And that is precisely the problem. As long as skiers and boarders are drawn by the allure of powder into Bear Creek, some of them, occasionally, will die.
People enter Bear Creek knowing it’s dangerous. But risk is inherent to powder. In Chamonix a few years back, our guide in the Vallee Blanche noted: “Skiing powder is one of the most beautiful things a person can do. And one of the most dangerous.” This from a man whose profession is to help others manage the risks, essentially acknowledging that the risks simply cannot be fully contained.
The day we arrived in Chamonix several Belgian skiers were killed in an avalanche.
“It just means the skiing is good,” the front desk guy at our hotel shrugged.
We in Telluride are not Gallic. The death of Nate Soules has hit the tight-knit community of backcountry skiers and boarders here especially hard, in part because so many of them not only knew him, but know his young widow and their young child; and in part because he wasn’t doing anything they wouldn’t do, or haven’t done, or weren’t doing, in fact, the same day he died.
Yes, it was dangerous out there on Monday, with at least ten inches of new snow on a weak base. They, the Bear Creek crew, all rationalized that they know the terrain, have the right gear and skills, and besides, the skiing was just too good to pass up. Moreover, Bear Creek deaths, while frequent in the long view – one or two every couple of years – are rare in a daily sense, rare enough to create a sense that any individual who takes the risk is highly likely to beat the odds.
When I first arrived in Telluride, I heard Bear Creek described as Telluride’s cathedral. Like a cathedral, it embraces the mysteries of existence. It is our koan, and not just with respect to avalanche or mountaineering deaths. It is public with private inholdings. It is easily accessed by ski lifts, but is outside the ski area boundary, meaning it is not controlled for snow stability. One enters at one’s own risk, yet we continually ask who is responsible for safety in there: The U.S. Forest Service, which manages most of the public land? The ski company that operates on adjacent public land under a Forest Service permit, and whose lifts provide easy access to it? The individuals who enter either through gates or by ducking ropes?
Since we are not Gallic, we somehow would prefer to think of it not simply as a high alpine zone with all the attendant beauties and risks, but instead as a management problem.
But conduct a thought experiment and imagine Bear Creek was incorporated into the ski area and controlled for safety. There would be a loss of freedom. Skiers and boarders could then enter only when it was decreed safe by the ski patrol to do so. That would make it less risky. But there would be new ski area boundaries, beyond which untracked powder would beckon, where the dangers would be similar to what they are in Bear Creek today. And people would enter that new area through gates, or by ducking ropes. We can’t control the entire outdoors, nor would we wish to turn the San Juans into a gigantic amusement park, where the thrills are all manmade and the risks are all illusory.
Thus there are big issues on the minds of folks in Telluride this week: the challenge of balancing individual freedom against individual responsibility; yielding to the allure of the high country versus managing the risks encountered there. There is the pain of knowing that in being part of an alpinist community, you can’t know if you will be the next person to get into trouble out there, or if it will be a close friend, or a complete stranger. But you can know that it will be someone who will leave behind loved ones, and that their loss, however painful it will be, won’t stop you or others from taking the same risks again tomorrow or when the shock wears off.
All of this makes alpinism something akin to a religion. The mountains, with their beauty and dangers, and with the thrills and challenges they present, inevitably produce both ecstasies and agonies. More than a few people have had spiritual encounters with the mysteries of human existence in the cathedral of Bear Creek.
In the aftermath of this week’s tragedy, there will likely be talk of better controlling the ski area boundary. More talk of gates and questions about liability, and possibly suggestions of a something more like the European system, of offering the option of guided access or of selling rescue insurance, or even of expanding the ski area into Bear Creek so it can be managed.
But in the end, skiing powder will remain a koan: one of the most beautiful things a person can do, and one of the most dangerous.