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Ski partner continues trip in friend’s honor

Doctor died while skiing in Argentina four years ago

By Eli Francovich, The Spokesman-Review
Published: December 20, 2022, 6:05am

SPOKANE — He wept on a sunny day at the end of a continent. He cried alone, perched on a rock at the top of a little known glacier. There was no wind. His tears slowed and then he sat in silence and looked down at the expanse of snow. Somewhere down there was a rock outcropping that four years ago killed his friend.

But this year the craggy protrusion was covered by snow and Glenn Stewart dried his eyes and sat in silence. Eventually, his skiing partner arrived. It was Nov. 1. Stewart carefully unscrewed a flask of whiskey, took a slug, handed it to his friend and poured some out in memory of Dr. Jim Joy.

“It felt like a weight lifted off me,” Stewart said. “Getting that behind me. Getting back up there.”

An avid skier

Jim Joy was always planning and most of those plans revolved around skiing. The well-known Spokane anesthesiologist was an avid skier, organizing trips all over the world. He first caught the powder bug going to school at Fordham University, his wife, Lori Joy, said. The addiction only grew while he was a resident at the University of Washington. The couple moved to Spokane in 1997 partly on the strength of the hospitals in the region and partly because of the easy access to skiing.

“Other families would go to Hawaii for spring break. We skied. We always skied,” Joy said. “We never went anywhere warm for spring break.”

While he traveled a lot for skiing — Norway, Canada, Japan — his appetite wasn’t reserved only for the foreign. Standing in his Liberty Lake home on a snowy day, he’d look up at the hill above and scope ski lines. Often as not, he’d pick up the phone and call Stewart. “Dude, let’s try that!” Joy might say, and Stewart would pack his bags.

“If there was a nice strip of white, we’d go search it out,” Steward said.

In May 2018, the two spent three weeks in Norway skiing in the North Pole as part of Jim Joy’s effort to ski on every continent. When they returned, they decided they wanted to go to Antarctica that fall, Lori Joy said. She wasn’t thrilled her husband was leaving home again so soon, but she eventually agreed. The night before they left, Jim thanked her and explained some of his drive to go.

“I know you didn’t want me to go,” Lori Joy recalls him saying. “But I’m afraid I’m getting too old and I want to get it done.”

Early on Oct. 29, Joy and Stewart left Spokane. Normally, Lori Joy wouldn’t drive her husband to the airport, busy as she was with her OB-GYN practice. But that morning she felt compelled to do so. She rescheduled a surgery and dropped him off.

“I don’t know why I felt the need to do that,” she said.

Gravity doesn’t sleep

Death.

It’s one of those ever-present facts that goes mostly unremarked upon. Driving to work, most don’t think about the precariousness of hurtling along at 70 miles an hour, mere feet from total strangers doing the same thing. Grabbing the mail, you don’t consider that if you slip in just the right spot at just the right time you could die. Gravity doesn’t sleep, the saying goes.

Stewart and Jim Joy arrived in Ushuaia — a small town at the tip of South America — on Oct. 29. They soon planned to go to Antarctica with the guide group Ice Axe Expeditions. But on Nov. 1, 2018, they went for a short ski tour up the Martial Glacier.

It was a cloudy day, but they made good progress. Near the top, Stewart took off his skis and started hiking the last 100 or so feet to the small summit. The snowfield was maybe 40 degrees. Steep, but not insane. Jim Joy was ahead of him still on his skis. Stewart had his head down, focusing on hiking.

“Then I heard him yell and that’s when I popped my head up,” Stewart said. “And that’s when I saw him belly-first coming down.”

Stewart doesn’t know what happened, but he guesses that Joy slipped while taking off his skis. If he’d slipped 2 feet to either side, he would have missed the rock outcropping, sliding a long way, but likely not getting hurt.

Instead, he slid for about 5 seconds before hitting the rock. By the time Stewart got to him, Jim Joy was dead.

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‘He would want it’

Stewart spent several days stuck in Argentina trying to navigate the bureaucracy of death while Lori Joy grieved with her two daughters. Eventually, Stewart returned home, with the help of many friends.

He and Lori talked about the death, conversations Stewart dreaded but ultimately were healing. Stewart started going to therapy on the recommendation of a ski mountaineering guide. The grief isn’t gone, of course, but time has softened it. And in January 2019, at Stewart’s birthday party, Lori Joy handed him a note.

“I wish for you many years of sunshine and powder,” she wrote. “Ski the rest of the continents without him. He would want it.”

And so Stewart restarted Jim Joy’s mission. In 2020, he went to Morocco, ticking off one more continent and this fall he returned to Argentina. It was a trip he’d been dreading for four years.

“I had all this pent-up anxiety for four years,” he said.

But the day went smoothly, a cloudless sky lifting the mood.

“It was oddly peaceful,” Stewart said.

From there, he continued to Antarctica, finishing the trip he’d started four years prior.

‘I always knew’

Lori Joy still skis and, since her husband died, has done more backcountry skiing, partly in honor of his memory. She has no desire to go to the place where he died, but she was supportive of Stewart’s journey. Still, it’s a complicated consideration — one that’s always asked after someone dies recreating in the mountains. Is it worth it? Risking life and limb for recreation? Risking the grief of those left behind?

Lori doesn’t have an answer.

“Sometimes people say, ‘Well, he died doing what he loved,’ which is great and true,” she said. “It’s way better than dying from cancer and suffering and having all these other things. But it doesn’t change the grief my kids go through.”

Even as she wrestles with that conundrum, she’s been helped through the process by two strange and unexplainable facts. Lori Joy always thought Jim “would die in an avalanche.” While it wasn’t an avalanche that killed him, her intuition has helped her survive his death.

“I wasn’t so shocked when it happened,” she said. “I somehow always knew that would happen and I don’t know why I felt that way.”

The second unexplainable fact? The rainbows. After Jim Joy’s death, rainbows appeared over Lori Joy’s home on Hayden Lake. Rainbows on days when it wasn’t raining.

“When we see a rainbow, we’re like, ‘Hey, there’s Dad. He’s looking in,’ “ she said. “Somehow, that gave me a little peace.”

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