Caution is Not a Dirty Word

Caution is Not a Dirty Word

Published by Brion O'Connor

Skiing Safe is Smart, Not Boring.

One of skiing's great attractions is the sheer thrill that defines the sport. Think about being at the top of a daunting run – whether a steep chute, a bump trail, or a glade thick with trees. Think about the way your chest tightens as your breath quickens, and the hair on the back of your neck stands up. You simply feel more alive, at an almost primitive level. That tingling sensation is an undeniable draw, because it speaks to the sport's risk.

Accepting risk, and pushing boundaries, is one of the things that makes us feel alive. It's like standing atop the high board at the local swimming pool, or pointing your mountain bike down a narrow, technical stretch of singletrack. Being completely in control is safe. And to many of us, “safe” is a synonym for “boring.”

The flip side of that equation, though, is the danger. And the danger in skiing is very real. Ignoring that danger is not only foolhardy, but irresponsible. We need to respect the risks that our sport asks us to accept.

Of course, there have been a bevy of risk-takers who have lost their lives ripping some of the most extreme lines in ski country. The names are a veritable “Who's Who” of the of the ski-film constellation, including Shane McConkey (2009 in the Dolomites), Craig Kelly (2003 in British Columbia), Doug Coombs (2006 in France), and Andreas Fransson and Jean-Philippe Auclair (2014 in Chile). Not all of these deaths were the direct result of the athletes' actions, other than the fact that they put themselves in risky situations. But there have been hundreds of skiing-related in deaths in North America and overseas that barely register a blip on the radar.

Yes, there have also been well-documented celebrity deaths, from Michael Kennedy to Sonny Bono (neither were wearing a ski helmet when they hit trees – Kennedy at Aspen, and Bono at Heavenly). Just last December, Ski magazine ran a story entitled “The Serpent's Lair,” by Kimberly Beekman that revealed concerns with the East Vail Chutes. The “EV” backcountry, as the chutes are known locally, has claimed eight lives since the late 1980s, including 24-year-old Tony Pardee Seibert in 2012.

“He was a good kid,” Jeff Cricco, an EV legend, told Beekman.

Essentially, Beekman's piece delves into the quandary that alluring terrain presents, an irresistible magnet – or proving ground – for young guns hoping to add a couple of notches to their skiing curriculum vitae. But the danger it presents is no illusion.

“Then I think about Tony, about the photo on his Facebook memorial page – a beautiful blond kid with a huge smile,” wrote Beekman in her closing. “He had this crazy energy, rebellious and infectious, and seemingly inextinguishable. And the videos of his skiing show ability so fluid and natural, it's like it coursed through his veins.

“I think about all the other beautiful heroes we've lost over the years,” she wrote. “I think about all the stupid sh*t I did as a kid, and all the stupid sh*t I hope my own daughter never does. Then I think about Tony Seibert's mom, who still patrols at Vail.”

Reading Beekman's heartfelt words, a chill runs straight up my old-man spine. I thought of a moment just three seasons ago, when I found myself on the slopes with my wife and our teenage daughters. Maddi, my eldest, has always been a strong, sturdy child, and her skiing technique reflects that. She's rock solid, coming down the hill in measured, nicely carved turns.

Brynne, two years her junior, has gone through a metamorphosis. As a grade-schooler, she was overly cautious, constantly turning her skis to check her speed as she zig-zagged down the hill. She was painfully slow, and Maddi would complain. That was before Brynne started playing hockey.

Once she got accustomed to skating, and the speed that came with it, Brynne's skiing changed dramatically. She's now far more comfortable with going fast. Almost too comfortable. Combined with my hip replacements, Brynne's newfound bravado had her blasting past me on the trails. I simply couldn't keep pace.

Now, normally, that would be a point of pride for me. But I was concerned, because Brynne's technique didn't quite match her acceleration. There were times when I thought, if she's in control, its borderline at best. And we would talk about it on the chairlifts back up the mountain.

“Don't worry, I'm good, Dad,” she would say. “I know what I'm doing.”

My 40 years of skiing led me to think otherwise. I didn't see the requisite edge control that should accompany that kind of speed. So I kept reminding Brynne, “Stay within yourself. Know your limits.” I hoped, through the sheer blunt force of repetition, that the message would resonate. Then, last March, while my wife and I were skiing in Maine, we got the phone call.

