Andy Embick had to be right, and he often was - but there were some battles he couldn't win.
By Tony Hopfinger
Andrew Embick peddled his mountain bike along the dusty streets of Hunza, in northern Pakistan, passing vendors with baskets of walnuts and apricots. Smoke from twig fires floated overhead. A beeping Suzuki minivan zigzagged between pedestrians, so packed with passengers that some were clinging to side mirrors. Embick, fifty-two, a physician from Valdez, Alaska, wore thick glasses and a beard trimmed like Lincoln's. He was toting a bag of medical gear and supplies.
“My bicycle excites immediate interest, as if it was a Ferrari or Rolls Royce somehow transplanted to rural Alaska,” he wrote to The Valdez Vanguard.
Embick went to Pakistan last fall as a volunteer to help villagers, fifteen hundred by his account. That alone seems sufficiently selfless to merit recognition, but there was far more to Dr. Andy Embick; more, too, than the medical practice he maintained with his wife and a couple of others at a clinic in Valdez, or the shifts he worked in the emergency room of Valdez's small hospital.
It was the outdoors and its challenges, especially in climbing and kayaking, which kept Embick alive. Standing about five feet, ten inches and weighing a hundred and seventy pounds, he had the body of a boxer and the face of a scholar. He spent hundreds, perhaps thousands, of days in Alaska's hinterlands, ice climbing and whitewater kayaking, earning a worldwide reputation. He wrote two widely respected books about his beloved sports. He competed in marathon cross-country ski races. To some, he was nearly legendary, a modern-day Alaskan pioneer, forging new routes and conquering new challenges. He was a problem-solver possessed of unusual intelligence, strength and courage.
Embick could be helpful and compassionate. He softly counseled a woman suffering from painkiller addiction. He stopped on Valdez's winter trails to help Nordic skiers perfect their glide. When there was no veterinarian in Valdez, he stitched up wounded dogs. He opened his home to a generation of climbers and kayakers, adventurers from around the globe who would crash in his basement and feast on gourmet dinners he prepared.
But there was still another side to Embick. He could be arrogant, uncompromising and prone to angry outbursts. He sometimes refused to treat alcoholics, believing they were beyond help. He fought with snowmachiners on the Valdez trails, earning a hothead reputation and turning some townspeople against him. He insistently lectured outdoor buddies on the right river routes to take and the proper way to modify their gear. Graduated from Harvard Medical School, an Oxford Rhodes Scholar, Embick was smart, but he was also something of a know-it-all. He could get others to follow him but he was far from flexible; it often had to be Andy's way or he wouldn't play. He could be tiresome.
By all accounts Embick was all of these things - skilled, accomplished, smart, forceful, rigid and even obnoxious. That blend ultimately had much to do with why he found himself riding his bike alone in Pakistan's mountains, along the old silk route to China, when he had a wife and two daughters at home, in a town he said didn't appreciate him.
Shortly after he returned from Pakistan, on the morning of May 28, Embick wrote his wife a note saying he was going out on Prince William Sound for a paddle in his scull, a slick, jet-black rowboat he'd built.
A friend in a kayak found Embick's body in shallow water two days later. Divers recovered a twelve-gauge, double-barreled shotgun nearby. Embick had shot himself in the head, leaving behind his wife, Kathy Todd; two daughters, Elizabeth, fifteen, and Maggie, twelve; and hundreds of friends, enemies and admirers.
Alaska has one of the nation's highest suicide rates. Many Alaskans who kill themselves are Natives, alcoholics, or both. Embick was neither, although he was a doctor, a professional group with a higher-than-average rate of suicide. He was also successful in his chosen pursuits, and that, too, is common in some people who commit suicide. He was not apparently prone to depression, although some who knew him say he seemed down in the days after his return from Pakistan.
Embick's friends say he was not the type to share his feelings.
“He was a doctor,” said Bill Comer, a Valdez police lieutenant and neighbor of Embick's. “He helped us with our problems, he didn't give us his. He hid things.”
