15 May 2013: Slide deaths offer us a cautionary tale

Side deaths offer us a cautionary tale

The difference between a man and a boy, the old saw goes, is the price of his toys.  On one level that’s fine, one supposes, such as when comparing skateboarding to NASCAR, but at what point is it expected for a male to assume the full responsibilities of adulthood and the consequences that come with it?

The legal age for adulthood is a muddled 18 years of age.  I write “muddled” because we entrust young men with the privilege and responsibility of defending their country but not being able to buy and consume alcohol—so old enough for killing but not drinking.

I would tell my junior-level students—16 and 17 years of age—they have only a short time remaining to blame their parents, the world, whoever or whatever for their misfortune because once they hit 18, they are allowed to blame only themselves for what goes wrong.  In other words, the time is nigh to take full responsibility for personal decisions and the credit or blame for outcomes.

I would also qualify that by encouraging them to be gentle with themselves, for if they would look at their first 18 years as a gestation period, a sort of in-the-womb, sheltered period in which they were developing very much like a fetus, then they should look at their initial years in adulthood as a time they learn to crawl, stand, take first steps, and eventually run at break-neck speed, that is, to live fully and independently.

Some eventually run at break-neck speed, both literally and symbolically.  Most get away with it, even surviving life-endangered situations, largely due to good fortune.  Count me guilty on that count.

Some don’t, however, and pay dearly, and that’s what happened to the five men—neither young men nor boys as one Denver Post letter writer insisted they were—on Loveland Pass on April 20.

All five were in their 30s.  Four of the five were experienced back country travelers, “ski veterans, guides, and industry professionals” as reported in the Courant.

One event attendee said the intention of the organizer was the “safety and the well-being of all the participants.

“Nobody was out there for an adrenaline rush or getting extreme,” said Michael Bennett.  “This event was about traveling safely in the mountains with new friends, making new friends, and having fun.”

All reports that day warned the avalanche danger, particularly where they were heading, was extreme.

In other words: Don’t go!

But they did, ignoring what they either taught or had learned, and in the process defying logic and nature.

Ethan Greene, Colorado Avalanche Information Center executive director said he is confused about why a “well-prepared” and “well-educated” group would go into “the most dangerous area.”

Two short answers: group-think and hubris.

In his April 28 front-page Denver Post article “Pack mentality,” Jason Blevins offers the definition for “group polarization,” the process in which “groups leaning towards risk—like taking a ski tour through avalanche terrain—could make a riskier decision than any of the group’s individuals.”

University of Colorado psychology professor Leif Van Boven told Blevins about a member of a small group experiencing doubt looking at others not “having any doubts, aren’t saying anything, and seem confident.”

“Those pressures,” he continues, “can change a person’s personal risk assessment.”

Avalanche researcher Ian McCammon, reports Blevins, in a study of 715 U.S. avalanche accidents from 1972 to 2003 “found that people traveling alone and parties of six to 10 exposed themselves to significantly more hazard than groups of two, three or four.”

McCammon, writes Blevins, “identified six human factors in more than 95 percent of the accidents and concluded that they have the power to lure almost anyone into thinking an avalanche slope is safe:
• Familiarity, which McCammon said ‘relies on our past actions to guide our behavior in familiar settings.’
• Consistency, which sees people sticking with original assumptions and ignoring new information about potential hazards.
• Acceptance, ‘the tendency to engage in activities that we think will get us noticed or accepted.’
• The Expert Halo, which sees group members ascribing avalanche safety skills to a perceived expert, who may lead the group without those skills.
• Social Facilitation, which sees groups tending toward riskier decisions.
• Scarcity, or the ‘powder fever,’ that can overwhelm backcountry travelers hunting for deep, untracked snow.”

Coupling those with a sense of “it won’t happen to me/us,” it’s likely we’ll continue to witness more tragic events such as this.

My hope is, though, their plight serves as a cautionary tale about what can happen when men defy training, logic, and nature and perhaps ignore personal discomforts or misgivings because, in the end, there’s nothing heroic about losing one’s life in a foolhardy venture.

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