Last winter in Utah's Wasatch Mountains, 50 valiant search-and-rescue workers labored to find what they hoped would be the still-breathing bodies of two 20-year-old male snowboarders swept away by an avalanche. A third man had already died. The fatal accidents occurred in a notorious avalanche chute below Mount Timpanogos during one of the biggest snowstorms in 20 years. The snowboarders, along with two skiers, entered the chute seeking a thrilling descent through feather-light, bottomless powder. Not one carried a shovel, probe or avalanche beacon. It was an act of willful ignorance.
The nature of risk in the mountains has changed. For many years, as an outdoor magazine editor, I published stories about men and women risking their lives to achieve noble goals on snow. Two subjects made historic ascents on skis. Another skied down both the Eiger and Mont Blanc. All were experienced ski alpinists who profoundly loved and respected the mountains. They were people who, having set out to go from point A to point B, unintentionally amplified the adventure by falling down an escarpment during a whiteout or getting caught in a slide. Mortal risk was a byproduct of going faster, reaching a higher place.
Today, risk itself is becoming the goal. Young people are deliberately leaping into the void and down slopes that can't hold snow. An avalanche is not something to avoid; it seems you're chicken if you don't outrace one. "We've got people actually trying to cause avalanches," says Bruce Tremper, who heads the Utah Avalanche Center. "It's a sport." Journalist Tim Egan calls the phenomenon "the intersection of risk and stupidity." U.S. avalanche fatalities have increased to more than 30 per year. Skiers account for one-quarter of them, but snowmobilers and snowboarders account for more than half.
In a sport called "high-marking," snowmobilers compete to ride as far as possible up a slope. Skiers leap off impossibly high cliffs. Kids on boards plunge down narrow chutes lined with rocks, simulating stars in ski movies and extreme-sport videos. Sid Johnson, a Utah snowboarder and physician, has witnessed two deaths in his intensive care unit. "One was a skier, the other a boarder...young, extreme, lots of tattoos. Both bonked their heads while doing a sick line or catching big air."
Here is the arrogance of risk: I can do whatever I want. I can ski without a helmet or in a forest riddled with fatal tree wells or at a time when avalanche warnings have been posted, simply because I dare to. After all, I'm not holding others responsible for what happens.
"Why not just leave it up to people's own choice?" asks Owen, a young extreme skier I encountered in an online forum and who proved to be the personification of what has gone haywire. "Hell, if they get caught, it's there (sic) problem." Hello out there, Mom and Dad, have you talked recently with Owen?
Ski videos and snowboarding and skiing magazines, seeking to build commerce with the Owens of the world, celebrate the glory of the extreme. They glamorize risky descents of hazardous, boulder-strewn slopes. "On the edge for you is the middle of the road for me," reads one braggart's bumper sticker. Mountain Dew, the soda, seeks to overcome its own insipidity by linking its image to awesome feats. The otherwise estimable people who produce extreme action videos and who pander with pictures in their magazines create a kind of pornography that furnishes images to testosterone-charged young men before they have respect for the rules of engagement out of bounds.
"Most people don't realize that the quarter-inch strand of rope marking the ski area boundary separates a managed place where conditions are safe and hazards are mitigated, from a place where conditions are wild and unpredictable," says Dale Atkins, forecaster with the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.
Why not make out-of-bounds skiers and boarders pay for the cost of rescue? The American Alpiine Club, in fact, sells its members insurance to cover that possibility. In Colorado, if you buy a hunting or fishing license, a portion pays for worker's comp for any rescuer who gets hurt while aiding you. In Europe, the injured and lost must pay for the cost of their rescue. It's long past the time when the U.S. should do the same. By the way, trained rescue crews don't set out on snowboards to save lost snowboarders. They use something sensible: skis. Five thousand years ago, even early Homo sapiens knew that two boards are better than one for traveling through the snowy wilds in winter.
I'm not opposed to freedom. But freedom leads to selfishness when it's exercised in a dangerous place where ignorance and incompetence vastly multiply risk. What is the selfishness? It's the absence of empathy felt in advance by the victims for family members who suffer and grieve over their deaths or near-fatal injuries. It's also the disregard for volunteers who may have to risk their lives to rescue the unskilled who have invaded the backcountry.
No matter. The Me Generation has augered in on the ultimate self-absorption sans responsibility: It's my life, so there.
God bless the joy and freedom that come from exploring our wild mountains. What needs to be cordoned off is the trail leading the ignorant to the wilderness of selfish arrogance.