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Even in wilds, you are responsible for others
By Molly Absolon, Jackson Hole, Wyo.
Date: February 1, 2012
The Jan. 24 avalanche on Taylor Mountain and the Internet debate that followed on Steve Romeo’s TetonAT website touched a sore spot with me. More than 230 comments followed Steve’s post — some barely literate diatribes, some irrational accusations and many well-thought-out musings. But the comments that set me off were the ones that said you only have responsibility for yourself and your party when you are out in the backcountry. That it’s a wild place. You take a risk going out. Bad luck if something happens.
This attitude amazes me. What hubris and arrogance. What naivete. You can’t just say: “Bad luck if you die because you were below someone who made a bad decision — that’s part of the risk you take going out into the mountains.”
I speak from experience. Four and a half years ago, my first husband was killed when a hiker threw a bowling ball-size rock down on him as he climbed a new route in the Wind River Mountains. He was wearing a helmet, but it shattered with the impact of the 20-pound boulder that struck him. The hiker did not look before he threw the rock. He looked afterward — to get the full thrill out of watching it tumble thousands of feet to the snow below, I assume — and instead saw it hit Pete on the head.
To his credit, Luke Rodolph took responsibility for his actions. That didn’t make it any easier for me or our 6-year-old daughter. To us, the simple, horrible fact was that his stupid, irresponsible act killed Pete.
So what’s the parallel to the incident on Taylor? The point is that many people insisted in their comments that we have no responsibility to other people when we venture out into the wilderness. That “wilderness is WILDerness,” and that means anything can happen. Yes, anything can happen, but does that justify irresponsible actions that jeopardize the lives of others?
I happen to be friends with the people involved in the Taylor Mountain incident. I haven’t talked to them about what transpired up there. I do know they are experienced, knowledgeable people who would not intentionally act without regard to others. Greg Collins, who set off the slide, has apologized in a statement. He accepts his responsibility, and it’s not him I find myself so disturbed by, although I think he made a bad, potentially tragic, mistake. I am disturbed by those who seem to think what he did out there was a good idea — his right — people below be damned.
It is ridiculous to say that because the mountains around us have been designated wilderness, they are an empty place where we can do whatever we like without regard to potential consequences. These mountains are crowded. There are thousands of us who are addicted to the same sweet powder, the same thrill of painting our tracks onto a clean, white canvas of snow. I am as addicted as anyone, and I, too, struggle to restrain myself when the snow is light and the sky blue.
Skiing has changed in the last 20 years. It’s not so much that avalanche knowledge or training is different (although it is more sophisticated), it’s that our attitudes about what is possible, about what is a good line to ski or ’board, have evolved. Twenty years ago, it was a big deal to ski Glory Bowl. Now the slope is as tracked up as a ski resort just hours after a storm.
The sheer numbers of skiers and snowboarders in the mountains demands a code of responsibility. I firmly believe we cannot act as if we are alone out there, because most likely we are not. I also firmly believe there is a difference between getting hit by a natural avalanche or natural rockfall and getting hit by an avalanche or rock intentionally set into motion. Collins was trying to make the run safe for his party to ski, but obviously he did not have confidence in the slope’s stability or he wouldn’t have felt compelled to test it. I don’t believe it was possible for him to tell if the coast was clear from his position. The south face of Taylor is too big, the runout too long. Therefore, it seems to me he should not have conducted the test.
I recognize ski-cutting is a valid technique for testing slopes. I also recognize that trundling is a way to make a route safe for climbers.
Pete and his partner, Steve, trundled rocks off the route they were on in the Winds. But first they rappelled down and moved Steve’s dogs to a safe spot. I believe the analogy is valid for ski-cutting, as well. If you can’t see where the slide you set off will go, if you cannot ensure there is no one below, you should not conduct the test. Period.
One of the posters on TetonAT asked, “Would it have made a difference if the skier had triggered the slide while skiing the run?” I say yes. At least based on my experience. It would have made a difference to me if Rodolph had accidentally knocked the rock off from above. I would still have been devastated, but there wouldn’t be the anger at the fact that the accident could have been prevented if he had taken a second to look. If a skier knocks off a slide while skiing, presumably he or she thought the slope was safe and had no intention of triggering an avalanche. It’s different, subtle, but, from the perspective of someone who has suffered through this kind of loss, I think the difference is real.
It’s easy to debate this subject in the anonymity of an Internet discussion where you don’t have to sign your name. It’s another thing to put names to the people who are killed as a result of these kinds of events. They are real people, not idiots who put themselves in harm’s way. Many of the postings on TetonAT seemed to imply that anyone caught below would have been doing something wrong.
That’s not necessarily true. They could have been crossing the slide paths on the Coal Creek out-track one at a time. They could have been skiing the south face from one island of safety to another. In fact, another group of my friends was doing just that.
I’m not saying people don’t do stupid things, like skin up the middle of an avalanche slope, boot up a couloir below another party or have lunch in a runout zone. I know that happens. But I believe it is unfair to imply that anyone who might be caught by someone controlling an avalanche slope from above is being irresponsible. Pete and I accepted that there is danger climbing in the mountains.
But I’m not sure we accepted that danger could come from a hiker getting his thrills throwing rocks. When I ski out Coal Creek, I accept there is danger crossing slide paths. But I don’t think I should have to accept that it’s OK for someone to do avalanche control work above me without regard for my safety.
When the Fremont County attorney told me he was not going to seek criminal charges against Rodolph, he said one of the reasons for his decision was he did not think he could get a jury to convict because “everybody throws rocks.” I remember seething with anger at that remark. I know he did not mean that, because everybody throws rocks, it’s OK. He just meant he didn’t think a jury would be willing to convict someone for that offense. But to me, it felt like he was saying that it was OK to throw rocks off cliffs and kill people.
I saw the same kind of comment on the TetonAT blog: Everyone ski-cuts slopes and jumps on cornices. It’s normal. But because everyone ski-cuts slopes and jumps on cornices, does that make it OK? I don’t think so. Not always. I think it’s time to change the norm. Time to discuss when and where it is appropriate to ski-cut or drop a cornice, because, the fact is, you don’t always know who or what is below you.
Molly Absolon, a News&Guide copy editor, started backcountry skiing in the Tetons and Absarokas 20 years ago, wearing leather boots and using three-pin bindings. Her column runs here every other week through March.