I can. That is how I honor their lives and our friendships. That is how I internalize the lessons I take from them. I remember them, and I share them. I want these memories of Ben to move passed sadness and back to the glory of the love of our friendship. I want to be asked about and reminded of his smile, his legendary ski style, and the dear friend, husband, father, brother, and man that he is. I wanna tell myself and others all across this world all about him... I wanna talk about Ben.

photo: Jon Gurry

photo: Jon Gurry