Backcountry skier rescue vs. prevention

There are frequent examples in the media of how we are willing to spend much more on treatment/alleviation of harm when prevention is possible with less suffering.

An article in the Wall Street Journal today, “Ski Resorts Open Unbeaten Paths” describes the opening of backcountry skiing as sanctioned by the US Forest Service and the various ski resorts such as Tahoe-area Squaw Valley, Sugar Bowl, and Heavenly, Grand Targhee (Idaho – the article states Wyoming), Telluride (CO), and Jackson Hole.  The Telluride Sheriff says he has to do 20 backcountry rescues a year now, up from 5.

Our friend, Dan Gregorie, is quoted in the article.  Dan lost his 24 year-old daughter, Jessica, a lovely young lady, at a Tahoe ski resort in 2006 when she slipped walking over a non-backcountry bridge area on a ridge between two ski areas.  She was carrying her skis and going carefully.  Dan has devoted his life since then to encouraging policy change by forming the California Ski and Snowboard Safety Organization (CSSSO).

There may be certain ways backcountry skiers can be even better prepared:  first, they should be licensed or registered in some way to assure proper education of survival and precautions to be taken (avalanche beacons, expandable support in avalanches, proper communication devices, etc.) when going out-of-bounds. Second, the ski resorts, if making backcountry more accessible, should provide hazardous trail warning signs past the boundaries and protections where necessary, and ski patrols to assure prompt assistance if something does go wrong. Finally, backcountry skiers should be taxed for going “out-of-bounds” so that funds can be used to pay for the public rescues like the Telluride Sheriff’s department needs to do periodically.

The resorts want liability exemptions for accidents or deaths.  Yet, as the CSSSO has documented, they don’t adhere consistently to the safety recommendations and engineering designs that would make ski slopes safer.  The backcountry skiers want freedom of access, but the opportunity costs for their deaths (see the tale of experienced, well-equipped backcountry skiers who died in the Cascade Mountains) and injuries are high.

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