As the season turns, I am terrified of two things: COVID-19 and avalanches. Both problems are a delicate dance with calculated risk. Most importantly, risks with consequences far larger than ourselves.
They are wicked problems in the sense that feedback on our behavior doesn’t tell us if we’ve made the correct decisions until the feedback is irreversibly negative. In both circumstances I ask myself, “Did we make the right decisions, or were we lucky?”
I started writing this in mandatory quarantine, somewhere I hoped I would never be. A place someone else’s careless decisions put me. I hope I never encounter the avalanche equivalent of this situation — a burial from someone skiing above me.
In Jackson Hole we have a different way of assessing risk. Most of us who make our home here are no stranger to playing the odds, whether it be sending the raddest lines, starting our own business, making a big investment or driving Teton Pass in winter to get to work. Behind all of this, however, is careful mapping and meticulous planning that prepares us.
This mountain town’s members are perhaps more comfortable evaluating risks than our city-dwelling peers, but we are also great at mitigating risks to a minimum. To work and play hard in the Tetons we have to know what we’re getting into and be able to get ourselves out if things go wrong. Most importantly, we have to rely on each other. Jackson is a year-round playground in the biggest, baddest mountains in the Lower 48, and for generations it has beckoned adventure-seekers from all walks of life.
Then why, in a town full of calculated risk assessors, are COVID-19 and its consequences so disregarded?
As a community full of backcountry skiers we have been trained for this type of risk evaluation, and we’re ignoring our training. In my mind the lessons of avalanche safety directly apply to pandemic response.
Here are the five rules I’ve developed for this winter’s risk assessment:
Advocate for yourself. I’ve had the most difficult conversations of my life this year, some with ski partners while out on a tour, most about COVID-19. Standing up for yourself and what you believe and feel and defining your comfort level can be intimidating. Like any muscle, this skill takes training. Have these conversations with friends, roommates and employers, and draw the line with regard to your safety. Learn to be unapologetic. Don’t compromise your safety for someone else’s convenience. I encourage everyone to have these conversations, set your boundaries and enforce them. Surround yourself with trusted companions.
Respect risk tolerance. We each have a differen experiences that inform our decision-making. All of these experiences are valid. Your perspective is valuable and, when combined in a communicative group, can mean a great day out with friends. Respect your peers and their boundaries, and come to agreements that ensure everyone’s voices are considered. Everyone has a right to be safe.
Avoid self-indulgence. Selfishness, thoughtlessness and greed are the enemy of joy. They are harbingers of disaster. Prioritizing your line at the expense of a possible avalanche of consequences is greedy. In the mountains, as in dealing with COVID, we must put the community before ourselves. Recognize that your decisions have effects on others. Consider your actions and their downhill consequences. Don’t bury unsuspecting victims. Wear a mask.
Avoid straining the medical community. Starting an avalanche, triggering a Search and Rescue effort, or ending up in St. John’s Health for COVID-19 puts a tremendous strain on our medical community. True heroes staff these services. Show them you care and appreciate them by making smart decisions.
If you don’t know, don’t go. It’s simple: If you can’t assess the risks and consequences, stay home, gain more information, read the paper and wait until conditions are right for your next adventure.
This winter could be our worst, both in avalanche burials and COVID-19 cases. Already, Teton County’s case count has skyrocketed this fall. In Colorado this past spring there was a notable spike in avalanche incidents in response to the COVID-19 lockdowns, according to the Colorado Avalanche Awareness Center. Fatigue from the stressors of a pandemic affects our decision-making. With many people looking to the backcountry for their ski fix, and with the confines of the indoors as temperatures plummet, I fear for this community’s ability to manage these two high-consequence perils. Please get informed, be mindful of this delicate place and how your actions impact others, and be safe.
See JHAvalanche.org for avalanche resources, and register for a course to get educated. For COVID-19 protocols and updates, visit JHCOVID.org. Stay home, wear a mask, and let’s work together to make this winter full of wicked good times instead of wicked problems.