In Andy Embick's neighborhood, where most of Valdez lives, it's easy to tell a person's favorite sport. Next to homes are big pickups with gun racks in rear windows, snowmachines on lawns, mountain bikes standing on car roofs or four-wheelers tied to trailers.
Embick's house is a modest, dark green split-level. The day after his memorial service, a river kayak rested on the lawn and a lifejacket hung by the front door. Next to the house was Embick's scull, the boat he rode to his death a week earlier. It looks like a shark, twenty-four feet long and weighing only sixty-five pounds. “The Stealth,” some called it.
Sheep heads, a bear and other animals stare when you walk inside the Embick household. A rack of skis is at the bottom of the stairs. Another staircase goes up through a utility room and opens up to a living room with green shag carpeting that looks decades old. Facing bookshelves line the walls. The bigger of the two holds mostly outdoors and adventure-travel books: Eiger: Wall of Death, Pakistan Trekking Guide and The Golden Peak. Stacks of the New England Journal of Medicine and Climbing magazine sit side by side. Another bookshelf is stacked with Chemical Application of Group Theory, A Modern Utopia and Atoms and Molecules.
Embick, the oldest of four children, was born in New York City in 1950 and reared in Salem, Oregon. His father, Richard Embick, was an orthopedist and all-American football player who turned down the Green Bay Packers. His mother was a lawyer, said Lucy Kunz, Embick's sister.
Kunz, an art history professor, lives in Germany; she traveled to Valdez for her brother's memorial service and continued a discussion about Embick via email. She took pains to stress that when Embick was a boy, he was kind and not argumentative. When he had something to say he explained his position in minute detail, she said. He liked science. He collected insects and dissected animals. Kunz recalls seven jars filled with partially dissected guinea pigs on her brother's workbench, across from the family's washing machine. That was typical, she said.
Typical, too, were Embick family excursions in the outdoors. They camped in summer and skied in winter. Andy dabbled in football but he wasn't the team-sports type. He participated in gymnastics, which helped him build the strength and agility he would use later for climbing, when he was in his teens. By the age of sixteen, Andy was scrambling up Oregon's mountains and thinking of a career in medicine.
He attended Pomona, a private college east of Los Angeles, where he found time to explore Joshua Tree and Yosemite national parks, meccas for rock climbers. At Pomona he also met Kathy Todd, his future wife.
Todd went to medical school while Embick went to Oxford on a one-year Rhodes Scholarship. When Embick returned to the U.S., he entered Harvard Medical School. This was a period of his life he would later say was “easy.” He found time to fly to Alaska during school breaks, where he climbed the Kichatna Spires, steep granite faces shooting from the mammoth Alaska Range. He made risky solo climbs, with no ropes to catch him if he fell.
After Harvard, he went to work for the Indian Health Service, in Nevada and Arizona, but he didn't find his duties satisfying, he told the Anchorage Daily News in 1995. Alcoholism among Native Americans apparently frustrated the young doctor. “We were dealing with drunken Indians,” he said, according to the Daily News.
“There was nothing I could do. At the very least, I like to succeed at some identifiable goal. Patch up an eye, care for a bone that is broken, a tendon that is cut. If repaired skillfully, that takes care of the problem. But some problems are hopeless.”
Embick was frustrated, too, because he couldn't get enough time off in summer for expeditions to Alaska.
In 1979 he quit the Indian Health Service and took a job at the Valdez Medical Clinic.
His father, the orthopedist, thought it was a shame that Andy didn't do a medical residency, which would have led to a medical specialty, Kunz said, because he had such potential as a surgeon and an orthopedist.
Valdez, with a population today of just over four thousand, sits on the edge of Prince William Sound, surrounded by steep and snowcapped mountains and whitewater rivers and creeks. In summer, when the rain-drenched mountains turn a lush green, dotted with huge waterfalls, they resemble hills on a South Pacific island. In winter, snowdrifts consume houses and there is nowhere to drive to easily; Anchorage and Fairbanks are each more than three hundred miles away. After the Good Friday earthquake, in 1964, much of Valdez was rebuilt, with the result that many of the small homes and buildings look like they were uprooted from central California. Architecture seems to have been an afterthought.
