Opinion » Alta States

Mountain Crowding – what ever happened to R-E-S-P-E-C-T?

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"Being brilliant is no great feat if you respect nothing."

- Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe

My brother-in-law had both his legs broken a couple of weeks ago. Really. The damage was so severe he had to endure double surgeries in a Vancouver hospital the next day. Now he sits at home in his wheelchair wondering — worrying — about his recovery. Is this the end of his love affair with skiing? Will he ever be able to live the active outdoor life he once personified?

Maybe he'll be okay. Maybe his rehab will be problem-free. But he won't even know that for another year. Pouf. A whole 12 months of active play ... gone forever.

And consider this: if not for one out-of-control skier — if not for one young man with not enough respect for his own skills and not enough respect for his mountain surroundings — none of this would have ever happened.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's go back to the beginning.

An exceptionally talented runner and cyclist — and a life-long skier whose graceful swoopy turns have adorned Whistler Mountain's slopes since 1966 — Peter Ladner was minding his own business, quietly traversing under the rocks on the west side of Whistler Bowl on his way to the gully they call Frog Hollow one sunny Friday afternoon when...

"It was a beautiful February day," recounts Pete. "The light was good and the snow was still soft and pretty loose. I was moving steadily along the very visible traverse track. I wasn't being erratic or anything. Just skiing along at my own pace."

He stops talking for a moment. Sighs. Then he resumes. "I saw the skier at the last second. It really shocked me — I couldn't believe it. He was coming straight at me. And he was moving really fast."

Another long pause. "And he wasn't trying to avoid me! If he had been in control, he could have easily skied around me... there was lots of room on either side. But it's like he never saw me." The collision that ensued left the older man crumpled in the snow with blood seeping though his skipants. And the robust, young twenty-something responsible for the crash? Turned out he was OK. Except for a few bruises, he was able to ski home.

For the rest of this sad tale, I defer to Peter's 27-year old son, Tim, who actually rode down the mountain with his father's mugger. "The guy was a good skier," asserts Tim. "He definitely knew what he was doing. And he felt terrible about hitting my dad. He was really apologetic, you know. He told me he got pushed off balance by a mogul higher up and then he hit the traverse track and lost even more control."

But? "I just can't understand," admits Tim, "why with all that room on that hill he would ski straight into my father without trying to avoid him in any way. It's like he wasn't paying attention to where he was going." He pauses. "And it's steep where he was skiing. It's not a place to just let yourself go..."

So then what? Were there any official sanctions eventually imposed against the young man? "None that I know," says Tim. "The patrol didn't discipline him or anything. He just skied down to the valley with us and then went home."

Concludes Tim: "Even though the guy's sorry and everything, he f****d up! My dad's ski career could be done. He might never run again. It's tragic..."

Now if this were an isolated case at Whistler, I wouldn't have bothered bringing it up. Random bad things happen in life.... And sometimes they happen to us. That's just the way things are one might be tempted to conclude. Deal with it.

But Peter's season-ending accident somehow opened up the collision-story floodgates. Since his crash, my electronic in-tray has been overflowing with missives from angry and frustrated skiers recounting their own fear-and-loathing mountain-mugging incidents.

Many tell me they've dropped out of the sport entirely because of their fear of getting hit. Some say they carefully manage their ski days to avoid the crowded hours and congested times. Others admit they have simply left the groomed slopes for the more esoteric pleasures of ski touring or Nordic skiing. But all of them are united in a common refrain: there's no respect for anyone — or anything — on the mountain anymore. It's a mad free-for-all where only the strongest survive.

Not to put too fine a point on it. But older skiers and riders are feeling under attack. They wonder if it's worth the effort. For many, Pete Ladner's Whistler Bowl collision is the tipping point. As one 60-something friend confided: "I'm not going to risk my life and my future all because of my love for skiing..."

Hah. Frightened oldsters. Who needs 'em? Snowsports are for the young. And the healthy. If you can't keep up with the times baby, well, you just have to move on. Right? Wrong. Alas, the people I'm talking about are the ones keeping this damn sport alive!

Yes. Those annoying baby boomers. As Peter Ladner so wryly puts it: "It's ironic that the very skiers and riders deemed so vital to the snowsport business now consider the danger of being hit as a big factor in whether or not they stay in the sport."

And yet. And yet. It's not just about the danger looming over our older skiers and riders. Children, beginners, the timid, the weak, the physically challenged — basically anyone vulnerable — is at risk of being on the receiving end of a high-speed collision these days.

And given the tenor of current snowsport propaganda targeted at our youth — "faster, bigger, hit it out of the park" — chances are we'll be living more of the same for some years to come.

But it doesn't have to be that way.

We're all in this together. And we all share — to some extent — responsibility for the sad state of our mountain affairs.

The law of unintended consequences: nowhere is it better illustrated than in the snowsport business. Sadly, we've now managed to create such an urban mountain-resort environment — with our sleek, high speed lifts, impeccably manicured ski hills, copious artificial snow and high-tech snowplay tools — that we've lulled people into thinking they're actually playing in an amusement park, not a real, live mountain with real live consequences (like sudden death) for stupid behavior.

Newsflash: This isn't Disneyland, folks. And we're not playing Bumper Cars on Magic Mountain. But is anybody really listening?

Today snowsports is pretty much a plug-in and play affair for young newcomers. Forget lessons. Forget coaches and mentors. Or even paying your dues. That's for dweebs, man. Do your own thing, baby. That's what it's all about. And fug 'em if they can't take a joke... Besides, there's always the cell phone if u gt in trubl.

Take the silliness that now occurs in the days immediately following a snowstorm. Talk about lack of respect. Talk about underestimating your environment! Between the mountains' hard-working pro patrol and Whistler's dedicated search and rescue team (not to mention the odd helpful citizen here and there), dozens of rescues are now launched after each snow cycle! "Well, you know.... I was just following tracks...and then they ended." Is that really why you got stuck out-of-bounds with your son on a 15-metre cliff with no exit? Or why you were found wandering lost in the forest in the middle of the night? Or why you ended up in a rocky creekbed kilometres away from your intended destination sans-skis-and-poles?

We've been extremely lucky this year. Our snow pack has been pretty stable and the hundreds of new adventurers exploring off the grid have had a relatively easy time of it. But the March storm machine is about to start cycling. And if it snows as hard as it usually does at this time of the year, I fear we may be in for a bit of a scary month ahead.

It sounds simplistic, you know, but it really does come down to one word. RESPECT. Respect for yourself. Respect for others. And finally — respect for the beautiful (and deadly) mountain environment around you. Please play safely. And don't hit anyone!

PS: When contacted for this story, WB patrol management professed complete ignorance about the Ladner accident. A few hours after that conversation, Peter received an official call from safety manager Brian Leighton (his first contact with WB since the crash). Four days later Ladner was informed that the young man who had collided with him had been banned from WB for one year.