Maroon Bowl survivors taken to task by experts
Local backcountry experts are not impressed with the decision by four young men to ski Maroon Bowl on Monday, when they set off a massive avalanche and narrowly escaped death.But at least one of the local men, 21-year-old John Francis, is comfortable with his decision and how the day turned out.”Personally, I don’t think it is a very big deal,” Francis said during an interview at the D&E snowboard shop in Aspen where he works. “Like, yeah, some snow slid. Whatever. “We wanted some sick turns and we wanted some big air,” said Francis. “Hey, you want an explanation, that pretty much sums it up right there. As far as the snow is concerned, yeah, we knew it was dangerous, but it was a risk we were willing to take. You know, whether it was stupid or not, it was really fun doing it. We were back there for a thrill.”But Boots Ferguson, a local backcountry skier and an attorney with Holland and Hart who has worked extensively on ski-area boundary issues, said the young men’s choice was a poor one, especially given the extreme avalanche danger on Monday.”This was utter disrespect for the mountains in known conditions,” Ferguson said. “To say that they survived because they were lucky gives them the benefit of a very large doubt. It had nothing to do with luck. It was just not their day to die.”In a letter to the editor in today’s paper, Ferguson said that “ski patrol members watched in horror as the young men ignored their specific advice to the contrary and skied/rode into the bowl …”Veteran alpine mountain guide Dick Jackson said the young men’s decision to plunge into Maroon Bowl was “selfish, immature and disrespectful.””Historically, there has been a very high level of local’s ethics when it comes to backcountry or out of bounds skiing,” Jackson said. “This attitude to me really violates this unwritten code of ethics that we’ve had around here.”Earlier this year, Francis had taken an avalanche awareness course from Jackson’s Aspen Expeditions mountain school. “We go through decision-making in a very explicit way,” Jackson said of the course. “There is no question that the data available should be assessed in a rational way. When someone takes all that and throws it out and says ‘We know that, we accept the risk, that’s just part of the game,’ well, I guess then it is about the rewards of an ego-driven thing.”David Swersky, a 22-year veteran of Mountain Rescue Aspen, said he could understand that the young men may not have been thinking about whose lives they might inconvenience as they were dropping into the bowl.”But the reality is, with that sort of nihilistic behavior, you do inadvertently endanger other people’s lives as well as your own,” Swersky said. “I’ve known two of the families for many years. It would have been traumatic to have to go out and recover anybody that I know.”On Monday, Francis was with three other local men, Brian Spencer Anzini, 22, David Sundseth, 25, and Aaron Lougee, 21, all of whom are Aspen Skiing Co. employees. The group had skied off the top of Highland Bowl earlier in the day, down a backcountry route called City Chute which leads to the Castle Creek valley.They returned to the ski area, hiked up again, and went out a designated backcountry access gate into Maroon Bowl around 2 p.m. At least two of the four jumped off a rock into the bowl, which started to slide on the north side after Francis, the last to jump, landed.Francis and Lougee, on their snowboards, and Anzini, on skis, managed to traverse out of the widening avalanche path while Sundseth was able to keep himself from being sucked into the flow from near the top of the bowl. Almost all of the bowl pulled out and the huge slide reached the bank of Maroon Creek on the valley floor.The group was well aware of the high avalanche danger in Maroon Bowl on Monday, Francis said.”We had checked the snowpack over the Internet and had also read it in the paper,” Francis said. “We were aware of the snow conditions and we knew what time it was as well.”On their way up to the bowl, the four men had been strongly advised by local experts against skiing the bowl.”We expected some snow to move around, definitely, but it was a risk we were willing to take,” Francis said. “We certainly didn’t expect the whole bowl to go. It did, and fortunately, when it came down to it, everybody made the right decision and did the exact right thing.”Getting off the big slab was an important part, and the line we chose out, and traversing across the bowl to get a safe zone, and everybody being willing to point their boards downhill and go as fast as possible and get out of the way, that’s what needed to be done and that’s how it worked out,” Francis said.When asked if he was aware that if they had been caught in a slide, then ski patrollers and Mountain Rescue volunteers might have had to go in after them, Francis said, “That’s true, but fortunately it didn’t come down to that. While that would have been bad if a patroller or somebody had to put themselves in danger to help us, it never came to that, and I think we should be looking at that. Everybody is great. Everybody is OK. Everybody got out.” Francis’s father, John Francis, senior, is troubled by his son’s attitude.”I think it is incredibly arrogant,” he said, adding that he was surprised because his son has a lot of backcountry experience. “Generally, his common-sense index is real high. He doesn’t do stupid things in the wilderness, and he gets mad when other people do them. He just blew it this time.”And he knows he screwed up, but there is a 21-year-old ‘I’m invincible’ false bravado thing going on. All you can do as a parent is continue to hope that these kids learn from what they do. And you’re never sure if they do.”
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