Snowsport safety has a problem, and needs to change


First post of the season and I drop a statement like that. Its all a bit serious and a little heavy for an appetizer. After all, the main course of touring and powder and all that is still several months away for the vast majority of tourers here in the northern hemisphere. (Congrats to everybody who made the Southern Winter happen – or have been getting after it high on the glaciers.) Why would I start out with a statement like that? I think its justified.

Aside from being an old curmudgeon who likes to point out everything that’s wrong without offering any solution, I think I’m ready to say that the current focus on the dangers of snowsport activity is not only a drag – its blatantly ineffective in changing behavior, and people are getting hurt and killed as a result.

just a sample from today
just a sample from today

The season hasn’t even started and my facebook feed is already filled with injury, death and destruction. Some from skiing, some from avalanches, and a smattering from other “extreme” sports like mountain biking and basejumping. On the big screen and on the DVD circuit – this year’s crop of ski movies are showing images of ever-more “commited” terrain for us all to drool over – while universally lamenting the loss of treasured friends and declaring the necessity to “remain vigilant”. Or something like that.

And then the cut to the guy dropping directly out of the heli onto an untracked slope of Alaskan powder angled at 5280 degrees with a bergschrund and the bottom of it so deep it goes all the way to fucking China. Not just China: fucking China.

This is not (just) another lament about the disingenuous nature of these kinds of promotion. There’s been a lot of that already – both from inside and outside of “our” sport (or sports) – as we like to call it. Its clear to me that these videos, and most of what passes for “skiing” on my social media feeds has about as much to do with skiing as your typical porno flick has to do with sex.

Yes – porn has the physical act of sex in it – but its neither real, nor in the least realistic. No matter your opinion of it – its a kind of performance – and even the so-called “amateur” flicks are presenting a fantasy. Most people – even if they don’t think about it consciously – know this and behave accordingly. While going to the door in a negligee to let the pizza-stud in is a perfectly acceptable action in a porno – if you do it in real life (too often) you get either a weird reputation or locked up. Or both. Some people do actually confuse porn with real-life sex – but these people are usually lonely, mentally unstable and generally unhappy creatures. We pity them or shun them. Their behavior is considered abnormal.

So why spend a whole paragraph talking about movies named “Logjamming” and their kind? Well….similar to sex-porn, ski-porn flicks and the ski-porn social media producers are showing a fantasy world that – if you attempted to recreate it in real-life – would be a recipe for disaster. We know this. Dropping onto 38 degree slopes loaded up with neck-deep untracked without doing a ski-cut or anything is a sure-fire way to end up dead sometime – like a lot of things in ski movies. Again – I’m not writing to complain about that – its a fantasy, and one that I enjoy. The people who pay the price for that fantasy – the stars of the industry who die or get injured making these images, or creating the personal brand you have to have to make them, know the risks, I think. They make that decision and it’s theirs – I respect that. I find, however, that the inevitable voice-over admonishments to “stay safe” and “listen to the mountains” coupled with shots and discussions about the avalanche or terrain dangers faced by the crew don’t serve the message they are supposed to convey. In fact – they have exactly the opposite effect.

taken right off of - this is clearly being shown as positve
taken right off of – this is clearly being shown as positve

I don’t doubt the sincerity of the participants. When they include segments like the ones mentioned, I think they want to scare people a bit – to show them how dangerous things can be. The intention is to promote sensible behavior and safe travel in a dangerous environment. In a larger sense, one can even say the goal is to provide a forum within our community to discuss and participate in a group meditation on the nature of what we do. Its noble – but if you take two steps back – its also weird, like if someone in one of those pornos suddenly started talking about STDs and the importance of trust and commitment in adult relationships.

The real problem lies in the unexpressed but clearly visible relationship between risk and fun. Watching these videos, one gets the distinct feeling that if you want to have big fun, you have to take big risk. The pros shown in the videos are clearly taking big risks – and in the last few years – they take a lot of effort to describe just how big those risks are. They show explicitly all the ways they evaluate those risks, and even take lots of opportunities to point out examples of people and situations where the risk was wrongly evaluated – often with tragic results. Sometimes – there is even some soul-searching and lamentation – usually followed by a renewed commitment to hazard mitigation and an affirmation that the injured or dead were “living life to the fullest.”

