There’s something romantic about the idea of a solo skier pioneering a new line, a lone figure breaking trail in the predawn black, one person with a mission. We envy that lack of distraction and that self-sufficient sentiment.
But the line between self-reliant, romantic aspirations of mountain conquering and irresponsible backcountry use is often blurred by predetermined goals and a warped perspective of our own role in the mountains. And it’s important to recognize that.
So many of us get wrapped up in our plans and objectives for ski season. We set measurable goals to complete. In the past I’ve even written it down: “I want to ski X amount of human-powered feet this season” or “I want to bag these three lines and learn these two tricks.” And that’s great; measurable goals are the first step in progression. But the problem comes when the snowpack and the weather dictate differently.
That’s when those objectives can quickly swap from a positive way to foster growth to a dangerous liability that can cloud good decision-making. If your goal is to ski as many vertical feet as possible in a single ski season, it’s going to be harder to make the call to not ski on a high avy danger day. If you’ve got an intense hankering for a specific line, and you’ve been eyeing it all season, it’s hard to make the call not to try for it, even if the weather window is a little tight for comfort.
So when we set a goal, when we make a statement that we can later grade ourselves on, it’s important to set a contingency plan, another goal that’s safer that still gives us something to try for even if conditions don’t line up as anticipated. Readiness to compromise is essential to safe backcountry travel.
Skiers (especially of the talented, male variety) are often tempted to avoid that compromise by adopting a laissez-faire attitude about their own safety. They fancy themselves as solo conquistadors of epic summits. They’re happy to tell you about all the times they’ve “suffered” through some heinous adventure, “just because it’s there,” emerging from the other side as Great Men. That attitude isn’t grand and powerful, though. It’s juvenile, self-centered and reveals a pathetic lack of emotional maturity.
None of us live in a Hemingway novel. Your dehydrated jaunt in Grand Teton does not qualify as “suffering.” You are not some mysterious, charismatic protagonist in a grand saga. No misunderstood but brilliant and resilient heroes here. And your foolish, life-endangering decisions affect a far greater number of people than your selfish, short-sighted brain can fathom. Grow up.
I used to be there. I used to be a young, single dude in a mountain town, with big objectives, a big ego, and a tiny understanding of the effect of my actions. I know how easy it is to fall into fatalistic mindset, resigning yourself: “If I perish, I perish.” It’s gratifying, in a masturbatory sort of way, to let go of everything. It’s easy to just say “If the mountains take me, I’ll greet my death with a stiff upper lip.” But that’s not how it works.
Your decisions affect others, even if you’re not skiing with them. Your risk tolerance can be numbed enough that you ski the face of Taylor on a high avy day, but that’s not fair to the folks in the Coal Creek drainage who would like to go home to their families. You might have no problem with getting caught in an avalanche on Twin Slides, but the commuters below you will. You might not care if something happens deep in the park and you pass away, but the search and rescue personnel who are putting their lives at risk to rescue you, or recover your body, will. Your actions have consequences. Own them.
So never be so inflexible that your decision making suffers. Never paint yourself as a tragic hero in some epic tale of man against nature.
Go skiing with friends. At the very least, carpooling with them will help the parking situation, and they might have some input that makes your day better. If you really have to go solo, do it knowing that your decisions don’t affect just you. Make more conservative decisions than you would with a group. Be prepared to spend a night out. Know how to call for help if an emergency does arise (download the Backcountry SOS app). Make a Plan A and a Plan B, and make sure someone you trust knows those plans and knows when you should be back, when they should call 911.
We’re all tempted to try to be the sole hero of our life’s story, to paint ourselves as the lone lawman riding into a lawless town. But that selfish view of the world has negative effects that ripple throughout the whole community. You’re better than that. Try acting like it.