Embick arrived in Valdez two years after workers linked the eight-hundred-mile trans-Alaska oil pipeline to a Valdez tanker terminal, turning on the spigot for North America's biggest oil fields. Today, giant oil tankers still glide by the city. At night the terminal glows orange across Prince William Sound. Seafood processors are big business there, too, with their bland, windowless facades along the town's docks.
Embick was in Valdez just a short while before he persuaded Kathy Todd, his ex-girlfriend, to come work at the Valdez clinic. They married in 1980. Todd was “looking for a small town far from a big town,” she recalled. She grew to have a stake in the community in Valdez, playing piano at a church. Embick, she said, was not religious.
He was the kind of man who had to master whatever he put his hand to, Todd recalled. “When Andy turned to hunting, he read every book, studied the ballistics of every weapon and talked to all the experts. He went deep into the back county and shot sheep. You know that bear in the front room? He shot it with a .44 magnum.”
“Everything he did was Class VI,” she said, referring to the most challenging whitewater. “In the 1980s, Andy went off to Pakistan to paddle a river. A friend and I were doing a stream around here, for, like, the twentieth time. But Andy, he had to go to Pakistan to find a new river.” She remembers thinking it was a shame that her husband had to search so far for fresh challenges instead of simply having fun as she and her friend were.
The Valdez clinic, a private facility, had three to four doctors on staff in the years Embick and Todd worked there. The couple also worked shifts at the small Valdez hospital, but Embick still had enough time for his outdoors pursuits. He might have packed more trips into a year than any other Alaskan, and still managed to be a doctor, father and husband.
In summer, tunneling winds shoot through Keystone Canyon, sprinkling waterfall mist across the highway to Valdez. The canyon is about two and a half miles long and reaches depths of eight hundred feet. In winter, its waterfalls freeze like Popsicles. To ascend the frozen water, you need crampons, ice axes and brute strength. Even then, it's a risky business. One slip and an axe can swing the wrong way, slashing a climber or cutting a lifeline rope.
Embick had done a little ice climbing before he arrived in Valdez. Now he marveled at Keystone canyon and at other icefalls around Valdez in winter. Where many would simply see an awe-inspiring feature of the landscape, and compensation for heavy winter weather, Embick saw something he could conquer.
As the Seventies gave way to the Eighties, and Rupert Holmes' “Escape (The Piñaa Colada Song)” seemed nearly inescapable, a group of climbers stood one day beneath a Valdez icefall, their heads cocked skyward. Embick was in the middle. Until the mid-Seventies, many climbers regarded ice as an unstable and inferior substitute for real climbing, on rock. Now ice climbing was coming into its own, and Embick was in the vanguard. Many Valdez icefalls had never been climbed; being first on virgin ice was like a trip to the moon - you earned bragging rights, and the honor of naming the route. Soon Embick and his pals were hanging hundreds of feet above the highway, dangling like spiders, or crawling the vertical ice above Mineral Creek.
Valdez was captivated. To a town of roughnecks who worked on the pipeline, rode snowmachines and fished, the ice climbers were a new breed - and Embick was their advance agent. He summoned out-of-town climbers and put them up at his home. He fed them and sometimes gave them money to make ends meet. For many, Embick was a mentor, a brother and father rolled into one. He was a successful professional, not a quasi-nomad as so many climbers tend to be, but here he was out on the ice with the boys, taking the same risks and more, taking the lead. He gave daredeviltry a patina of respect. In 1983, he launched the annual Valdez Ice Climbing Festival, an event that grew over the years, drawing climbers from as far as Japan and New Zealand.
Carl Tobin, an Alaska Pacific University professor, climbed with Embick; together they made first recorded ascents. Tobin already knew how to climb, but Embick coached him on attitude, he recalled - “the commitment and perseverance you need” to excel in the sport. Other climbers bought gear like Embick's and followed his routes. “They were like his troops,” Tobin said, “and he'd drag them off on some horrific adventures.” Embick later chronicled their trips and other climbs done by friends in Blue Ice and Black Gold, his authoritative 1989 guide to climbing around Valdez.
