By Karleen Jeffery
There are some pretty big differences between Europe and North America. For one, in North America, people stopped wearing moonboots to the ski hill in the 80s. Not so in France, where it isn't uncommon to see moonboots and other fashion disasters such as fluorescent one-piece suits and fur coats on the slopes. While Europeans enjoy a unique degree of freedom when it comes to fashion (although in many cases this is a bad thing) they also experience a freedom unequaled in North America when it comes to accessing steep, challenging terrain.
Whether within resort boundaries or beyond, European attitudes toward the mountain environment place the responsibility of safety upon each individual. In contrast, most North American resorts limit access to uncontrolled terrain in an attempt to protect the masses from themselves. I believe that in removing responsibility for safety from the individual, resort managers are unintentionally instilling a false sense of security that can be deadly when unprepared skiers and snowboarders venture beyond the ropes.
Growing up skiing in North America, I was always looking over my shoulder for a ski patrol. Riding too fast, ducking ropes–breaking the rules added an extra element of excitement to a day on the hill. The rules and boundaries were there for my own protection. However, they also prevented me from developing my own decision-making skills. Within resort boundaries in Canada and the U.S., few decisions are left up to the individual other than which run to choose and whether to have a café latte or a cappuccino at lunch.
The resort experience in North America has become so neatly packaged for comfort and convenience that people tend to forget they are in a mountain environment. High-speed lifts whisk you to the top of the mountain in a bubble protecting you from the elements, Kleenex dispensers await your dripping nose at the bottom of every run, and if you don't think that Easy Rider really deserves the blue square rating, there is a responsive public-relations manager waiting to field your complaint in the new multi-million-dollar day lodge.
When I first went to Europe in 1994, I was amazed at the freedom available at ski resorts. In Chamonix, I no longer had to worry about breaking the rules because there were no rules. Sure, there were some signs and ropes, but these were in place to guide beginners to the easiest descent rather than to exclude access outright. With this newfound freedom also came some heavy responsibilities. I felt humbled knowing that no one else would be looking out for my safety–no one to hold my hand. It was up to me to choose which terrain to ride, and more importantly, which terrain not to ride.
It's little wonder that people get themselves into trouble when they duck ropes to reach some forbidden powder stash. The undereducated and ill-prepared teenager who ventures into the backcountry in the Rockies, trying to ride big terrain like the pictures from Valdez, just doesn't stand a chance. What isn't apparent in the glossy pages of magazines is that the biggest lines are always ridden in optimally stable conditions by professional riders who, along with guides, are constantly looking out for their own safety.
With the growing interest in backcountry use in North America, attitudes are beginning to shift in a positive direction. After a string of tragic accidents during the record-setting snowfall of the '98/99 season, Mt. Baker imposed a strict but sensible backcountry access policy: you must have a transceiver, shovel, probe, and basic backcountry knowledge in order to ski outside of the area boundary. The traditional reactionary approach would have been to ban all access to uncontrolled terrain. Mt. Baker should be commended for its progressive approach in encouraging people to take responsibility for their own safety.
The issue of getting peoople to take responsibility for their own
actions is a complex one. When accidents occur, North Americans typically react by not accepting the fact that they were involved in a hazardous activity in an unpredictable environment; instead they try to place blame, sue, and profit from tragedy. Taking personal responsibility for our own safety is the first step in liberating ourselves from the constricting regulations that keep us from enjoying the full potential of the mountains–only then will America truly live up to its name of “land of the free and home of the brave.”