Braunholtz: Avalanche deaths a lesson for Vail
Vail CO, Colorado
Donne’s words “Never send for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee …” fit my feelings well whenever I see smiling photographs of the recently dead in the paper. I don’t have to know them. The fact that this smile has left this world forever is enough.
We’ve all lost a little bit of our valley and are reminded of our own mortality at the same instant.
Ironically Safety Week often arrives on the heels of one of these tragedies. With the high-profile avalanche deaths in East Vail’s chutes, this year is no exception. It’s not bad timing really because Safety Week is all about education. The activities are designed to make us “Think!” at least a bit about our and others’ safety. Well-publicized deaths do that, too.
The only crumb of comfort I can see in these tragedies is their ability to inform and educate others. This may be part of the healing process for those involved, but it takes a lot to stand up and say “this is what we did and why we did it” so others can perhaps avoid the same series of choices and traps.
Knee-jerk criticism doesn’t help this process and unfortunately we seem to love to give it. Why? Do we think it makes us look more knowledgeable or is it really an attempt to mentally distance ourselves from the victims? It’s reassuring to think that bad things only happen to “stupid” people.
Truth is, when you read the reports it’s easy to see how it all happened and there’s often no one really bad choice that leads to such tragedies, but a series of little ones that all add up. It seems the return of Colorado’s traditionally unstable snowpack after two stable years is catching people. Familiarity breeds disrespect and the mountain doesn’t care how many times you’ve skied it before.
We’ve all done things that were dumb and could’ve killed us. I’m willing to bet almost every skier or rider has had a near-collision with some solid object after a series of misjudgments and surprises ” weird bump, icy patch, unexpected child in a shadow, binding prerelease, etc. The fact that most of us are still here means we either had good luck or the judgment to give ourselves enough of a safety cushion for any bad luck coming our way.
Being buried alive by a snow slide or eaten alive at the zoo grabs the nation’s attention, but thousands of deaths from reckless driving barely raises the eyebrows. Skiing out-of-bounds makes a lot more sense to me than driving badly and aggressively ” you’re only putting yourself at risk. Hitting a tree at speed doesn’t have the same media impact as an avalanche, but you’d be just as dead.
Still, after every death in the wild people ask, “why do they do it?” It’s a fair question but unanswerable. Why climb, kayak, play football, fly balloons around the world (even when you own an airline)?
A better question might be how much risk do we need to experience to know how lucky we are to be alive in the first place?
Safety Week and these deaths will get more of us asking this. Problem is, out in the backcountry the rules aren’t fixed or even enforced consistently. Some days you can break them all and still “win”. But you only get to lose once.
The old chestnut “there’re old mountaineers and bold mountaineers but no old and bold mountaineers” applies in spades here. Patience is one key to good decisions. The person who’s able to turn around and walk out the way they came gets my respect more than the backward cliff-droppers.
Luck is great to have, but I wouldn’t dare to rely on it. Winning the lottery isn’t the best retirement plan.
Alan Braunholtz of Vail writes a column for the Daily. Send comments or questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.