In 1981, Tobin and Embick set out to be the first to climb what Embick thought was the most difficult ice route around Valdez, a four-hundred-foot overhanging ice pillar. It resembled an icicle diving off a cliff, with shear faces and tiny ledges. On a second attempt, Embick led the way, confronting a narrow section of poor, overhanging ice. He tried to hook himself into a wall but his ice screw slipped out. There was no way back; if he let go, he'd fall two hundred feet. Embick found another path and swung himself around, heading higher up. Tobin took over the lead and they made it to the top, although Tobin popped off, quickly swinging his axe back at the ice. They named the route “Wowie Zowie.”
In 1980, Embick named a three-hundred-and-sixty-foot waterfall climb in Keystone Canyon “Love's Way,” to commemorate his impending marriage to Todd. In 1987 he christened another ice climb “Bebop,” in honor of his oldest daughter, Elizabeth “Bebop” Embick. But those tender names belied another aspect of Embick that was emerging.
Just as he was making a name for himself on the ice, he was running into trouble on the ski trails around Valdez.
Embick was perhaps as devoted to cross-country skiing as he was to climbing. He raced and he skied for pleasure, and like most else that he did, he did it intently. He would spend hours waxing his skis when he was only going for a leisurely jaunt. He'd record the snow conditions and the waxes he'd used and post them on a telephone hotline for other skiers.
Embick also helped build the ski trails around Valdez, a laborious task that entailed cutting thick brush and clearing rocks. So when he ran into snowmachiners, people on four-wheelers or even dogs on the ski trails, he was infuriated: What right had they to tear up his trails with their engines and exhaust, whipping along, gouging the path?
Land-use controversies are nothing new in the U.S., and neither are disputes between fans of motorized sports and those who prefer to move more slowly and quietly through backcountry. In Alaska, where hunters, backpackers, mushers, skiers and even Little league ballplayers share the outdoors, some conflict is inevitable - but Embick personalized it and brought it to a new height.
In 1984, two boys were riding a four-wheeler on a Valdez cross-country ski trail when Embick jumped in front of them and started yelling, according to court records. He pulled the key from their ignition and skied away. Later, as the boys pushed their four-wheeler to a trailhead, Embick reappeared, dangling the key. Then he tossed it into Mineral Creek. He pled no contest to a charge of criminal mischief.
Three months later, Embick had another run-in on the trail, this time with a twelve-year-old on a snowmachine. According to charging documents, Embick skied up to the boy, pushed him off the machine and snatched his key. Embick was charged with fourth-degree assault. The charges were later dropped.
Cyclists on city streets face some of the same conflicts. Not uncommonly, some fantasize about catching up with speeding cars at red lights and stealing drivers' keys. The cyclists want to punish them, neutralize them, for thinking a motor makes them powerful. The difference is that Embick actually did it. For all the self-control he prided himself on, he could not resist tangling with adolescents.
February 1989: A snowmachiner with his three-year-old son rides onto a groomed Valdez ski trail. Suddenly, Embick comes around a bend, yelling and jabbing his ski pole at the riders, according to a police complaint. The father defends himself and his little boy. Embick is charged with assault. Again, the charges are dropped.
“The whole thing was a little entertaining, and then it got to the point of being a head-game between the two groups, Andy and the snowmachiners,” said Tobin. “Most of the snowmachiners were teenagers. Every two or three years there was a fresh crop that would run into Andy.”
Some Valdez residents call it the “Triangle of Doom.” It typically happens in winter, in the dark. You leave home and end up at the liquor store. You pick up a video and return home for yet another mind-numbing night by the television. In the late 1980s, Embick told writer Jon Krakauer that people in Valdez “sit around, get unhappy, drink way too much, beat their husbands or wives.
“The darkness does evil things to the mind, resulting in one or two suicides every year,” Embick said. “Anything that gets you out, that gets you physically active, is going to be good psychotherapy and stave off winter problems.”
