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8162X: Seeking zero
Thinking about backcountry risk as a parent

My winter recreation arc followed a path not unlike that of many young suburban migrants to this valley. My groups of new friends, with parenthood and mortgages still well across the horizon, formed a posse that made its way up-valley to carve the ski areas with regularity. This in-bounds activity was eventually supplemented with side-country trips, and then with backcountry day trips, and eventually our skiing regimen evolved into a several-times-per year hut trip habit. The 10th Mountain Hut system is a fabulous amenity, and we gladly sampled its offerings each season.

On our backcountry excursions, we undertook at least some degree of precaution. As a group, we were generally conservative and risk-averse; we saved the steeps skiing for controlled in-bounds terrain. To prepare, we attended the avalanche courses. We carried all the requisite avalanche gear. Our group proceeded single-file through the sketchy parts and used spotters. We generally avoided steeper slopes and terrain traps, albeit judging mainly by eyeball. We did not dig many pits, but we did not either, in our view, push many envelopes.

In hindsight, it would be fair to characterize that, in some instances, we crossed our fingers and hoped for the best. As such, we encountered a handful of pucker moments, finding ourselves on some occasions much more exposed than planned, tiptoeing our way back to safer locations on mouse feet and whispers. Nevertheless, in our decade or so of fairly intensive backcountry skiing, we did not trigger any avalanches that I am aware of. (On one warm Memorial Day trip up Independence Pass, we did get off the Fourth of July chutes not long before another group triggered a biggish wet slide that ran nearly all the way to the valley floor, which we watched from the road as we loaded the truck). Under the self-fulfilling calculus of backcountry accidents, we got it right.

Eventually parenthood intervened, the winter backcountry trips ceased and our gang dispersed. Subsequently, between that distraction and a couple of ACL surgeries, more than a decade has passed since I attempted anything more intense in the off-piste than family trips to a couple of close-in family-friendly huts, accessible by old rail grade. However, the kids are adolescents now, and the backcountry once again beckons.

For many of us here in the mountains, time spent in the backcountry or participation in risk sports is essential to our love of the place. The ability to push up against boundaries, to test ourselves, to get out of the cocoon of safety and predictability is a fundamental reason why so many of us moved here. Intrinsic in this pursuit is developing a relationship with risk, which takes the form of making a (preferably) informed choice for your place on the spectrum, and also entails accepting an element of chance.

Eliminating all risk from life is not possible, or advisable. It is a cliché to say, but true, that the riskiest thing you will do on your backcountry adventure is drive to the trailhead. Eliminating risk from sports like skiing, mountain biking, climbing, backcountry touring and rafting is not only impossible, it misses the point. An important point.

Naturally, as we get older, our orientation to risk changes. We’ve seen some bad things happen, we’ve had our close calls and where body parts once bent, they now prefer to break. For many people, when they have children, the calculus changes overnight. The complicating variable of parenthood disrupts everything.

From time to time, tragedy strikes a member of the community while participating in a risk sport. Naturally, this induces a period of communal reflection around kitchen counters and bar stools and office conference rooms. Checking in on our relationship to risk as parents, the re-assessment confronts the question of what’s the right level for us. For many, the answer they come up with is “zero.” Sitting around a table discussing risk, and risks and parenting, and accidents, it is hard to come up with an answer besides zero.

Zero is easy, defensible. Yet for many of us, zero is not an acceptable answer. I want to get out there. I want to get my kids out there. Yet, anything above zero creates a conundrum: deciding how much is too much. How do you pick a point on the conceptual spectrum that isn’t zero, and then defend that choice rationally? Because the ultimate arbiter is available only after the fact; the proof comes at the end of the trip.

Certainly, as a parent (or perhaps even as part of a committed relationship), you can and probably should recalibrate your risk-assessment process, choose what you do, and where you go, and when you go with some extra thoughtfulness. But if you choose to go, you can’t reach zero risk.

Sure, we can eliminate backcountry ski touring from our outings. But most of the sports we participate in come with significant risk from falls from a mountain bike, or lightning, or drowning, even on the calmest sections of river.

I had a close call in a sit-on kayak this summer, on a tame section of the Fork, late in the season, with just enough water in the channel to get through. Yet, there was enough flow through a narrows to pull me against a downed tree trunk and pin one leg to the boat, just long enough for me to wonder if that was how I was going to end. Just like that. Then I popped out.

Risk is always present. Ironically, we had deferred taking our kids out on the river until they were confident and capable swimmers, a process that took longer than we expected when setting the standard. And so there we were easing our way back into the sport, when it almost ended me on a bluebird day with the boats scraping bottom.

Zero is not a satisfying answer. We want to share this place with our kids. We want them to feel the rush of being up near that edge, to enjoy the feeling that comes from putting yourself out there in a way that allows you to find yourself along the way.

In any case, our children will eventually be making similar choices when they are a little older and we aren’t around. So we want to mentor them, now, while we can. And we want to share this moment with them, and bring it back for ourselves.

But to do so, we need to come to terms with a number greater than zero.

Malcolm McMichael lives in Carbondale with his family, family hamster and an extended family of outdoor gear.