Aspen Princess: It’s never too late to turn around
August 30, 2017
I just watched a video someone posted of their traverse across the Knife Edge on Capitol Peak, and it made my stomach turn.
Look, I get it. I've been around adrenaline junkies and professional outdoor athletes for most of my adult life. But with the recent fatalities on this peak in our backyard, I think we're all feeling a little spooked by how ominous these mountains really are. Maybe we're looking at them a little differently, understanding that beneath the idyllic beauty of this valley lies something dark and treacherous — but is that not where the beauty comes from? The bottom line is this: The power of the mountains should never be underestimated.
Unfortunately, we're reminded of this too often. Winter is a particularly dangerous time when avalanche fatalities kick you in the gut with a reality check: Are powder turns worth risking your life for? When was the last time you practiced a transceiver search or took an avalanche safety course? Are the people you're going into the backcountry with properly trained and experienced?
But I think the frequency of fatalities this summer has us all a little baffled. What gives? Why now? Is it because the more visitors we have, the more people die in the mountains? Is it because of a lack of experience, knowledge or proper route finding?
I can't help but think about that young couple who died on Aug. 20. I can see it in my mind's eye like an old home movie, the sunlight flickering, smiling faces, whoops of joy at the summit, young love, new love. Then confusion. Despair. Silence.
With these fatalities so close together, you would think the news would keep people away, but maybe it does the opposite. Maybe it creates more intrigue.
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In my 20s I spent a lot of time in big mountains as part of a media crew documenting professional skiers and snowboarders whose careers depended on pushing the envelope, betting their skill against the inherent and undeniable risk of injury or death. My job was to sit idly by and witness it all so I could write about it later for a magazine that people bought so they could look at the pictures.
It was always a struggle not to think too deeply about things like where we were relative to a hospital; the dangers our athletes were about to take; the possibility something could go wrong and someone could get hurt; the challenges and the risks we'd all be faced with if a medical evacuation was necessary with so many of us out in the field at once. Not to mention the question, "Is this really necessary?" We were making a video that would play in the background at bars in ski towns all over the country? Is that really worth dying for?
I never voiced these concerns. As a writer whose only job was to witness the events that were about to take place, it didn't seem appropriate. I felt lucky to be there, deep in the mountains in these remote and stunning places so few people got to see in the company of some of the best athletes in the world.
Over the 10 years I traveled all over the world to document snowboarders and skiers doing their thing in big mountains, I witnessed a few near-fatal accidents. And every single time I had a bad feeling, an intuition that something might go wrong. Still, that wasn't the last time I put myself in danger, or ignored my intuition when it did more than whisper in my ear. I spent the better part of my 20s chasing these boys around the world and am lucky I lived to tell about it.
But when I moved to Aspen and made the decision to stop traveling nonstop and to call this place home, I let go of that part of myself that was willing to take risks. I do think part of that is being young, a time in your life when mortality isn't something you think about on a regular basis. A time before you knew people your own age fighting cancer, and a time when your parents were still immune to a fall from which they might not get up, when your parents were still the people who took care of you rather than the other way around.
Every time I hear about a fatality in the mountains, sadness and grief gives way to anger. There is a risk-reward equation that, at least from where I'm sitting, yields a pretty clear answer. Even the most experienced mountaineers assess that risk every time they go into the backcountry, sometimes turning back when the conditions push the odds too far in the wrong direction. They are well-prepared with the proper equipment, skill, experience and understanding of the route. Sometimes even the most experienced lose their lives because the odds start to shift with the more time they're out there, exposing them to risk.
I guess that's why it was the young couple that resonated with me so much. I was that girl who would follow my guy deep into the mountains and up to the highest peak without giving it much thought.
But maybe they should have. Everyone who considers going out there should consider the danger. They should evaluate the risks and understand the consequences. They should know their limits and be realistic about their experience and skill level. It's not for lack of better educating the public or because we need to scar this immaculate peak with fixed ropes. It's about having respect for the power of the mountains — and for the people who love you. If something doesn't feel right, or the idea of trying to traverse a ridge as wide as a balance beam over 600 feet of exposure doesn't feel right, speak up. Or better yet, turn around.
The Princess is happy shredding groomed corduroy these days. Email your love to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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