Embick wasn't a big drinker, but he did bring alcohol on kayak trips: scotch, Jack Daniels or Everclear. He was generous, filling his campmates' cups and telling story after story about his adventures.
“I remember I was sitting at the campfire with a half a cup of hot chocolate, relaxing and watching the fire, and here comes Andy up with a bottle of Everclear, and he puts, like, half in my cup!” said Mike Buck, a friend and kayak partner of Embick's.
Buck is a near-legend in his own right, an extreme kayaker who, along with Embick, helped introduce the sport to Alaska's remote rivers. Buck is also a snowmachiner. At his home in Valdez the weekend of Embick's memorial service, he had four snowmachines parked out front. He sat inside with a reel of slides that showed Embick at his best: popping off river waterfalls; getting his frostbitten toe amputated by his wife, as he gave advice; climbing jagged ice spires as tall as the Conoco Phillips building in Anchorage; and a long-haired and much younger Embick with his arms around his wife.
Buck said he avoided the snowmachine debate with Embick because it wasn't worth risking their friendship. “We'd go to council meetings and sit side by side. Andy would get up and talk against the snowmachines, then I'd get up and talk in favor of them. The thing was, I believed there should be separate trails, but Andy wanted to see all trail for skiing only.”
Buck and Embick spent most of their time together on rivers, running rapids that, like the ice Embick climbed, had never been attempted.
Embick didn't come to Alaska to kayak. He knew nothing about it when he came except that it was a sport he could do near Valdez. But just as he immersed himself in the nuances of hunting, he scouted out kayak experts from coast to coast, persuading them to help him learn. In the Valdez high school swimming pool, he perfected his rolls. He renamed his medical practice the Valdez Medical Clinic & Kayak Shop. Within two years of coming to Valdez, he was paddling whitewater that kayakers with twice his experience avoided.
Embick helped take kayaking to a new level in Alaska. He hiked riverbanks, rappelled down cliffs and from trestle bridges. He and his kayaking companions flew to remote reaches of rivers, with Embick charging ahead; he liked to be the first down a river.
Embick was known for his endurance on rivers. Rapids thrashed him against rocks and flipped his boat. He called it “uneventful.” He'd fight his way out, portage to another spot and do it again. In his 1994 book Fast & Cold: A Guide to Alaska Whitewater, Embick describes seventy-nine trips, sixty-three of which he completed. Thirty-two were first descents. There are dozens of near misses and wild rides, such as Devil's Canyon on the Susitna River. The canyon, according to Embick, offers the biggest whitewater in North America, with rapids that roar like a Boeing 747. After paddling through it in 1982, he wrote, “It was very good; the pinnacle, the knife's edge between perfect control and oblivion, feeling the power of a vast natural force and guiding my tiny boat through the shifting boundary between the river and the sky.”
Friends loved going on such trips with Embick. He was dependable, knowledgeable and he planned everything. “All I had to do was bring my personal gear,” Buck said. And Embick, a good storyteller, made for a good story himself. “It was a blast because you'd come home with at least two or three great Andy stories,” Buck said. “In camp he'd be wearing his brief underwear and a .357 magnum strapped to his hip … It's like, 'That's Andy!'”
In 1996, Embick competed in the hundred-and-thirty-mile Alaska Wilderness Classic, an arduous adventure race. When he failed to show at the finish line, searchers went out for him. In fact, Embick was just taking his time, said his friend Roman Dial. Along the route Embick came upon a run-down cabin, Dial said, and, in the midst of a race, stopped to repair its windows and fasten boards over holes where squirrels had gotten inside. As a crew in a helicopter scrutinized the course, Embick strolled into the lodge at the finish line and asked for his car keys. Just another uneventful day.
In the winter of 1997, Andy Embick was in Anchorage, skiing the trails of Kincaid Park, when an aggressive grouse came up beside him. He swiped his skate-ski pole at the bird and killed it. As he walked to his car, carrying his skis and the dead grouse, other skiers looked on in disbelief. A few days later, Embick added the bird to a stir-fry.
