An old fisherman in Valdez, Alaska, once told Mark Kelly something that has stuck with him during all his years as an avalanche forecaster.
"He told me that people always gamble with what's most valuable to them," said Kelly. "For some people that's money, for some it's their marriage, and for some people, it's their lives."
Kelly has seen his fair share of thrill-seekers put their lives at risk amid the rush of a bluebird day. Unfortunately he's also become familiar with another kind of risk-taker.
"I have a couple of brothers who have been lifelong addicts, one a functional addict and one less so," Kelly explained.
A longtime heli-skiing guide in Haines, Alaska, Kelly began to see links between the impulsivity of some of his backcountry compatriots and the destructive behaviour of addicts.
"Some folks can have a beer and stop at two or three, and some folks have a problem. I also have a lot of friends who've progressed onto bigger expeditions and base-jumping and wing-suiting and ultimately, death," he said. "It just seemed like a parallel path."
Presenting to a gathering of renowned scientists and avalanche researchers at the International Snow Science Workshop in Breckenridge, Colo. earlier this month, Kelly posed the question: Can backcountry travellers benefit from treatment strategies applied to other forms of addictions such as gambling and drugs?
Whistler-based clinical counsellor Nancy Routley thinks so.
"Addiction is addiction and it comes in many different forms," she said. "There are people who run, people who bike, there's people who do all kinds of really great sporty things. They're able to listen to their body and yet love it. The question is, is this my obsession or my passion? I think for those people that it's not a passion but an obsession, that's where you can have some parallels with addiction."
Another link between backcountry recreationalists and other addicts that Kelly found is the "negative feedback loop," which can keep individuals in the same abusive patterns for years. A skier or snowboarder heads out into avalanche terrain during ideal conditions and lives to tell the tale. The next time they're out in the backcountry, they "become complacent" and refuse to acknowledge the danger in front of them, Kelly said.
"It's similar to an addict using a hard narcotic that he's used many, many times. Then he gets into a bad batch or takes a little bit too much and has this negative experience," he added.
"There are a lot of people who can drink or have a narcotics addiction their whole lives and never have that serious feedback of an extreme experience. It's the same with most backcountry travellers; there are a lot of folks that go out there and make horrible decisions their whole backcountry skiing career and get away with it."
The issue has been compounded by the explosion in popularity of backcountry recreation, pushing ski resorts to keep up with guests' demands for more challenging terrain.
"Ski areas in the past decade-plus have definitely opened up more and more serious backcountry-like and ski mountaineering-like terrain, but without requiring the guest to consider it as avalanche terrain and mitigate that hazard," Kelly said.
Because of the prevailing culture of most ski towns, Routley believes it can be difficult to have an honest discussion about addiction, particularly when that addiction falls outside the traditional norms.
"It's a real tough one because sports are looked at as so healthy. But there are many people in (Whistler) doing three sports a day who cannot sit still. So what does that say?" she asked.
"We put athletes on a pedestal and we talk about how ripped they are. But I often look at people and think, 'have you sat down today? What are you doing? What are you running from?'"
The key to mitigating the potentially devastating behaviour is building a strong connection with your body, Routley said.
"The more you're connected with what your body's telling you and what you need — and that takes time, it takes mindfulness and it takes looking inside before you make a decision — the better. Those strategies for sure would help you if you have a tendency to end up in places (in the backcountry) where you think, 'oh my god, how'd I end up here? I made a bad decision.'"
Thankfully, however, the culture is starting to shift.
"One of the big changes in avalanche education in recent years has been more of a focus on communication and human factors, rather than just the science of how avalanches form and release," Kelly said.
"There's been a lot of growth in backcountry skiing where formal training and making good decisions has become part of the culture."
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