This Valley will keep you young, if it doesn’t kill you first. As we round into the thick of the holiday season, there are too many conspicuously empty seats at the celebration table. Young folks are no longer with us, victims of transgressions that many have made unscathed, but these are different, more fraught, more vicious times. Instant death in the bathroom, in the backcountry; it is astounding how quickly one can go from vibrant to corporeally non-existent.
We have always been reckless as a community, adrenaline seekers with more athleticism, more gregariousness than sense. Recently, the luck upon which we depended for survival has been subsumed by circumstances that truck no fortuitous escape. The cult of backcountry skiing has gone mainstream, aided by technological advances in gear that allow even novices to easily access killer terrain, in both the positively figurative and literally deadly senses. Goaded into a false feeling of security by avalanche airbags, fully-featured beacons, and other illusions of protection, our limits are so much farther afield than is safe for the average population.
The mountains stand imminently poised to claim their next victim. Based on an unscientific survey of chairlift chatter, the ratio between boasts about gnarly lines and the knowledge of how to safely navigate such zones is not favorable to survival. Ski media being the driver of objectives, and such being replete with big-time forays into hairy havens, it is no wonder that these dangerous locales have become proving grounds for those motivated by their Instagram, by bragging to a prospective date at the bar. Avalanches do not care how cool one may be, they are simply the intersection of snowfall and gravity, immune to the pleas of the buried and those digging for their lives.
This is a party town, fueled by booze and drugs since its inception. Few of the old haunts are left, but their successors are no less mischievous, their patrons still not afraid to take it deep into the early morning. Stimulants have long been part of the local cycle: ski pow, work, party, repeat. From the beginning, some have taken it too far, have gone to rehab, have lost their livelihoods, and occasionally their lives from a protracted proclivity for the nose candy. They were a small minority compared to those that partook occasionally or even frequently and grew fat and happy and old. Now, with the rise of fentanyl, popping into the back room for a bump has become roulette, not much of a fighting chance of fending off a mother grieving at your graveside.
The deaths of so many innocents in such a short time has been sobering for the Valley, not quite enough to keep everyone alive, but enough to begin to raise awareness. Organizations like Gore Range Gravity Alliance and the Vail Ski Patrol have been hosting seminars about safe travel in the backcountry, have begun normalizing protocols such that it is the unprepared that are now shunned by their peers. Either one learns how to keep one’s partners alive or else one does not have the privilege of accompanying the group. It is a welcome change in temperament and one that I hope continues to metastasize.
An outgrowth of our pandemic-driven epiphanies about mental health, the dialogue around sobriety and responsible substance use has made promising inroads. Driven by pillars like Kyle Foster of Seagull’s Cycles and the fine folks at Eagle Valley Behavioral Health, as well as creative mixologists toying with low-ABV cocktails and non-alcoholic beverages, a new generation has come up understanding that there are alternatives to and within the traditional bar scene. Nights out need not take an aggressive turn to be enjoyable; those loose cannons that once stumbled with impunity are increasingly ostracized in favor of those just out to have a safe, good time.
The fundamental risk-taking nature of this Valley’s denizens will never diminish. But, just as we must adapt to a changing climate and a polarized political landscape, we can evolve our recreational habits to suit the world in which we find ourselves. New Year’s resolutions being notoriously fickle, I demur in favor of a general plea for safer choices. I want to grow old with all of you.