Adventure voyeurs and ambulance chasers

March 24, 2010

Uncategorized

http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/british-columbia/season-of-destruction-continues-on-the-bc-slopes/article1507219/

It says something about the Canadian psyche that the media give much greater coverage and the public more attention to three snowmobilers recently dying in avalanches than two people murdered last week at an Edmonton car dealership and the mother and daughter fatally shot in Belville, Ontario.

The incredible interest in snowmobile avalanche fatalities begs the question why do we care so much? Did we show the same sympathy and compassion to the Edmonton and Belville victims? Do we care as much about the seven people who die daily in car accidents in Canada? Have we become so inured and, dare I say it, bored with the ordinariness of such deaths that we’ve become adventure voyeurs and ambulance chasers into the wild?

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, not to mention the more than $6 billion spent on the Winter Olympic Games) 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 snowmobiler).

The case has yet to be convincingly made by anyone why it is in the public interest to criminalize snowmobilers who trigger an avalanche. Charging them with criminal negligence causing death is problematic because the case would rely on what a reasonable person would have done in the circumstances. Extreme sport is, by definition, not the stuff done by a reasonable person. There is nothing safe about such pursuits; danger is intentionally sought after. That’s the whole point. In this light, the prospect of a conviction seems remote.

Some have suggested that sledders’ defiance and disregard for the safety of spectators merits their punishment by the law. This is not an instance of a victim being hit by a stray bullet in a drive-by shooting. The spectators at the unsanctioned event called the Big Iron Shootout are no less culpable for being there than the sledders highmarking on the slopes of Boulder Mountain. They were, after all, positioned in an open and obvious avalanche trap for the sole purpose of watching the spectacle of highmarking.

Others are too quick to pound the square peg of adventure into the round hole of socially acceptable behaviour and judge the reasonableness of risk-taking actions against such conventions. Those who participate in adventure – whether it be snowmobilers, climbers or backcountry skiers – are (or should be) willing to accept responsibility for their actions.

As someone who has spent a considerable amount of time in the mountains, I would not want anyone telling me what I can and cannot do and where it can or cannot be done. It is understandable that snowmobilers feel the same way. I am shocked and saddened that so many in the outdoor community seem to feel that it is appropriate that snowmobilers be regulated.

Many outdoor recreationists are angry that snowmobilers are, in their view, irresponsible and disrespectful of the mountains. Perhaps it is that anger and sense of betrayal that spurs them to lash out and propose shackling the wilderness with regulation.

The climbing instruction ‘Bible’ is aptly entitled Freedom of the Hills. Implicit in its title is that backcountry recreationists have the right to take risks which may unfortunately include decisions that result in their deaths. It is troubling that there are those who paternalistically believe that government has the right to protect – sledders in this instance – those who do not wish their protection. If this happens, I fear that it will represent the thin tip of the wedge representing just the beginning of a process which will inevitably sweep up all users including skiers.

And when heli-skiers are again killed in an avalanche as did the nine who perished in a single event in 1991 (or the two in Wells Gray Provincial Park earlier this week) or climbers die as occur annually, we should not be surprised if the government steps in to clean up our mess because we’ve said it’s OK to intervene. The problem, though, is that perhaps this isn’t as messy or bad as critics paint it.

Maybe this is just the natural consequence of playing in the uncontrollable environment of the mountains where users have different tolerances for risk. This may come across cold hearted but maybe it’s the inevitability of adventure. Just as in Vegas, the house always wins.

It is sad when people die in the mountains. Indeed, it is sad when people die – period. The solution doesn’t lie in B.C. Solicitor General Kash Heed’s proposal to pass laws governing how and where people should recreate. Heed underestimates the difficulties that lie ahead – much like misreading an avalanche slope – in considering closing mountains to public access, charging for reckless behavior (don’t most people already consider backcountry skiing and mountain climbing to be inherently dangerous if not outright stupid?) or pressing criminal negligence charges, or in ominously thinking about moving ‘to a different stage’ to do whatever the government can to regulate such recreational activity and restrict access to Crown land. This would sound the death knell for adventure. 

The inconvenient truth is that recreationists have the right to take risks. With echoes of his late father, Justin Trudeau submits that there should be no limits of access to the backcountry for Canadians and that it is not the business of the state to oversee where people play in the wilderness. The answer resides in educating sledders and communicating to them in a meaningful way about the risks they take and hoping they make the right decision.

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