Call me a wimp if you will, a bleeding heart, a weenie even, but something deep down inside screams at me that prosecuting avalanche victims is cruel. Even if they did break rules.
The last few weeks have been pretty sad (and scary) when it comes to snowsports and humanity’s play in the mountains. In Europe, a 47-year-old teacher who has not been named, was leading a school group and was talked into skiing a closed slope at Les Deux Alpes in France by his students. Two teenagers in his care were killed when a massive avalanche swept down the steep run. French law enforcement has charged the man with manslaughter.
Similarly, but thankfully, less deadly, snowboarder Christian Michael Mares triggered an avalanche at Sugar Bowl Resort near Lake Tahoe, Calif. this week as he rode a closed section of mountain. The video went semi-viral and the resort has now threatened to charge Mares.
Trust me, I understand the reasons. The teacher in France is the adult. And teachers around the world routinely take children out on field trips. Parents trust teachers to take care of their most valued possessions: their offspring. So it is often up to these educators to make the tough choices and draw the hard line. Both the teacher in France, and Mares to a lesser degree, put rescue workers and other riders at risk, who could have been caught in the slide or harmed during rescue efforts. I get it. People need rules, we’ve proven that over and over again in society. We can’t have a completely free enterprise because businesses have proven they’ll just rape the world for everything it’s worth, if you get the analogy.
But I’ve worked with kids before, as many of you reading this have as well. How hard is it, when you’re having a fantastic day on the mountain—one of life’s true joys—to say no to a completely stoked out kid you’re just excited to see thrive in an alpine environment?
Or how difficult is it to say no to an open slope that may be closed but you’ve ridden a thousand times before? It’s right there, with all that fresh powder waiting for you to just tear apart. It’s like a siren. I’ve been there. And I’ve had my pass pulled for charging runs just like that. So it’s very difficult for me to agree to prosecuting a rider who sent a line that was closed, when I’ve done the very same thing myself.
Maybe it’s just me? But I can see charging someone criminally for carrying a loaded weapon illegally or selling heroin, endangering society at large, but crimes in the mountains, they just don’t seem applicable. That’s where we’re supposed to be the most free.
In a black and white world, these people broke rules. Straight up. But we live in a world painted in greys and off whites. Prosecuting after someone has experienced death in the mountains, it just seems mean and cold-hearted. And what good is it to prosecute Mares after the fact? From all the media reports, dude seemed pretty scared to me and appreciative of the situation and that he may have made a mistake. While Sugar Bowl—and French prosecutors—may want to make an example of these mountain people, what good does it really do? There’s going to be legal fees.
And in the French case, are the families of these victims going to feel any better because the teacher was convicted of manslaughter, where tax payer’s money was used to prosecute a teacher who made a mistake in the mountains, funds that could be used to address France’s other important issues at the moment—like say, fighting terrorism?
I’ll leave you with this: Sugar Bowl Ski Resort has had one of the absolute worst years ever after two separate difficult incidents, so you have to feel for them. That fact was definitely not lost on me two days ago when the search for missing Sugar Bowl ski instructor Carson May was called off due to weather and avalanche danger. May was skiing at the resort during an off day and disappeared.
What if, by chance, he was skiing in a section he shouldn’t have been? Maybe he wasn’t, maybe he was lost in a tree well on a remote corner of the resort, inbounds. But what if he wasn’t? Would it do anybody any good to prosecute the young man after his death? Absolutely not. That would just be cruel.