And Embick was still slashing at snowmachiners. In December 2000, as he was skiing by Mineral Creek, in Valdez, he spotted a pair of snowmachiners on a ski-only trail. He called police on his cell phone, then tried to cut off the snowmachiners, a father and his seventeen-year-old son, according to court records. Embick claimed the son came at him on his machine, so he swatted the boy with his ski pole.
Later that evening, the boy came to the Valdez hospital emergency room with a bruised arm. Embick was on duty. There was no way Embick was treating his son for the damage he'd done, the boy's father said. Another doctor had to be called.
The Valdez Parks and Recreation Department temporarily banned Embick from the ski trails, but he ignored their edict and kept skiing. As the parks department threatened him with tickets, Embick accused city officials, mainly parks director Nancy Peterson (“Nazi Nancy,” he called her once), of coming down too hard on him.
The city should have done a better job policing the trails, Embick said. It was all their fault. Hadn't he helped build the trails? And gotten dozens of people involved in skiing, climbing and kayaking?
At Valdez city council meetings, Embick meticulously cited his services to the community, claiming he never got proper thanks. What about the time he helped an injured skier? he asked. Or when he rescued a vanload of kids after the vehicle nearly swerved off a cliff? In a letter, he lashed out at Valdez city manager Dave Dengel: “You can be sure that if I get so little credit and appreciation for helpful work (done of course for free) … that if it's your child lying in the snow, I'm going to just leave them there, or be very sorely tempted to do so … because of you.”
Controversy dogged Embick in the small town. Factions formed, some supporting him, others ridiculing him. His critics set up a chat room on the internet called “Sick and Tired.”
There are two newspapers in Valdez, both weeklies, The Valdez Star and The Valdez Vanguard. The news is typical small-town stuff: city budget squabbles, high school sports and soft stories about people. But during the last few years, the editorial pages heated up as Embick kept clashing with townsfolk. In March 2001, G.R. Jerry Massman wrote an editorial in The Valdez Star thrashing Embick:
I read, with absolute amazement and total disgust, the latest of a long line of antics by Mr. Embick, so-called, professional person. First he's diving off the balcony at the school pool, an endeavor that got him banned from using the pool. Then he's striking women and children on the ski trails, a vigilant service that no one either requires or desires … if you're so unhappy with the treatment you're receiving in Valdez, Mr. Embick, please pack your crap and go somewhere else that will maybe better appreciate your bad manners and poor professional attitude.
Obsessed with the ski trail fiasco, Embick believed he was trapped in a town that didn't want him and didn't like him. In September 2001, he wrote to The Valdez Star, talking about the trail ban and a recent run-in with a snowmachiner:
If the goal of city administration has been to attack and harm me as viciously as possible, in an apparent attempt to create such a hostile environment that I am forced out of town, I think they've succeeded. The city of Valdez has sent me a message that, here in this town of mean motorheads, it is much more important that an out-of-town juvenile not be bothered when riding recklessly and illegally on ski trails at high speed than that peaceful winter exercise on skis be enjoyed, or even permitted to a, I thought, somewhat respected and occasionally useful longstanding member of the community.
… I have a message to send, too. Goodbye. There are much nicer places than this. And don't forget that physicians you might try to recruit know that too.
Embick was used to successfully pulling things off, his friend Carl Tobin recalled. “I'm sure not being able to change things with the snowmachiners really affected him. But the reality is that the only way to get rid of snowmachiners in Valdez is to shut the pipeline down or drop the price of fish.”
Embick's troubles didn't end on the ski trails. As knowledgeable and accomplished as he was, he couldn't keep himself from getting into squabbles. Some prospective patients feared the ski-pole-wielding doctor (although “they loved him once they went,” said Joe Roth, a physician and Embick's former colleague).
In 1994, Embick recruited John Cullen, another physician, to Valdez, luring him with a beautifully written letter about the town and the work. When Cullen visited, Embick cooked him moose cordon bleu. Cullen took the job. In time, though, he saw Embick's trail battles affecting their business. Reluctantly, he broached the matter with his partner. “I said to him, 'Broken bones are our bread and butter. Snowmachines provide that,'” Cullen recalled.
