Trump, Avalanches, and Character

by | February 26, 2024

I have spent a lot of my life in the mountains. From the craggy Tetons in Wyoming to big walls in the Alps to the snowy heights of the Andes to the remote peaks of the Tien Shen range in Kazakhstan, alpine climbing and back country skiing have been my passion. Over thirty years, I have had some close calls. Moments when control vanishes in an instant. When you come face to face with what seems like the end.

This past Saturday, Donald Trump trounced Nikki Haley to win the South Carolina Republican primary. He has now swept every primary to-date and is universally expected to be the Republican nominee for President. The latest Harris poll has Trump beating Biden 52-48 in the general election. 

Even more than big falls on steep rock, one such moment is indelibly carved into my brain. It is the time I was involved in a major avalanche. And it is why I believe, despite the polls, that the odds are against Trump being elected President.

It was a beautiful, sunny morning in 2008. I was high up in the North Cascades, a mountain range connecting the northern end of Washington State and the southern part of British Columbia, with a group of friends, back-country skiing. As we toured along the ridge between two bowl-like slopes, we found what looked like the perfect slope to ski. We came together and discussed how best to forecast the stability of the snow and the potential avalanche danger. You see, skiing in the mountains, far away from any developed ski resort, is an inherently dangerous activity. Snow is a dynamic medium and it is hard to assess its stability. Every year, an average of 28 people die in the US from avalanches. Most never see them coming.

My group was a highly experienced. We had two guides with us who had decades of assessing avalanche conditions under their belts. Like me, my friends had been around the mountains a long time and a few of us had also been climbing and ski instructors. We were confident we knew what we were doing. First, we dug a snow pit to analyze the layers of the snow. We looked for the tell-tale signs of an unstable slope: different stratums of snow conditions that refreeze and cause weak bonds – heavy snow on a fractured loose bottom layer, for example – that could, under strain, slide like a weighted blanket on ball bearings. The snow pit looked fine. The layers looked stable. 

At this point, what felt euphoria began to approach. The weather was perfect. We had 1000 feet of untouched powder below us, beckoning us. We were all expert back-country skiers and we had done our homework. We felt total conviction that the slope was safe. We were in control. The ski guide went first and did what is called a ‘ski-cut’ to put extra weight on the top of the slope to try to trigger an avalanche, if somehow, we had read the conditions wrong. 

Nothing happened. The slope looked solid. He then let out a whoop of excitement and dropped in and we watched him carve perfect, effortless turns in powder that flew over his head with each swoop. I looked to my friend on my right with a huge grin, and we decided to do a quick ‘rock, paper, scissors’ to determine who would get to go next. After all, this slope was pristine and going before others was the name of the game. 

I lost our little game, and my friend pumped his fist, laughed at me, smiled at his wife standing next to me, and threw himself down the vertical. 

On his second turn, the slope gave way with a terrible thumping sound. We watched, in terror, as a 300-foot section of the slope suddenly turned to liquid. Our friend disappeared into a blur of white and an avalanche of major proportions swept away everything in its path. His wife screamed. Trees crumbled. Huge rocks seemingly came out of nowhere and were flung into the air like pebbles. On and on, everything that we were sure was stable was suddenly in flux, moving at speeds approaching 100 mph, destroying all in its way. 

My avalanche story has a surprising ending. Its victim survived. He hit a tree halfway down the slope; the impact destroyed his shoulder but flipped him into a position towards the top of the sliding snow and when it settled and turned into what can only be described as cement, his face (and airway) were pointing skyward, above the snow. 

That saved his life. If an avalanche doesn’t crush you, it suffocates you under feet of snow before help arrives. 

It took us close to 20 mins to find our friend. He would have died had he been buried. But the randomness of nature saved his life, by a hair’s breadth. The variables at play were monumental, at the intersection of physics and fate, perhaps. They were the definition of unpredictable. 

Equally unpredictable is the Trump avalanche. As his momentum towards the general election gathers steam, a few seemingly contradictory points stand out. 

First, Republican primary voters do not seem to care about Trump’s legal problems. The South Carolina vote came right after a New York judge ordered Trump to pay approximately $450 million for running his business as a fraud. Another jury had already ordered him to pay $83 million for defaming a writer. 

