Vail Daily letter: Changing the culture
January 14, 2014
The recent avalanche incident in Vail has renewed concerns for some of us about backcountry and extreme skiing. I have concerns that we may have created a culture that encourages people, especially impressionable and perhaps not fully "developed" younger men, to take risks that they might not otherwise take and this may lead to death or disability — this can range from recreational skiers taking risks beyond what they can handle to elite skiers in movies who are paid to take high risks. I can't imagine this kind of idea would be immediately popular with film companies, magazines, newspapers, ski resorts, and others that currently generate a lot of money on the whole extreme aspect of skiing, but I wonder if this extreme approach has been pushed to the point that it's actually a public health problem — sort of a parallel with what's happening with head trauma in the NFL, i.e. our society creates industries and attitudes that encourage people to pursue sports in a way that may actually be unhealthy.
A few random thoughts related to this:
• When someone dies in the backcountry, people talk immediately afterwards about how the person died doing what they loved — but, months or years later, what do friends and family really think? Do all of these people really need to take these risks to fully enjoy their lives? Could some of these people have actually lived an even happier life if they found other lower risk ways to enrich their lives and find meaning in life?
• Over the years, I've had occasional conversations with parents of extreme skiers who work for movie companies, and the parents express concern that their sons, who they acknowledge are not totally mature or psychologically sophisticated, are, in a sort of subversive way, coerced (exploited) with money to take very high risks — that's actually very troubling for some parents, I think, but largely unspoken.
• After the Warren Miller movie showed this year, I had multiple conversations with people about how it was really mainly about extreme skiers going to very remote places to ski in dangerous places and not very much about just the pure beauty and fun of skiing and the mountains (which seemed to be where Warren Miller started out).
• People seem to keep dying in the same places, e.g. East Vail Chutes and others.
• I've never seen such a high percentage of young people in a cemetery as I've seen while walking around the memorial park in East Vail.
I imagine these kinds of ideas are sobering and may not be appealing to many, including you, your newspaper, and Vail Resorts — but, at the same time, I wonder if this could be a time to stare reality in the face and try to produce some change that might lead to more healthy pursuit of skiing and ultimately less death and disability among professional as well as recreational skiers (as I say, maybe a parallel to what is happening in NFL).
A few things that could be done:
• Explore backcountry accidents: Is there a type of person who is involved (e.g. younger men)? Ask friends and family of victims what they really think afterwards about the risks that were taken and the state of mind/maturity of the person. Similarly, talk to people who have lived but have permanent disability from a bad accident. Was the disability worth it for them? Is there a particular profile that puts person at higher risk for accident? Could a change in the culture help prevent these kinds of accidents?
• Explore the psychology of what's going on. Some people express that they need to be near death to feel alive. Is that really a healthy or necessary approach to living? Should that approach be revered or supported financially? Is that approach fair to friends and family or ultimately even to the individual? Maybe this approach is appropriate for a small group, but maybe there are others who are just drawn to the thrill, attention, or need to make money. Maybe some aren't psychologically mature enough to even think this all through or know of other ways to live their lives.
• Place signs that have a better chance of catching people's attention at the entrance to the most consistent areas for backcountry avalanches in Colorado — not the standard warning sign, but something that might make an impression, e.g., list on the signs the names and photos of those involved in accidents at that site and the total number of deaths and details of disability that have occurred. I think other mountain ranges do something like this, e.g. White Mountains of New Hampshire.
• Change the industry/media approach. Encourage movie companies, magazines, resorts, and the media to promote healthier approaches to skiing. At first, this may seem like a revenue-losing approach, but in the end this approach might be novel and relatively untapped financially. Simultaneously, encourage companies and the media to not glorify high risk but rather question it. Have them publicly raise awareness of some of these negative issues and question an approach of high risk that can lead to death and disability. Back when Berthoud Pass was open as a ski area, they had a life-size mannequin ("Huck") out on a chair next to the lift ticket booth. His neck was broken and body mangled — they had sign next to him with warning about skiing dangerously (don't ski like "Huck"). I thought that was actually quite powerful (and very inexpensive).
Maybe all this is idealistic mumbo-jumbo and the reality is that people just like to do and watch high risk and therefore industries/societies will forever thrive and generate money by supporting high risk — or, in the specific case of skiing in 2014, maybe the situation really has gotten out of hand and there is room for all of us to work together to try to improve it.