In April 2001, a mayor's taskforce met to discuss plans for a new Valdez hospital building. Embick unexpectedly walked into the room, said Jim Culley, the hospital administrator, and said, “You won't have to worry about building a new hospital if all the doctors leave.”
Some people at the meeting took the remark as a threat. The next day, Culley said, he met with the medical staff, including some of Embick's partners, and they decided to suspend Embick from the hospital for fourteen days.
Embick returned to work after the suspension, but there were other ongoing problems. State investigators had been looking into complaints of “unprofessional conduct” at the hospital. Among other things, Embick and Todd had let their daughter or daughters assist them and watch them treat patients, Culley said. In one case, Embick turned down assistance from a nurse and instead had his daughter help him wrap a cast on a patient's arm, according to a complaint. Todd allowed their daughter to watch a surgery without the patient's consent, Culley said. In light of the complaints, the hospital drew up new protocols. Embick wasn't pleased. He stopped working at the hospital early last year, but stayed on at his clinic.
Embick was still tussling on the ski trails. In March 2002, he said a snowmachiner sped up and stopped within ten feet of him, making him feel threatened, according to court records. Embick, who was carrying a biathlon rifle - in the event he spotted ptarmigan, he said - told the man on the snowmachine that he was in a “very bad mood” because he had seen forty “incursions” on the ski trails that day. He ordered the man to walk to a nearby water tower to wait for police.
Embick later testified that he told the man his gun wasn't loaded. The snowmachiner said Embick told him it was. Embick was found guilty of attempted coercion in July, 2002. Judge Sigurd Murphy fined him five hundred dollars and ordered him to perform community service. Murphy also asked Embick to write an essay on how to handle future ski trail clashes.
Embick's one-page statement ends with these words: “I'm leaving and going to a safer place: Afghanistan.”
Last fall, Embick left Valdez, not for Afghanistan but for neighboring Pakistan, where he intended to practice medicine as a volunteer. It was a noble impulse, but a bit odd. When American physicians volunteer abroad, they typically work through a relief agency, such as Doctors Without Borders. Embick couldn't find a group to sponsor his trip, his wife recalled. So he packed his things and went anyway, taking some clothes, his medical kit and his high-end mountain bike. Letters to friends, family and even Judge Murphy offer glimpses of his life in Pakistan.
“I myself am in Hunza,” he wrote to The Valdez Vanguard,
18 years after my first visit as an expedition leader for climbing (a spectacular rock tower called Lukpilla Brakk) and kayaking (the Braldu, Indus, Shigar, Shyok and Hunza rivers, some of the mightiest on earth) for the winter until May, when the apricot trees blossom, barley fields turn green and snow melts on the high peaks…
After some word was passed by Anwar, a favorite son of the village, and announced by the Muezin as part of his call for prayer, I was mobbed by patients. With no electricity and no heat, we might as well stay outside (in just-above-freezing weather) for the clinic, so we did. Babies (no diapers here), young girls (bashful and cheerful simultaneously), young boys (tough being an understatement), formal older women wearing embroidered, colorful pinbox hats, and elderly gents erect and proud, flocked to the scene and all at the same time waited their turn, gossiped, laughed at their cousins, friends and neighbors and bounced off with medicine, advice on diet, specific exercises, or, most ominously, that I would return with heart or tuberculosis medicine. Or worst of all, a three-year-old with a congenital dislocated hip, whose treatment in the U.S. would be carried out by a team of expert pediatric orthopedic surgeons at, for example, a Shriners hospital. About 60 were seen in the space of a day and a half.
After the clinic, I was led to the truly sick patients, unable to walk - one with advanced tuberculosis, one with congestive heart failure at age less than 40, and one with truly awful eczema. These people, all young, were at the verge of death, from what we would consider treatable and curable problems.
