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Finding ElDorado

The writing life is a lonely one. Nonfiction — where invention cannot supersede intention — perhaps lonelier still. Ultimately, you're stuck with a reality you can't write your way out of.
ElDorado tells the story of freeskier Andreas Fransson's death in an avalanche and those he left behind — including girlfriend Alenjandra Campos, who wrote the book. file photo

The writing life is a lonely one. Nonfiction — where invention cannot supersede intention — perhaps lonelier still. Ultimately, you're stuck with a reality you can't write your way out of.

A further caution: putting something out into the world that many will read doesn't insinuate you as part of any community. To maintain a critical sliver of objectivity one must often be an outsider; at best, where objectivity can be reduced to a reliable nanometre, a one-foot-in-one-foot-out participant. Most of my writing career has been spent in the latter camp — investigating subcultures that I am, in some way, part of, while never declaring full allegiance. Writing from this POV has become my jam. It has also become my albatross.

The idea of not being "pulled in" creates a strange kind of emotional abyss on whose edge you perpetually perch. And while I credit some of my best work to this silent struggle with the proximity of subject, it's not always the best place to be.

Editing even more so requires fabricated distance. Here, it isn't excavation that's at stake, but mechanistic issues — structure, pacing, sensitivity to subject. And when I edit pieces by others about things I may also have written on, I really have to step off. I might well know the subject, but need to take an omniscient view, letting the intimate details belong to the writer. It's a delicate pas de deux, and the more you know about something, the more difficult the dance becomes. Which is why a recent job so seriously challenged me.

When Andreas Fransson and JP Auclair — two of the mountain world's brightest lights — perished in an avalanche on Sept. 29, 2014, time stopped for many. Into that global pause poured the usual introspection by athletes, industry, family, friends. What were we all doing out there but tempting death? What were we all creating but heartache?

They were both friends, and though I'd already lost many to the mountains, something differed this time and its effects were clear; I ceased to care about professional freeskiing and my 30-year role as a chronicler and cheerleader. My relationship to something from which I'd drawn much inspiration became uncertain. It took me three months to be able to write about the accident ("The Unbearable Lightness of Being," (Pique, Jan. 8, 2015) and I never fully processed it. The sadness was like a second skin below the surface that even the tiniest scratch could expose. Maybe it would remain like that, but I kept in mind that whatever the case, it was nothing compared to what the pair's loved ones experienced, a type of loss I couldn't imagine.

But then something extraordinary happened. I received an email from Fransson's girlfriend, Alejandra Campos, a Chilean who had lived with him in Chamonix. She'd written a book about their years together and wondered if I'd give it a read. Yes, of course. A manuscript arrived entitled ElDorado — reference to the oft-searched-for mythical city reputedly filled with gold. With no idea what to expect, I started reading. Four hours later l looked up.

ElDorado was mesmerizing, an intimate, beautifully written art-piece of startling insight. Crafted in a unique style — blending narrative, dialogue, inner voice, and scene-setting directives like a film treatment — it was so relentlessly visual I felt witness to what was happening on every page. The names were all changed, but I knew enough of the plot that I recognized virtually everyone. And though I immediately understood the work to be that of someone "processing" with incomparable honesty and braveness, I still fell victim to the pathos of Andreas' inevitable death. It was hard not to lose it when the Alejandra character said goodbye to him as he left for the mountain that would take his life.

As Alejandra and I talked about ElDorado, it became clear to both of us that I should edit the book, even though I knew it would be painful — perhaps because of that. And for much the same reason she'd written it. To gain the necessary objectivity, I would first have to accept the story I had pushed away, a lengthy process that in the end delivered acceptance and satisfying freedom.

And while this slice of mountain history is above all a love story, the book's point is clear: there is no El Dorado; if you go searching for a golden city, you will only find the myth of its existence.

ElDorado: A True Story of Extreme Love is now available on Amazon.

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