Steve Kokes

My son Cameron came home last night for a visit from college.  Catching up with him reminded me of our trip about a month back for spring break.  The two of us and my wife Madeline headed to Utah and hit the slopes.  In these last years of our kids growing up and leaving the nest, we’ve come to treat spring break as a sacrosanct opportunity to do something memorable with them.  Last year Cam and I spent the week at Jackson Hole.

And despite this intent of family togetherness and joyful memories, the little guy who I first put on a pair of sticks when he a wee bitty five year old is no longer so little or eager to follow me down the hill.

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His abilities surpassed mine several years back even though I too was a childhood skier and snow sport enthusiast.  There’s nothing that quite matches the fearlessness and physical intelligence of youth coming of age.

Now I’m the one trying to keep up.

We did at least some things right in that he is glad to have me follow him.  The only question of course is where he is leading.  Too often it’s to, through and over terrain that ties knots in my stomach or delivers body shots to my bones.

Last year he talked me into a ride into the back country just beyond the edge of the boundary.  It started out fine.  Beautiful valley vistas and lots of untracked powder.  But soon Cam disappeared through the trees and I was left to more of a solo excursion through the wilderness.  Sure enough my path down the hill led me to a juncture where I faced what look like cliffs below with no other way out.  If my phone battery hadn’t already given out in the cold, I would have called the life flight helicopter ideally to pluck me off the hill there but at least to be ready if I attempted the reach to the bottom.

In reality the only way out was down, or forward as you might say.  What followed was a three-hour wrestling match with the mountain and with myself.  The decent was a combination of a few pacts with God; conquering the fear induced by terrain I could see; unstrapping out of my bindings and crawling sled-like out of some tight spots; and just plain refusing to go over any ledge from which I couldn’t see the bottom – there was some lateral traversing to this adventure.

Eventually I made my way down and back to the lodge alive and bruised but not broken.  Cam was there more than a little annoyed by primetime skiing lost to waiting and the inability to contact me via the standard modern technology.  Note to self: keep those phone batteries fully charged when entering the wilderness of your next adventure.

As mixed as my emotions and self-assessments are about that experience on the slopes, I find that at 50-something the work life offers many parallels.  Collectively I’m surrounded by people – 20-somethings, digi-geeks, social queens and… clients – all with a thirst for new terrain.  Safely carving out a few rides on the moderate and familiar routes just doesn’t cut it anymore.  Although the après-activity bevey doesn’t seem to have gone out of style yet.

It’s not just digital thing either.  The level of authenticity required has never been higher.  Even for the cause-oriented brands that we often serve the politically gruff and simultaneously sensitive environment we now live in creates a steep and bumpy slope on which to engage our audiences.

I feel that same fear-induced knot in my stomach as I look out at what lies ahead.  Sometimes I lead and sometimes I follow, but either way the important thing is that we conquer the fear and go.  The new terrain is the better terrain.  There may be some bumps and bruises along the way, but there’s also thrills, plenty of fresh tracks and views I’ve never seen before and would be sorry to miss, just for the comfort of the familiar.

The only way out is down, or forward as you might say.