High Cost of Chasing Powder

April 2, 2009

accident, criminal law, Negligence

Kamloops Daily News

April 1, 2009

by Jon Heshka


It has been a winter of despair for backcountry recreationists in BC. Eight snowmobilers horribly and tragically died in an avalanche outside of Fernie just after Christmas. Marie-Josée Fortin died after ducking under the ropes and getting lost at Kicking Horse Mountain Resort in Golden last month sparking a debate about the rights and responsibilities of skiers, commercial operators, search and rescue, and the RCMP. Three weeks ago, two more skiers died in an avalanche at Kicking Horse (the skiers were in-bounds at the resort but in a permanent closure area) and four more snowmobilers have died within the last week near Blue River, McBride and Kimberley.  All were motivated by a quest for adventure and finding untracked powder.


The deaths bring this season’s avalanche toll in Canada to 23. The average fatality rate is 14. Just to keep things in perspective, there have been more than 37 shootings and 17 deaths in Metro Vancouver since January 1. There are approximately 400 drowning deaths in Canada every year.


The tragedy turned to parody in January when a RCMP helicopter shepherded 3 skiers and 1 snowboarder who didn’t want the escort after they skied out-of-bounds at Grouse Mountain in Vancouver. Such events have put adventure back into the spotlight and into the cross-hairs of critics.


The shrill opposition and moral outrage of the public seems disproportionate to the offence of skiing out-of-bounds. A national columnist labelled those who ski in dangerous terrain as morons and imbecils. Even a mountain guide who ought to know better has called it reckless and stupid behaviour. The public seems to largely agree. There is a cruel undercurrent out there saying that those who die while skiing out-of-bounds ‘had it coming’ and ‘got what they deserved’.


Is skiing in terrain which isn’t controlled (like out-of-bounds at a ski hill or in the backcountry) to be regarded as utterly unreasonable and dangerous?


The main solution proposed to the problem seems to be to charge these nefarious skiers and boarders with a criminal offense or charge them a bill for the cost of search and rescue. Both options are disingenuous and unsatisfactory.


It would be problematic if the police were to lay a charge of trespassing or negligence. Neither option seems on solid ground. The matter seems motivated by the cost of search and rescue (which – if the truth be told – is infintismisally small relative to the costs of health care and social programs) and the safety of searchers (which is a valid consideration but too must be placed in perspective – no search and rescuer in BC has died looking for a skier or snowboarder who has gone out of bounds at a ski hill).


This issue of rogue skiers is best served by the resorts who have the contractual authority to revoke the ski passes of the offending party rather than through the civil courts on trumped-up charges of negligence or trespass that probably wouldn’t stick anyway.


Lost in the miasma of the dialogue is the right of people to make decisions of their own – good and bad.


It is tragic when someone dies in an avalanche. The argument often heard is that the victims needn’t have been there in the first place. That if only they had heeded the signs and stayed in the safe zone of the ski hill that they’d still be alive today. Or better yet – never have gone to the mountains in the first place.


I can relate. I’ve known too many friends who have died in the mountains and have been to too many funerals. None of them wanted to die, few would have agreed with the suggestion that they died doing what they loved, but all would have wanted the opportunity to choose for themselves whether to ski or sled or climb a certain line or not.


Sadly misplaced in the debate is – to paraphrase JS Mill – the sovereign right of the individual to take risks. Equally forgotten is that Canada was founded by a Company of Adventurers and whose spirit of exploration is at risk of being eviscerated and replaced by a namby-pamby state.


I fear for the future of adventure. I hope that the tragedy of this seasons avalanche deaths, coupled with the bottomless pit of sadness from the winter of 2003 in which 29 died in avalanches in Canada and gave cause to an MP proposing that backcountry skiing be banned, and the suggestions to criminalize out-of-bounds skiing or charging for rescue don’t represent the point of no return for adventure.


It is sad when people die in the backcountry. Indeed, it is sad when people die – period. The solution doesn’t lie in the state posting signs in the wilderness telling people how and where they should recreate or pressing criminal charges to those who push the envelope. This would sound the death knell for adventure. The answer resides in educating recreationists about the risks they take and hoping they make the right decision.

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