Death and Skiing: Risk vs. Reward in the Backcountry
A few weeks ago we attended the Colorado Snow and Avalanche Workshop. At this annual pre-season event, professionals from around the snowsports industry present on various topics pertaining to snow and avalanche research. Think of it as a TedX but with a whole lot more beards, flannel, and approach shoes. It’s also a great opportunity to connect with other snow professionals. From presentations about snow safety education in the Middle East to breaking down the psychological causality of avalanche incidents, it was a very informative day and a great way to get us snow professionals into the winter mindset.
Just a couple of days later, we learned of the tragic events surrounding the death of renowned climber and Colorado native Hayden Kennedy and his girlfriend Inge Perkins, the season’s first avalanche victim. When I got the message from a friend that someone had died in an avalanche in the first week of October, I was pretty shocked. The juxtaposition of these two events was eye opening. I had just spent an 8-hour day listening to people talk about avalanches, looking at the destructive power of snow, and dissecting the historical data from avalanche accidents. Now it was a reality, people were already dying and we hadn’t even had a real snowfall yet. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about their terrifying story.
“Admittedly, when I first read the text and before any of the details of the incident emerged, I didn’t know who Hayden Kennedy was. But, it didn’t matter. It made me think about death and how scary it must have been to be in that situation. My first thoughts were for his family and his friends, those who had spent countless hours with him in mountains, the people who would be learning that their friend was gone and they’d never climb with him again. Death is an extremely difficult topic to talk about. Even 4 years after losing my old man, I still struggle to talk about it. The truth is, we have to talk about it, or we learn nothing. For mountaineers, it is becoming a more common subject as we continue to push ourselves into bigger and more complicated terrain. Every year, the world’s foremost mountaineers are doing something more extreme, more spectacular, and more unbelievable. And, every year, we are losing another accomplished adventurer. And, every year it’s sad. And, every year we talk about the inherent risks in our risky pursuits. And, every year we find a way to rationalize it. And, hopefully, we learn something each time.”]
What did I learn? Don’t let your guard down, set protocols and follow them, never undermine the power of the mountains, and hug your loved ones. As another season approaches where I will inevitably spend plenty of time negotiating and managing avalanche terrain, making life or death decisions, and trying to minimize risks, I’ll try to keep Hayden and Inge’s story in the back of my head. Whether I’m skiing Baldy or a steep line in the Gore Range, the protocol is the same. I read the CAIC avalanche forecast. I carry my avalanche safety equipment. I turn on and check my beacon at the trailhead. I don’t refer to any terrain as “safe” or exempt from the dangers of backcountry travel (even if I can see the pub from the top of my ski line). I’ll examine and manage terrain exactly the same way whether it’s a 20 degree tree run or a 40 degree couloir. I assume nothing. It’s a practice. It’s a mindset. It’s about following the systems you learn in your avalanche education which are specifically designed to minimize your risk and keep you alive. Learn them, practice them, follow them EVERY. SINGLE. TIME.”So, as the season arrives, snow piles up in the mountains, and the stoke for skiing the backcountry grows, remember to remind yourself that the mountains don’t care who you are, and avalanches don’t discriminate. Educate yourself and don’t assume anything. Be honest with yourself and your assessment and live to ski another day. There will always be more powder turns.