I'm going to adopt Shimshal (another village) as my work for the next four months. I don't know anyone else who would. It will take hiking or biking 56 kilometers (34 miles) up from Passu, north of here on the Karakoram Highway… I'll go every two weeks. I'll bring the medicines needed (which are cheap in Pakistan, though providing for an entire village of 2,000 could be difficult)
In a letter Embick filed with the Valdez Court System just before his death, he said he spent fourteen thousand dollars of his own money and raised two thousand dollars for medical supplies. He made fifteen hundred patient visits, he said, and cycled more than twenty-five hundred miles through the mountains. He said he became the “regional tuberculosis-control expert” and performed many surgeries in homes and hotel rooms that resulted in “scores of successful 'saves' from life-threatening conditions…”
But even in remotest Pakistan, as his letters show, he was still obsessed with his disputes on the Valdez ski trails.
In The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression, Andrew Solomon says that suicide and depression don't necessarily go hand in hand. You can be depressed and never have a suicidal thought, Solomon contends, or you may not be depressed but may decide your own death is a viable solution.
Valdez police chief Joe Michaud, who interviewed Embick's family and friends after his suicide, concluded that after returning from Pakistan, Embick seemed “a little depressed, then he just got quiet.”
The readjustment may have worn on him, Todd said. “If you were going to go back to practicing medicine in the United States and the patient has a cold or the office is worried about collecting charges, it can seem kind of trivial compared to the life-and-death scenarios you were dealing with over there.”
But what's puzzling is that Embick's depression, if that is what it was, apparently lifted as he settled back in Valdez, well before he killed himself. Then again, some people plan their deaths and then derive a sense of peace from the plan.
Solomon categorizes suicides in four classes. The first group kills themselves without thinking it through, often acting on impulse. A second group depends on reasonable logic, Solomon says, to escape real physical pain or terminal disease or loss. Another group commits suicide “through faulty logic in which death seems to be the only escape from intolerable pain… They consider options and plan their suicides, writing notes, and address the pragmatics as though they were organizing a holiday in outer space.” The last group, he says, “half in love with easeful death, commit suicide as revenge, as though the act were not irreversible.”
After Pakistan, Embick didn't return to the Valdez clinic or hospital. He planned to leave Valdez, just as he had threatened to do for the last three years, Todd said. He was considering a physician's post in Cordova, another small town, west of Valdez, where the Embick family owns property. In winter, she said, he might have returned to Pakistan or lived in Anchorage.
Would Todd have left Valdez with Embick?
“There was only one opening in Cordova,” she said.
In his last days, Embick could have returned to work in Valdez. He could have kayaked a river, climbed a mountain, anything to clear his mind. He could have visited old friends. He could have seen a counselor. He could have finished his next book - last fall, he told Judge Murphy he was writing a Valdez hiking guide. Or he could have begun to make peace with the town and with himself.
On May 16, he wrote again to Judge Murphy, asking to be relieved of the community service he had been ordered to complete after his last snowmachiner clash. He outlined his accomplishments in Pakistan and reminded the judge that he'd done much for Valdez. By the end of the letter he seemed bitter and full of self-pity:
What has this work for the community done? Only get me hated and persecuted, because some of it conflicted with what motorized recreationalists wanted. I can't even live in this town any more because of the hostility of many individuals and authorities. I request that you relieve me of the burden of MORE community service in Valdez, so I can travel elsewhere and get on with life.
Murphy acceded. “The humanitarian work Dr. Embick did (in Pakistan) goes well beyond any conceivable requirement for community service,” he wrote. “He is to be congratulated…”
Embick visited Anchorage before his death and had dinner with his old friend Roman Dial. They ate steak at Jens' Restaurant as Embick talked about plans to move to Cordova and perhaps live in Anchorage in winter.
“I think he was just frustrated with his situation, that he had put twenty years into a community that didn't recognize him,” Dial later said. “People perceived him as forceful and arrogant.”
On the morning of May 28, Embick wrote his wife a brief note, saying he was taking his rowing scull out to a creek off Prince William Sound. Then he drove to a beach, slipped a shotgun into his scull and set out. He brought along a small raft. Once on the sound, police believe, Embick left his scull behind and climbed into the raft with his gun.
Nobody heard the shot.
Contact Tony Hopfinger at email@example.com or (907) 644-5406.