Second, after three Republican primaries, more than 3 in 10 voters have – through exit polling – made it clear that if Trump were convicted of a crime he would not be fit to serve as president. 

Yet, do these voters really mean it? How do we know? And what happens between now and the election that changes the political terrain? And most importantly, how do voters assess the risks of their choice?

Imagine for a moment you and I were having dinner and shared a nice bottle of wine. Perhaps I had more of it than you. And then I offered you a ride home, knowing you did not have a car. What then, if I added, ‘there is a chance I drank too much, and perhaps a 10% risk we could crash.’ Would you choose to catch a taxi instead? That would be a rational reaction, yet most of us go through life accepting 10% or greater risks all the time. I certainly did over 30 years of climbing in the high mountains. 

The reality is it is almost impossible for us humans to properly assess risk. We do our best to take information we have learned and apply it to current circumstances to predict future outcomes.  We know past performance won’t decide future outcomes, but we don’t know a better way to predict the future. We dig snow pits, study the terrain, weigh probabilities and then launch ourselves. Yet, the more unknowns there are, the more those probabilities shift. 

I sometimes reflect that I survived that avalanche by the mere fact that I lost a child’s game of rock, paper, scissors. For had I gone first, I surely would have skied a different line and missed the tree that saved my friend’s life. One way to look at this is luck saved my life. But the other is I knew the dangers of the back country and accepted them. I am glad to be alive, but I also know that for me, living life is about taking calculated risk in the pursuit of what I believe in.

Do most America’s voters behave in a similar way? 

Some readers might think I am merely interjecting my political preferences. But if civil judgments about a candidate imply fraudulent and legally libelous behaviors, is it wrong to assume that a large fraction of the American electorate is unwilling to evaluate risk objectively? And while the American criminal justice system correctly presumes innocence, is it also correct to utterly dismiss the probabilities of conviction when assessing the merits of a candidate? 

Voting is about sizing up a candidate across a wide range of issues – economic, social, cultural and perhaps most importantly, character. Should character only be measured by a criminal verdict? Though it is tempting to respond that everyone knows what Trump’s character is like by now and voters don’t care, avalanches have yet another relevant lesson to impart here. Sometimes a snow slope is stable until one final snowflake falls and causes what is known as ‘supersaturation.’ Put simply, a slope can only hold so much weight and when that final tiny piece of frozen water lands, all the support gives way. 

Whether Trump goes to trial for criminal offenses before the November elections or not, I suspect most Americans are nearing the supersaturation point on Trump’s character. And before they enter the voting booth, will have concluded the entertainment isn’t worth the risk.

Filed Under: Featured . Politics

About the Author

Alex is the co-founder of Jackson Hole Economics, a non-profit research organization which provides analysis of key topics in the political economy, and develops actionable ideas for how sustainable growth can be achieved

Alex is also the co-founder and Chief Executive Officer of Novata, a mission-driven and technology-powered public benefit corporation designed to improve the process of Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) diligence in the private markets. Backed by a unique consortium, which includes the Ford Foundation, S&P Global, Hamilton Lane and Omidyar Network, Novata has created an independent, unbiased and flexible platform for the private markets to more consistently measure, analyze and report on relevant ESG data.

With two decades of experience in the financial and non-profit spaces, Alex has led a number of sustainable growth and transformation efforts. He is a former CEO of GAM Holdings and Chief Investment Officer of UBS, and also served as the Chief Financial Officer of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, where he created the foundation's strategic investment fund.

Alex was a White House Fellow and an assistant to the Secretary of Defense. He is a member of the Board of Directors of Franklin Resources, Inc. (Franklin Templeton), a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, Chair of the Advisory Board of Project Syndicate and a board member of the American Alpine Club. Alex also writes regularly for various news outlets and is the author of Babu's Bindi and The Big Thing: Brave Bea, both children's books.

Alex holds a JD from Columbia Law School, where he was a Harlan Fiske Stone Scholar, an MBA from Columbia Business School, and a BA from Princeton University.

Related Posts

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This