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Playing Russian roulette in the mountains
By Molly Absolon, Jackson Hole, Wyo.
Date: February 13, 2013
I’ve been thinking a lot about the deaths of Liza Benson and Nick Gillespie.
I did not know either of them, but like most backcountry skiers, I analyze avalanche accident write-ups, searching for reasons why what happened to others won’t happen to me, looking for confidence as I head back out into the mountains. But to be honest, from the little I have read about these two events, I am not sure I can say I would have known better. And that makes me nervous.
On the same day Liza and Nick were killed, I dropped into Glory Bowl with very little analysis of slope conditions. My partners and I had talked generally about conditions and thought things seemed safe, but we didn’t dig. We didn’t stop and go through all the pieces of the avalanche triangle — snowpack, weather, terrain — clicking off reasons for our decision. We had a perfunctory conversation about what we thought and in we went. And we were fine. We had a wonderful run. But were we just lucky we didn’t hit the sweet spot? Was it really our forethought and preparedness that kept us safe?
Snowpacks are complicated. The combination of factors affecting their stability — loads, triggers, rocks, trees, wind, crusts, sun, facets, stress, heat, cold, the list is endless — are complex and take time to analyze. Furthermore, the information gleaned from one snow pit can be totally misleading when applied to another spot, even if it is the same day, the same slope, the same angle. We try to gather as much information as possible to make good decisions, but then we are seduced by the sunshine, the moderate rating on the avalanche forecast, the lack of obvious signs of instability, and we convince ourselves that it’s safe to ski. Most of the time it is safe, until one day it’s not, and someone dies.
We take solace in saying our friends who die in the mountains were doing what they love, and it’s true to a degree. I love backcountry skiing. I love the feeling of floating through untracked powder. I love touring through snow-caked forests in the silence of winter. I love being out with my friends in the winter. It makes me happy and gives my life meaning and joy. It’s why I live here. I gather Liza and Nick also loved backcountry skiing, but did they love it enough to die doing it? I don’t know. I would guess that when they went out to ski that fateful day, dying was not on their minds.
Dale Atkins, an avalanche educator from Colorado, told me that he used to ask his students what would happen if they died skiing a slope. Inevitably, he said, his question would be followed by an awkward silence and then some nervous laughter. What that told Atkins was that people did not really believe they were going to die. The question — a hard, brutal question if you think about it, certainly not one to laugh about — was impossible for people to answer and, therefore, ineffective in getting them to really think about the consequences of dropping into a particular slope.
Atkins changed his tactics and started asking people to consider what would happen to their loved ones if they died. He wanted them to think for a second about their wives, husbands, parents, children, friends. He wanted them to resist the lure of the glistening powder long enough to consider “what if?”
I have a 12-year-old daughter who has lost one parent who died while doing what he loved. It helped us that when he was killed her dad was climbing, which had been his life’s passion. But it’s a fairly hollow comfort when you are faced with the reality of the loss. His death weighs heavily on my own decisions. I don’t really feel I can justify dying doing what I love. It feels selfish to think it’s OK to risk my life for a powder run when I have a child who needs me.
And yet I ski every day, mostly in the backcountry, mostly on slopes that can and do avalanche.
I recently interviewed mountaineer Malcolm Daly, who lost his lower leg after a climbing fall in Alaska. Daly said something that struck me.
“You put yourself in front of the barrel of gun enough times, sometime it’s going to go off,” he said.
Am I putting myself in front of the barrel of a gun every time I ski a 38-degree slope? Am I really good enough at judging conditions to say with certainty that the slope is safe?
Daly went on to say he had no regrets. The climb had been one of the best in his life, and he treasures the memory. Furthermore, he still climbs. It makes him happy. Skiing makes me happy. Given the numbers of people I see out skiing every day, I would guess it makes a lot of people happy. But when I read about the sorrow of Liza and Nick’s friends and family, I couldn’t help but wonder: Is it really worth it?
I’ve rationalized that life is not worth living if we are always afraid of dying. I’ve rationalized that driving a car is as risky as skiing an avalanche path. I’ve convinced myself that I’m thoughtful and educated about my decisions. But Liza and Nick’s deaths have reminded me to be humble and realistic.
We are putting ourselves in front of the barrel of a gun when we head out into the mountains. That’s not to say we shouldn’t go, it’s just to remind ourselves that the risks are real, and they can kill us.