Taylor avalanche on Jan. 15, 2020

Tracks down the southern face of Taylor Mountain appear to have touched off a massive avalanche. Teton County Search and Rescue flew over the scene but doesn’t believe anyone was caught in the slide.

Sunday finally tipped the scale for me.

I’ve been an advocate for backcountry recreationalists for years. When conservationists slammed mountain bikers and commuters railed against skiers, I argued back, saying that we should not let the sins of a few define recreationalists as a whole. I jumped to the defense of skiers and boarders when people blamed them for triggering slides without knowing all the facts. I believed outdoor recreation was a way to create advocates to fight for healthy ecosystems and abundant wildlife. I argued that being outside in nature made us better, healthier, more compassionate people. I argued, and believed, that it was unfair to call us hedonistic, selfish, pleasure seekers.

But no more. Something tipped the scale for me last week. On Sunday I estimate at least 10 if not more cars were parked in a clearly defined no parking zone at Coal Creek on the west side of Teton Pass. The blatant disregard for the law displayed by these drivers left me dumbfounded. It was such a clear sign of disrespect for the Wyoming Department of Transportation and of the Highway Patrol who safeguard the road. It was as if these people were flipping off the world, saying, “I am going skiing regardless of what the rules say.”

It wasn’t just the parking. Ever since the snow started flying on New Year’s Eve, I’ve seen signs of the entitled recreationalists that conservationists and commuters decried in the past. Those signs included ski tracks center punching Glory Bowl when the avalanche hazard was rated “considerable,” and tracks down the south face of Mount Taylor on the first sunny day after a record 10 feet of snow had fallen.

Undoubtedly those skiers believe they were making a considered, thoughtful choice to ski those lines under the existing conditions, but tracks are a glaring beacon for others who may have less skill and expertise. Tracks tell a story, but just one part of that story. There’s no sign of the thought that went into deciding to ski the line, just a perfect linked set of glorious turns down a blank canvas of snow, luring others to follow.

Just last week a friend of mine ran into a skier heading toward 25 Short in Grand Teton National Park. The skier did not have a shovel or a probe, and didn’t know what a beacon was. She was unaware of the fact that you could pull up an avalanche forecast to get an update on conditions. She was just following tracks. She just liked to ski powder. Again, avalanche conditions were considerable that day.

I wonder how many people actually know what the “considerable” rating means? It may not be as alarming a word as “high” or “extreme,” but its definition in the avalanche world is clear: “Dangerous avalanche conditions. Careful snowpack evaluation, cautious route finding, and conservative decision-making essential. Natural avalanches possible; human-triggered avalanches likely. Small avalanches in many areas or large avalanches in specific areas or very large avalanches in isolated areas.”

So considerable means it’s dangerous. Considerable means you have to take precautions and be aware. Considerable means you need knowledge and skill to assess the terrain. And, I would say, considerable means you need to think about the message you — or your tracks — convey to the rest of the world.

You can argue that warnings about the dangers of avalanches — particularly after days and days of the same hazard rating and same avalanche problem — are ineffectual because people begin to tune them out, especially if nothing happens to them on their outings. You can also argue that those hazard ratings may not be accurate in the first place. It’s the same thing that happens with warnings about the dangers of smoking or drinking, climate change or even the incredible behavior of our president. We become dulled by the repeated message of doom and gloom and continue with life as we have always lived it, oblivious to the fact that we are in red light territory.

I’ve written before about the wicked-learning environment of winter. A wicked-learning environment is one in which we begin to think we are skilled, knowledgeable, and able to avoid avalanche danger because we’ve never been caught in a slide. This conviction is reinforced every time we ski a slope without being avalanched. It becomes a vicious circle of unfounded logic or, in the parlance of avalanche experts, “selected hypothesis testing.” So, for example, you think, “I skied this in considerable conditions and it didn’t slide, so it must be OK, and therefore this slope over here that looks like that slope over there must not slide in considerable conditions either,” or whatever. Your spinning logic circle may be different, but ultimately the point is you will never know if the slope you skied was stable and safe, or if you were simply lucky not to hit the trigger point that would have caused it to slide.

I might be spinning here too. How does an overflowing parking lot get to the whole considerable, message-fatigue debate? My point is that it all comes down to our self-centeredness as backcountry users. We think we know better than the forecasters, the highway patrol, WYDOT. We think we know better than everyone really, and not necessarily because we have expertise and knowledge (I’d argue the most expert and knowledgeable of us are also among the most humble and respectful), but because we want to ski, and we feel as if we are entitled to ski without anyone telling us what to do.

But that attitude just doesn’t cut it anymore. I don’t know how many skiers were out on Teton Pass this past Sunday but there must have been hundreds, and when there are hundreds of us painting our tracks on every slope in sight and parking wherever we damn well please we cannot pretend that we are in a vacuum where our actions have no effect on the world around us. They do. Our decisions — whether ignorant, informed, selfish or thoughtful — affect others, may jeopardize our ability to pursue our beloved pastime, and, in the worst-case scenario, could get us or someone else killed.

Don’t get me wrong. I was one of those people out last Sunday. I adore backcountry skiing. There is nothing like untracked glittering powder. It brings me joy, it makes me laugh, it gets me out of my house in the depths of winter, it unites me with my friends, it is why I live here and why I hope to stay here. I think that passion has been what has made me such a vocal defender of recreationalists, but I also think it blinded me to the criticisms that have been launched against us for the past decade. In my mind, if everyone was feeling as happy as I felt out skiing, how could we do anything wrong? How could we be spoiled brats? We’d found a way to experience joy. What wrong could there be in that?

But I have come to realize that there’s a lot about our actions that are indefensible and selfish. I can see now that my past arguments against any kind of restrictions on Teton Pass were really driven by my selfishness. I want to ski. I believe I am a responsible, respectful backcountry user, and, therefore, I should be allowed to do what I want. It’s the other guy or gal who’s screwing it up for the rest of us.

But it isn’t the other anymore. I remember reading somewhere about how you cannot grumble about traffic when you are sitting in a traffic jam. After all, you are obviously part of the problem.

It’s hard to get my head around this. Backcountry powder skiing is amazing, and it’s no wonder so many of us want to do it. But it’s also a privilege. And, like any privilege, if we abuse it we should be prepared to lose it. I don’t want that to happen, and so I think it’s time we all grew up. We all need to act more responsibly. We need to recognize the allure of a track leading off onto a snowy slope and decide if that is the appropriate signal to leave behind when conditions are hazardous. We need to be conservative and to respect the experts. And, if we can’t make some of these concessions, we should be prepared to suffer the consequences both for ourselves and for the rest of the outdoor community who get dragged down by our actions.

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Molly Absolon writes Mountainside every other week. Contact her via columnists@jhnewsandguide.com.

(2) comments

Richard Jones

Molly, well thought out opinion. You didn't have to add politics. " even the incredible behavior of our president"

Steven Kardas

I am not trying to be mean or anything but if you can not even get people to pick up their dog's poop in the parking lot, one can not expect any higher levels of responsibility.

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