November 13, 2013
Fifty years ago, skiing in the U.S. was about to enter what is sometimes called its "golden age." The sport appealed to an increasingly affluent and active post-war population because of the unique combination of glamour and danger that it offered. The fast and reckless style of Jean-Claude Killy was all the rage in the 1960’s and "hot dogging" (a/k/a freestyle) was about to come into its own. Skiers almost took pride in the fact that they were 10 times more likely to break a leg than the average person. With its rope tows and its risks, it was not a sport for the faint of heart. And, everyone understood that.
Today, we have high-speed heated chairlifts, sophisticated binding technologies, composite safety helmets, Gore-Tex outer-wear, and even chemical hand-warmers. Terrain and conditions that used to be terrifying to all but the most seasoned daredevils are now considered fair game for almost anyone. The daredevils are still out there, but nowadays they suffer through far less physical discomfort for their adrenaline rushes. And, they’ve been joined by everyone from the youngest ankle-biters to the oldest retirees. What once was forbidding alpine wilderness today can seem about as foreboding as the golf course at your country club.
That transformation is certainly more of a good thing than a bad one. The more kids and families venture up the mountain, and the longer skiing and snowboarding careers stretch into retirement, the brighter the future for winter sports.
But as our shaped skis and snowboards transport us effortlessly across perfectly manicured slopes in modern comfort and style, it’s becoming easier for us to forget a fundamentally important truth. Skiing and snowboarding are still risky sports. Gravity still pulls downward – hard. Snow is still cold, slippery and unpredictable. Mountain peaks are still high and steep. There is still danger.
A sad reminder of that reality is being re-lived this week in a courtroom on the edge of Park City. On Dec. 23, 2007, Jesse Williams lost his life in an avalanche while skiing in-bounds at the Canyons Ski Resort. The question of who, if anyone, is at fault is where it belongs — in the hands of the lawyers, judge and jurors inside the Summit County courthouse. As for the rest of us, the trial offers an opportunity to remember that our gear may be shinier, our technique more refined, and our physical conditioning better than it was in the first "golden age." But our mountains are just as cold, steep, raw and risky as they have ever been.
Enjoy the coming ski and snowboard season. But be smart. Be alert. And, be prepared. Don’t let the ease and comfort of 2013 lull you into forgetting the inescapable reality of yesterday, today and tomorrow: the fact that there always have been, and always will be, real risks inherent in sliding down snow-covered mountains. Awareness of and respect for those risks are still the best protection we have up there.