Roger Marolt: ’Torping out’ for ridicule and shame
There was a local phrase, “Torping out.” It described any kind of dubious decision making that occurred in the backcountry. Perhaps the closest thing we have to it today is “gaper,” but in my mind that relates mostly things that happen on the ski hill to clueless tourists. Torping out was bigger than that and it wasn’t generally about silly things. It implied stupidity. It referenced getting deep into precarious predicaments. If you Torped out, it meant you knew just enough about the wilderness experience to be dangerous. We pictured Front Rangers, Subarus, carabiner key chains and REI premier membership cards.
It started in March in the early 1990s, I think. I only “think” this because, whenever it was that Ken Torp showed up in Aspen, he became a legend, and stories about legends are told so often by so many people that the actual facts of what happened get rerouted and blurred so that only the highlights of their exploits survive enhanced to, for sure, teach valuable lessons, but mostly to entertain.
Anyway, Torp showed up in Aspen roundabouts then and set out on a hut trip. It was a weekend when America’s Downhill was being staged on Aspen Mountain. Before we ever heard of Ken Torp, the weekend was memorable for the prodigious snowfall that occurred. The race was canceled and the mountain was crowded with Wold Cup racers taking the opportunity to ski deep powder with the locals. I remember watching world champion Alberto Tomba lose both skis and tumble all the way down Silver Rush, but that is a tale for another time.
Meanwhile, during this storm of Biblical proportion, Ken Torp and his group decided it was a terrific time to head out on a hut trip, what with not being able to see your hand in front of your face in the blizzard, below-zero temperatures and all. I mean, they had a reservation and had driven all the way from Boulder. They had no choice but to go.
It didn’t end well. Nobody should have set out on a winter mountain excursion in that weather. The wayward adventurers went missing for a long time, I think it was over a week. And they ended up being found far away from their intended destination, something like 20 miles off the mark. They split up during the ordeal, further increasing the odds of a really bad outcome. They pretty much broke every rule in the outdoor survival book and then added a couple chapters of their own.
The good news is we learned from their mistakes. The story was widely followed, discussed, and the adventurers’ mistakes roundly ridiculed. Nobody thought these people were victims. They were fools, and so the term “Torping out” became popular to describe any and all blunders committed in the mountains.
This incident came to mind recently as I read predictions for the trend of visitors flocking into the backcountry this summer continuing after last year’s unprecedented onslaught. I was thinking of the inevitable predicaments unwary, inexperienced and overconfident hikers and climbers will get themselves into, and it occurred to me that along with sufficient water, snacks and rain gear, a dose of humility would be a good thing for everyone to carry out into the great under-appreciated.
Everyone knows that nobody acquires humility voluntarily, it usually comes after we accidentally back into the butt-kicking machine. Recalling the Torp incident was useful in reminding me that the threat of public humiliation can be tool in protecting people from themselves, although many would say it is more painful than tumbling off a fallen tree spanning a rocky stream bed. While there is no way of knowing how much catastrophe the possibility of one’s actions being judged as “Torping out” prevented, it surely must have at least caused more than a few people to think twice before doing something really dumb while out on their own adventures far from the car.
I know the theory that publishing names along with details about foolish exploits out in the wild might result in the unintended consequence of those in real danger resisting a call for help for fear of the publicity. In a place like Aspen, it is certainly possible that someone might chose a broken leg over a bruised ego. Nobody knows if the published weekly police blotter results in fewer crimes. Maybe there is no practical way of saving us from ourselves. That said, I still nurture a healthy fear against Torping out.
Roger Marolt thinks it is wiser to be prepared for self-rescue in the backcountry than trying to dial 911 with your nose while hanging off to the side of a cliff. Email at firstname.lastname@example.org.