You’ve got to fight, for your right to die in the woods

The last eight months in Vail have been a perfect case study in the never-ending battle by many Americans to exercise their God-given right to kill themselves in the wilderness.


In October I attended a press conference at the Vail hospital for a 23-year-old Missouri man who spent two nights soaking wet on the slopes of one of the state’s most grueling “fourteeners,” 14,005-foot Mount of the Holy Cross, after getting separated from his brother.


The man was a self-described “outdoorsy” type who thought he knew what he was doing, but his cotton clothing and lack of route-finding skills said otherwise. He knew he was lucky to survive.


In January I covered the deaths of two experienced skiers who died in avalanches a little more than a week apart in a popular backcountry area adjacent to Vail called the East Vail Chutes.


In recent weeks the Eagle County sheriff has considered banning noncommercial rafting on the Eagle River after a series of high-profile but luckily nonfatal rafting accidents. And on the nearby Arkansas River there have been three rafting deaths in less than a week.


The Eagle County ban, which was decried loudly by local boating-rights advocates, would likely not include horseback riding, which is apparently what killed a Nebraska woman Friday when the horse she was on as part of a commercial trail ride dumped her in normally sedate Beaver Creek.


Swollen to twice its normal size by heavy spring runoff after a record winter for snowfall, the creek swept the 56-year-old real estate agent away in front of her family. Rescuers had not found her body as of Tuesday afternoon.


There’s been a general hue and cry in the wake of all of these incidents calling for greater oversight of our public lands. Some have gone as far as the call for the closure of the backcountry or the outright banning of certain activities on public rivers and national forest and BLM land.


The problem with such overreaction is it flies in the face of our absolute inalienable right to put ourselves in harm’s way, somehow survive sans cell service and then sell the book rights. The put-a-padlock-on-it response is similar to the gotta-sue-somebody reaction by “victims” or their families.


Baseless litigation is as much to blame as the proliferation of useless liability waivers. If true negligence occurs on the part of an outfitter, waiver forms don’t stand up in court. Similarly, somebody who chooses to test the Darwin Theory shouldn’t ever have his day in court.


When two young men choose to ski in an avalanche chute when the slide danger is “considerable,” they are assuming the risks and rightly have no legal leg to stand on if things go badly wrong. Rescue or recovery operations need to be measured accordingly in terms of expense and further risk to human life.


A woman riding a horse on an established trail with an outfitter is another matter, but even then, horses are big, unpredictable animals capable of inflicting serious injury or death. Mount one at your own risk, within reason, and prepare yourself for the worst.


In Europe these days there’s much less litigation and a long tradition of going for it at your own risk, secure in the knowledge that you may die or be injured and that your rescue could come at great personal expense. And there also are a lot more reliable guide services that don’t charge the elitists prices found in the United States. Getting a guide in the Alps is much more accepted.


Here, paid guide services go against the grain of our sense of rugged individualism. We also do not put a lot of stock in education or preparation. Taking an avalanche course before skiing the backcountry would seem a no-brainer, but few people do. And charging up a high peak in the Rockies with little more than a cell phone and a bottle of water is a widely accepted practice.


But it’s a practice that needs to come with severe financial and possibly legal consequences before we ever seriously consider shutting down the wilderness, and more guide services and greater education need to be part of the equation.


Our volunteer rescue services working with local law enforcement are a great way to keep the expense of such operations down, but people who act negligently in the backcountry and need rescue should shoulder a larger share of that expense. More onus needs to be placed on the risk-taker.


“At the end of the day, though, the responsibility lies with the user, and I have to take a hard look at whether we’re doing all we can to educate the user before they take that risk,” U.S. Forest Service snow ranger Don Dressler said.


And a little self-education doesn’t hurt either. That way, next time you find yourself in trouble in the backcountry, you’ll have no one to blame but yourself.

is an award-winning reporter who has covered energy, environmental and political issues for years. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Chicago Tribune and Denver Post. He's founder of Real Vail and Real Aspen.

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