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The other avalanche lesson

Dear Editor:In all the coverage and letters about the Five Fingers avalanche of March 6, comments have invoked “inherent risk” and the “human factor.” There has been much sorrow and sympathy expressed for John Jensen, his family and those involved, and much gratitude for the support of the community. But why hasn’t there been more reaction to the fact that the accident happened in a class? It would be one thing if it were a private trip, quite another in a level II avalanche awareness class. While they head out to find terrain and conditions to make their class applicable and practical, they are supposed to be learning how to identify and assess risk and avoid it.One can argue that no matter how many precautions are taken, there is always unpredictability – spatial variance, changing factors and the biggie, human error. But from the reports, there seem to be ample pieces of information to seriously raise questions. It was an east-northeast aspect, rated considerable (according to Knox Williams of the CAIC), but even more so, it was a highly exposed ridge above treeline, indeed near the crest of Highlands Ridge. The fact that he fell into the fall line and triggered the slide only demonstrates that their plan to ski narrow turns, staying tight to one side of the “rib,” was leaving themselves with a delicately thin margin of error.For a class, where a setting conducive to learning is sought, it doesn’t seem appropriate to approach something where the instructor has to say, “Now keep your turns within this width and don’t fall or you’ll be carried farther into the gulch and may trigger a slide that, given the pitch, will carry you the entire 3,500 vertical feet.” Perhaps because we are seekers of backcountry thrills ourselves, perhaps because the experience of wilderness is always an exercise of an individual’s free will, we respect the sovereignty of the event and reserve judgment. However, the wilderness experience is ultimately one of being truly and completely on one’s own. It was the respect and humility that that knowledge demands which was not well taught that day. Will HodgesAspen


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