Brynne, now a freshman attending college in upstate New York, was crying, inconsolably. A senior, an upperclassman advisor who had taken Brynne under his wing in the first few months of her collegiate experience, had been killed while skiing at Whiteface Mountain. By all accounts, “Eric” (not his real name) was an exceptional young man who won near universal admiration at Brynne's school. Brynne was crushed. So too were many of Eric's friends and professors.

“(Eric) was known all over campus for his outstanding academic record and his diverse circle of friends,” wrote the school president. “His outstanding (school) resume is, of course, a much smaller measure than the wonderful person he was to so many of us on campus. He touched us with the flame and light of a beautiful heart.

“These will be hard days for many of us in remembering (Eric), thinking about his boundless energy, genuine openness, and developing talent,” he wrote. “And yet, (his) family and his close friends, particularly his cherished classmates, will also need our strength and prayers. It’s important for us to look out for each other.”

That's my motivation for writing this column. My wife, who attended the same school, has friends who knew the young man who was skiing with Eric that fateful day, and reached out to them. By all accounts, Eric, an accomplished skier, was taking the proper precautions. He was wearing a helmet. But in one awful, fleeting moment, he lost control, went careening off the trail, and struck a tree. He died in his friend's arms.

I cannot fathom any greater heartache for a parent than to lose a child, especially one so full of promise (which is one of the reasons I've declined to use Eric's real name; his family has suffered enough). Hearing about Eric's death, I was instantly transported back to a moment more than three decades ago, long before I even thought about becoming a parent. I was a young reporter, just two years out of college, and was presenting an award on behalf of my newspaper to a young woman from the 1985 graduation class of Triton Regional High School in Newbury, Massachusetts.

Sitting on the stage, my eyes surveyed a group of kids who looked “so much” younger, even though I was, at most, only six or seven years older. At the appropriate time, I dutifully stood up, introduced the award winner – a bright, smiling young woman – and then promptly sat back down without any extraneous commentary.

Truth was, I wanted to say much more. Looking out at those seniors, I felt the same sense of indestructibility that I knew all too well. I survived numerous collegiate indiscretions. I made mistakes, and was lucky enough to emerge relatively unscathed.

Back at the newsroom that day, I couldn't shake a feeling that I missed an opportunity. Eventually, I wrote a column for the paper, pleading with these teenagers – every teenager, actually – to exercise some restraint, or caution, as they headed out into the summer's party season. Although I'd only been working as a reporter a short while, I'd already covered my share of horrible accidents involving underage drinking, or simply youthful risk-taking. I didn't need to see any more.

Despite being pretty good at compartmentalizing my emotions, the one phone call that always brought me to my knees was to the surviving parents of a child killed in tragic circumstances. It was absolutely gut-wrenching, every time. Some of those conversations still haunt me. The goal of my column all those years ago was to at least plant an idea in the minds of those seniors, reminding them to think beyond themselves, beyond the moment.

Much like that day at Triton Regional 33 years ago, and all those subtle slopeside chats with Brynne, I feel compelled to talk about Eric's death. Life is full of risks, from driving on the highway to riding our bikes. Skiing and snowboarding are no different. As a journalist who writes about these sports, it would be irresponsible for me to not recognize that fact.

Skiing and snowboarding require a keen sense of responsibility, and self-awareness. You have to respect Mother Nature, the trail conditions, and your own abilities. There's nothing wrong with knowing your limitations. That's one of the great things about the sport – recognizing limitations, and learning how to expand them so you can ski more challenging terrain.

Talking with famed “extreme” skier John Egan, it's clear that the Sugarbush “director of fun” doesn't rip a backcountry line without checking it out thoroughly beforehand. If a line is too sketchy, he puts it aside for another day. That's respect. As a long-time skier, and especially as a parent, I appreciate Egan's meticulous approach.

As skiers, we need to acknowledge that the real world doesn't always suffer mistakes kindly. Push the envelope, but push it wisely, with measured steps. Don't take unnecessary risks. Know your gear, and your surroundings. Remember, caution, in the right dose, isn't a bad thing.

Have fun, but be safe. Please.

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Image: Hannah Wise

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