April 1, 2013

Sitting at my laptop late Thursday night, I clicked away from work over to Facebook, when a flood of posts on a friend’s page slammed my heart into my throat. Half a world away in Hokkaido, an avalanche of snow slid down the mountain, turning violent the pristine snow that drew Toby, Lulu, and me together. Through those posts, I learned that Toby was caught in that slide, and later succumbed to his injuries.

It’s heart-breaking, and I can’t believe that he’s gone.

Toby’s helmet brought to the summit of Asahidake by his friends, March 2013.

Lulu and I were lucky enough to meet Toby in Hokkaido when we joined a longtime friend of his on a trip to Japan for skiing in 2011. A Washington native, Toby lived in Hokkaido with his wife, Maiko, and the two of them graciously opened their house to our ragtag group of skiers and boarders. Counting the days, I spent a little over a week in Japan with Toby, and a night visiting here in Seattle. But to meet Toby for an evening was to become a lifelong friend. Before we’d arrived, Toby had planned out half of our adventures to come, and his excitement for our own trip was palpable. In Japan, his hospitality was incredible, sharing with us not only his ski secrets, but teaching us about Japanese culture, talking late into the night, and giving us an experience we couldn’t have dreamed of.

Maiko, Tom, Jason, me, Julia, and Toby (from upper left, clockwise), Higashikawa, February 2011.

I’ve worked in the ski industry for 10 years, and Toby’s enthusiasm for snow and skiing remains unparalleled. Toby was the ultimate powderhound, but instead of drawing that inward and keeping it for himself, Toby wanted to share it all – every part of the experience. And the places he showed us in Japan were magical. In that week, Toby shared his home, his “Deep North” Hokkaido powder snow, his favorite onsen to soak in, his food and drink, and many of his stories. As the week drew down, the rest of the group left for the States. Lulu and I would continue on for another week in Japan, and Toby drove 4.5hrs down to Niseko with us for one more day of skiing, just to show us around his former mountain. After another great day of skiing and before hopping on the bus back home, he swore us to secrecy and gave Lulu and me a hand-drawn map of the mountain, with all of his routes and stashes labeled on it. While Toby shied away from revealing the awesomeness of these mountain places across the anonymity of the internet, in person he wanted nothing more than to share them, and he exuded energy in doing so.

Toby and me, Niseko, February 2011.

Since the trip, constant chatter about adventures filled the last two years. When I sent him gear from our basement, he documented all the deep powder it skied.┬áToby always seemed to be the first to like or comment on one of our adventures, and late night emails or messages were like catching up with an old friend or current ski partner. He was leaving the school where he taught elementary kids in April this year, to start a coffee roasting/craft brewing business with some small scale lodging for visitors. Hearing that, I can’t help but think of it as a slightly larger extension of the experience staying at Toby’s house (in both camaraderie and quality of beverages).

The time spent with Toby was so short, but his impact was huge. Toby touched so many people — it’s apparent in the incredible outpouring online from friends and family all across Japan and the United States, as well as people who had crossed paths with him on their travels. I can’t imagine the loss felt by friends and family who were so lucky to spend more time with him, and my deepest condolences go out to Toby’s family, in particular.

Toby headed for more powder, Daisetsuzan, February 2011.

I still struggle to process the fact that Toby was taken from all of us, suddenly, and way too soon. Through her tears Friday morning, Lulu asked me why we had to enjoy something so much that can be so dangerous. We’ve spent a lot of time managing risk in the things that we love, working through the joys and the frightening moments, but for the first time, I didn’t really have an answer. Weighing the pain and loss of a friend and feeling that fetal kick inside Lulu’s belly through the morning, the incredible joy I’ve always felt in the mountains suddenly couldn’t be reconciled, not in that moment.

Leading the way to last tracks, Niseko, February 2011.

There is an enormous void in the energy today without Toby, but there is also inspiration reading through the stories and posts that everyone is sharing. There is no easy answer, neither in grief, nor in that balance of risk and reward. It will take a while to resolve. I miss Toby, but I am incredibly happy that I got to know him. Thanks for the adventures, Toby, and I can only hope emulate your energy, enthusiasm, and care in friendship with others.

Last run in Niseko, Toby, Lulu & Graham, February 2011.

  • Ronna Dansky says:

    Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts and beautiful photos. I worked with Toby in Seattle. I went on to visit Japan to help Toby and Maiko build their straw bale house, Square One. Only someone as magnetic and inspiring as Toby could have drawn me to that hot August in Japan to make what I had hoped to be the first of many visits. This loss is so painful to so many, but Toby would be kicking all of our butts if we spend too many days of our precious lives grieving over him instead of getting outdoors and enjoying life. Namaste to you and Lulu.

  • Jeff Gephart says:

    As Toby frequently commented on your activities, I could see that he was a great friend and kindred spirit. Sorry for your loss.

  • Graham, thank you. I hope it’s OK if I link to this on my own blog. I want to keep some of these things to remember him by in the future, before they get buried on his Facebook page.

  • Jana Claxton says:

    Beautiful photos and words Graham, thank you for sharing. It is easy to see why Toby cherished his friendship wait you and Lulu. Congratulations on the baby on its way.

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