Backcountry responsibility code — a new necessity 

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It will probably come as a shock to many of you who have already braved the in-bounds slopes of Whistler and Blackcomb mountains this season but believe it or not, there is still an alpine responsibility code. No, really.

I know you know what it is but I also know you know there are a lot of people out there, skiing and boarding within close proximity to you, for whom its existence would quite likely come as a complete surprise. Some of them can be forgiven, or at least understood. They're just learning to ski or board and in case you've forgotten what that was like, I haven't.

When you're new to snow sports, especially if you're (a) an adult and (b) trying to learn the ropes without the aid of instruction and/or with the aid of well-meaning but seriously flawed advice from friends, several things conspire to make an already challenging process an even greater challenge.

The law of gravity seems temporarily suspended. Not the law of gravity that drags you downhill at a terrifyingly accelerating rate, but the law of gravity that formerly kept you upright. What you used to think of as your finely honed control and coordination abandons the moment you bind your feet to skis or a snowboard and mocks your pathetic efforts to regulate your speed, direction and vertical relationship with the ground you're travelling across.

Add to that the strange, new physical reality you find yourself in. It's cold, which numbs your senses, at least the ones that haven't completely left you. There is quite possibly limited visibility; even if there isn't, there is because goggles reduce your field of vision and a white world, punctuated with treed borders, is not a natural landscape unless you've spent a lot of time on ski runs... which you haven't since you're just learning. There are people all around you moving in what seems like, at best, a completely random way and, at worse, on a collision course with everyone else.

And if that isn't enough to make you wonder what kind of rabbit hole you've dropped into, there is the disorienting howl of snowguns, spraying their stinging shards of ice and altering the very ground over which you fall, er, travel.

I feel for those among us just starting out. But I'm glad they've decided to join the madness. Their enthusiasm is our future and many of them are the new employees we've hired to make this resort work. For those reasons alone, I cut them and their seemingly random wanderings some slack. Like potholes on crowded urban streets, I accept they're there and I know it is my sole duty to avoid them. Sooner or later they'll get better and might notice those yellow signs on the first dozen tower poles as they ride up chairlifts.

I'm a little less forgiving of those on the slopes who are obviously skilled but equally obviously... what's the word I'm looking for? Stupid? Perhaps a bit harsh. Ignorant? Doesn't entirely capture it. Un-mindful, not to say mindless? Getting closer. Selfish? Yeah, I'll go with that. Or all the above.

Regardless of skill, it takes a stupid, ignorant, un-mindful and selfish kind of person to do a warp speed slalom through an over-crowded run full of unskilled people moving unpredictably. Making it down to the bottom of the next chair without incident relies more on luck than talent. Congratulations if you made it. Hope you didn't end anyone's season if you didn't.

It's enough to drive a guy to duck the ropes and seek solitude, if not solace, in the backcountry, slackcountry, nearcountry, take you pick or call it what you will. Enough guys and girls are being driven out there that it's getting harder and harder to call it the path less taken. More and more it is the path taken and more and more it's taken by people who bring their bad in-bounds habits with them. Problem is, the consequences of those bad habits, usually just painful on the slopes, can be deadly in the area beyond control.

That's why a talented panel of backcountry skiers, rescuers, teachers, guides and patrollers and roomful people who share their enthusiasm got together last Saturday evening at the museum to discuss, debate and argue the outline of a backcountry responsibility code.

Backcountry responsibility code? On some level, the whole idea is anathema. The other side of the ropes, the vast snowy ranges of western Canada are all about the freedom of the hills. We don't need no stinkin' rules.

Which is exactly why we do need some stinkin' rules.

We need rules inside the resort for the same reason we need rules in society in general. Rules nudge people closer to the social contract. They make living together possible. They underpin civilization.

Inside the resort we need rules to make us responsible for our own actions and, for the most part, to keep us from slamming into each other. But inside the resort, Whistler Blackcomb has taken responsibility for providing a safe — and I use the word fully appreciating its many nuanced meanings — environment.

Outside the resort, the concept of responsibility takes on a whole new world of meaning. In the backcountry, we're responsible for everything. Every action we take, every decision we make, every situation we encounter. First and foremost, we're responsible for getting ourselves and our friends home safely or, if that's not possible, surviving until someone else can.

Our chances of colliding with another traveller are slim. Our chances of bringing a tsunami of snow down on other travellers is far greater. Our responsibility to others — who, in some cases we may not even know are there — is three-dimensional because the consequences of every step we take, every line we ski, propagate uphill, downhill and sideways in patterns that will, quite literally, blow our minds.

We hardly need to know anything to ski in-bounds. We almost need to know everything it we want to ski uncontrolled terrain successfully... every time. And we've all known enough really smart backcountry skiers who are no longer with us to understand sometimes even that's not enough. That's because snow doesn't care what you know or who made the mistake. Snow's not impressed with how smart you are or how many successful trips you've taken into the backcountry. Snow's indifferent to the advances we've made and the insights we've gained into the science of snow, weather, physics and avalanche modelling. When the conditions are right — and there are so many right combinations — snow lets go.

A responsibility code won't change that. But it might get some more people thinking and acting more mindfully — in-bounds and, especially, out in the wild places. Be safe.


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