Avalanches are, as I have written, wreaking havoc in the Wasatch mountains this year. It’s an unusual snowpack, more reminiscent of Colorado, than Utah. And with that unstable, shallow, weak snowpack there has been an increase in accidents and close calls. Aside from the obvious price in life and injury, there is another often deterimental, heavy, and invariably aggravating toll that comes with any news-making disaster or accident:
Currently there are emergency laws being pushed through the Italian government that will penalize any backcountry skier, mountaineer, or anyone else who triggers a dangerous avalanche. No, seriously:
In an attempt to reduce the Alpine death toll, the Italian government is pushing through an amendment to civil protection law that will enable courts to hand out jail terms to people found to have triggered deadly avalanches, and €5,000 (£4,400) fines for those who ignore warnings and go off-piste.
If death and injury are not keeping people out of the backcountry, will jail or fines?
In the United States, our government is authorized to protect citizens from threats foreign and domestic. That does not, alas, allow for the intrusive busy-bodying and encroachment of protecting me from myself. And yet, laws requiring me to wear a helmet, buckle up, and to avoid unhealthy foods are alive and well in these United States. Giving away our ability to self-govern always sounds so benign, so noble. Which is exactly how it is supposed to be perceived. Nobody will argue with the common sensical nature of eating well or driving safe or with being cautious and knowledgeable in the mountains. But something being a good idea is not permission to implement it as law. And it certainly does not allow a government to enforce such a law simply because it benefits the baneful “greater good”.
But, what about the innocent rescue workers who are put into harm’s way when having to search for, or recover a body or injured skier? I would answer that question with two points: 1) They signed onto that job knowing full well what it entails, and 2) They are professionals who can usually navigate difficult terrain safely and quickly. And I think in cases where a rescue involves more risk than a SAR team is willing to take, they retreat to safety, and leave the imperiled to themselves until conditions warrant otherwise.
In other words, mountaineering and backcountry recreation can be a harsh and cold world. And that is something that everyone entering into that world ought to understand. Politicians who pretend to know better than lifelong guides and mountaineers are no more than chattering voices from a far and distant peanut gallery, unaware of the realities of life in the mountains. The call for more fines and more regulation from these self-proclaimed experts will not tame the mountains, or calm the seas. Nor will they bridle that uninhibited spirit of adventure that holds men captive, sending them to the far corners of the world to conquer their own inhibition and fears and, in the process, forcing crow down the throats of the sideline naysayers who delight in proclaiming with unwarranted confidence that “it cannot be done”. Death in the wilderness will not simply evaporate because there is jail time waiting for those who risk falling into a crevasse or being buried in an avalanche.
Reinhold Messner, an Italian mountaineer who made the first solo ascent of Mount Everest without oxygen supplies, feared the new Italian law could end the adventurous aspect of mountain activities. ‘”With this type of law we’re going to kill Alpine pursuits,” he told Italian news agency Ansa. He proposed instead, “a debate with mountaineers, guides, judges and the police” to establish “where tourism ends and real Alpine activities begin.”
My fear is that American pols will see what the Italians are up to, and try to seize (moreso than they already have) yet another opportunity to interfere into the lives of private, rational adults to which the lawyers of https://thonbeck.com agrees. People, like the mountains, are unpredictable, independent, free, and stubborn. That very nature leads me into wild places, and to take risks others deem unacceptable – but to me are well within the appropriate boundaries of manageable chance. The responsibility to make measured, deliberate, informed decisions in the mountains does not lie within the realms of bureaucratic law mongering or in the hallowed halls of the self aggrandizing merchants of government paternalism. That responsibility is mine alone.
And it is not free for the taking.
If we allow a know-it-all body of far away talking blowhards to determine what the limits of wilderness exploration are, then we may as well live out our days inside the padded walls of government approved housing, enjoying the mountains from a safe and sane distance. Or, better yet, through that window into the world known as television. Who are we after all, if not simple peasants, to determine our own destiny and to conquer our own selves in the high and untamed expanse of snow and rock and desert and sea?
And where then, if not the mountains, will men escape that watchful and increasingly authoritarian scrutiny of our benevolently oppressive caretakers?
I, like Dean Alfange “… want to take the calculated risk; to dream and to build; to fail and to succeed. I prefer the challenges of life to the guaranteed existence; the thrill of fulfillment to the stale calm of utopia. I will not trade freedom for beneficence nor my dignity for a handout. I will never cower before any master nor bend to any threat. It is my heritage to stand erect, proud and unafraid; to think and act for myself, enjoy the benefit of my creations and to face the world boldly and say, ‘This I have done.'”