A fine line

Taft Conlin, 13, Vail
Evan Massini, 20, Breckenridge
Sydney Owens, 25, Silverton
Christopher Norris, 28, Winter Park
Aaron Easter, 32, Steamboat Springs
Keith Ames, 43, Snowmass
Donald Hinckley, 51, Copper
Vesslin Vlassev, 54, Keystone
Charles Tuff, 62, Vail

The names in the list above bring an ache to my heart, but I am still a firm believer that everything happens for a reason. Even when that painful reason takes some time to be discovered. Maybe there’s a reason I am not allowed to ski this year. At this rate the 2011-12 ski season fatalities in Colorado might reach the unfortunate record of 17 set in 2008.

I have been skiing, recreationally and competitively, for 25 years. This season marks the first in my skiing career where I won’t put on my boots or wax my skis. My friends keep telling me I picked a good year for knee surgery, and I am starting to believe them. With the fatal statistics climbing and the recent death of Sarah Burke, one of my favorite ski icons, I am finally OK with sitting this one out.
The avalanche-related fatalities via ski resorts this past month are sad but unfortunately not surprising. The transition for snow-deprived riders from rocks and ice to face shots can create a one-track mind that’s hard to control.

Sometimes, there’s a fine line between a life or death decision. At a ski area, that line is a little rope that marks a boundary. I will admit that I’ve crossed those lines a few times in my life. But I’ve learned the hard way that not all boundaries are made to be broken.

Not only did I bury myself in an avalanche that I set off, I went to jail for it. When I think back to that bluebird day at Telluride, I try to remember the moment we made the decision. We were following the rope in-bounds in some trees until we reached a point where we could either cut right and stay in-bounds or duck the rope to an untouched powder stash. I slowed down and looked back at my friend covered in fluffy, fresh white pow-pow. He grinned, and without a word, we went for it. The trees cleared and we found ourselves in a wide open bowl of illegal snow.

The memory of him screaming my name as I looked back to see the snow crack and rip from the surface still haunts me. I frantically cut as far right as I could, narrowly escaping the snow as it cascaded off the cliffs in front of me. While I was still buried up to my chest, a mere 5 feet to the left and I would have been swept to a certain death.

After digging out, we threw our skis off the cliff and climbed down to a waiting ski patrol, which promptly delivered us to the sheriff. We were asked to fill out an official report for the Forest Service and then got hauled off to jail. Fingerprinted, photographed, breathalyzed, strip searched.

We were 18-year-old ski criminals released on a court order. I had to hire a lawyer to fight the reckless endangerment charge, a federal offense, and ended up $2,000 in the hole with a Class 3 misdemeanor, 60 hours of community service and banishment from Telluride (ski and golf) for two years. A seemingly small price to pay considering I could have killed myself, or others. I still feel that Telluride made an example out of us, a thought that used to upset me. But who knows? Maybe my bad example saved a life or two.

Not long after that experience, I was following a different friend at Aspen Highlands on an epic powder day. Most of the mountain was still being avi-bombed and remained closed with high avalanche danger.

Once again, I found myself along that rope of right and wrong. I stopped and yelled for my friend when he skied over the rope. He convinced me that he’d done it a hundred times before and there was no need to worry. When we got to the top of an untracked chute, I knew there was no way this run was open. But at that point, there was no way out but down, and to this day, it remains the best run of my life.

As we approached the bottom, I saw the familiar red jackets approach. They immediately took us to the director of Ski Patrol. He reprimanded us and proceeded to pull our tickets. I tried to explain that I would never intentionally do such a thing after my Telluride experience, which I described in detail. The story must’ve been convincing, because he acknowledged that I probably did learn my lesson and let us go skiing the rest of the day anyway.

And that lesson is simple. If there’s a rope, there’s a reason. I made a vow to myself then and there to never duck, ski over or otherwise pass a rope again.

Taft Conlin, the 13-year-old that recently lost his life in an avalanche at Vail, gets me the most. Taft and his friends accessed a run from an open gate but then hiked up to a closed part of the run where a large, dangerous cornice forms. Kind of a gray area since there were no actual ropes to go under or over, but I assume they knew the area they were hiking to was closed.

I grew up skiing Vail and know exactly where this particular area is, and I have fond memories of following my uncle off the cornice when I was 13. At 15, I followed a group of friends into the East Vail chutes from an access gate at the ski area. I had no avalanche equipment and knew people had died there. Luckily, that time, I did not become the example that Taft did for hundreds of other kids who might think twice instead of crossing the line.

After taking this season off and reflecting on my own decisions, I can only hope that others slow down enough to do the same once in a while. Be safe out there and make some extra turns for those who never will again.
– Stacy Falk