Before I get flamed for that – let me just point out that here again – we make a connection between big risks and big reward. These people were “really living” so while its sad they are gone – we can take solace in that.

We don’t have to do this. My experience has shown me that the biggest risks do not make for the most fun – in fact – they detriment from it. My best days skiing in the backcountry are not the ones where I was doing stuff that made me nervous – they are the ones where I was relaxed and comfortable, skiing great snow with good friends and achieving athletic feats of skiing prowess without injury – or if I’m honest – even a lot of effort.

first auto-result out of google
first auto-result out of google

The social media phenomenon has trained everyone that risk is a component of our sport – that’s good – but it has also unwittingly instilled a perception that risk is a necessary component of fun – so we attempt to manage risk to maximize fun. This is clearly not working. People are getting killed chasing that porno-like fantasy of high-risk fun – even seeking out risk, either consciously or unconsciously in order to have a “more real” experience.

This isn’t just about the Go-Pro crowd – who I bag on all the time while writing a skiing BLOG. It affects even our terminology and training. A typical avalanche danger report is an example. All over them – you find various descriptions of where the dangerous spots are: elevations, aspects, times and weather patterns. Just like everybody else – I read these and think: “Too bad I can’t go there – it’s too dangerous. Its going to be hard to stay off those primo slopes. Even worse if everyone else is going to be tracking them all up right in front of me. Now: how can I get as close to the edge of that stuff as I can without getting into trouble.”

It sounds reasonable – but its not working, and worse, its probably not making for better ski days either.

This guy. Image taken from
This guy. Image taken from

I read an interview with Bob Athey – the “Wizard of the Wasatch” whom I don’t know – that seems to make a lot of sense to me. He had a falling out with the Utah Avalanche Commission partly because he disagrees with the risk-focus of avalanche reports. His argument was also that the constant referencing of risk only makes people more likely to seek that risk out – especially when our popular culture rewards and praises such risk-taking (both in life and posthumously) and insinuates that with additional risk comes additional fun.

What if, instead of talking up the risk, our training and our materials focused first on “how to find the fun.” What if we talked not first about the weak layers, but told skiers how to get the best freshies for the least effort while having the biggest laughs? While leaving out all mention of risk would probably be a bad idea – people tend to react to positive messages better than to negative ones. What if we told them where to go – instead of where not to go?

Ski-Porn will always be ski-porn – but if the stars of those flicks really wanted to change the behavior of the public, they could use their social media channels to show how much fun a powder day on a gently-sloped gladed hill can be with their friends – or – since nobody wants to see that (it breaks the fantasy) they could remain in character and refrain from safety speeches. Maybe – some of them would come clean at the end of their career about how nerve-wracking it is to stand on top of those lines and know that you have to perform or die, or both – just to pay the rent. I think its likely however that many of the people in those films are – like a lot of porn stars – suffering from some kind of deficit or even a kind of addiction – and may not be able to feel what most of us would feel in those situations. No offense is intended – we all fight our own private battles.

best Go-Pro face EVA!
best Go-Pro face EVA!

So what does all this mean for me? For you?

For myself – I’m going to make a bigger effort to focus on the fun and let go of goals. I’ll stop planning to climb to a peak and instead plan to ski on some slopes. I’ll look for more sunshine and if I like a spot I’ll stop and ski it, instead of continuing further up or down and exposing myself to ever-more opportunities for danger. I’m going to get out my maps, look for and mark low-angle spots with low consequences and I’ll go there first – instead of “saving” them for days when I think the avalanche danger is high. I’ll slow down and if I get nervous – I’ll quit. Full stop. I’ll know where the closest restaurant is and the best way to get there at all times and I’ll think about what I could order there. I’ll smile more and if things get hard – I’ll be a little more critical of my choices.

All these things will make it easier for me to keep my skiing real, and make it easier for me to stop chasing a fantasy. I will probably stop before the peak more often, and I might miss some pow – but I’ll be safer and much more important than that:

I’ll be having more fun!

Hope you all will be having more fun – this year – and for lots of years to come!

2 thoughts on “Snowsport safety has a problem, and needs to change”

    1. So jealous of you Lukas! You’re all over the place. Already!

      Next time I’ll write in Tirolerisch if you promise not to laugh. 😉

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