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Powder Magazine, 2010-19

Powder, 2012

Dec 2012, p. 110: Hansen, Matt, "Nature's Feedback: Why are so many of the best skiers dying?"

In the introduction to this issue of Powder, editor John Stifter writes that for the past year the magazine's editors had been grappling with how to address the spate of fatal accidents involving top skiers in recent years. They assigned Matt Hansen to research and write a special report on the subject. In the months since that assignment was made, many more skier deaths were reported. The article includes a list of "high-profile losses" in recent years:
Date     Skiers     Location
2001     Hans Saari     Chamonix, France
2002     Reid Sanders, Aaron Martin     Mt St Elias, Alaska
2005     Carl Skoog     Cerro Mercedario, Argentina
2005     Alec Stall     Mt Mansfield, Vermont
2006     Doug Coombs     La Grave, France
2007     Neal Valiton     Tignes, France
2008     Billy Poole     Wasatch Mountains, Utah
2008     John Nicoletta     Alyeska, Alaska
2009     Shane McConkey     Dolomite Mountains, Italy
2010     C.R. Johnson     Squaw Valley, California
2010     Jack Hannan     Mt Currie, B.C.
2010     Arne Backstrom     Cordillera Blanca, Peru
2010     Fredrik Ericsson     K2, Pakistan
2011     Ryan Hawks     Kirkwood, California
2011     Kip Garre     Eastern Sierra, California
2011     Jamie Pierre     Snowbird, Utah
2012     Sarah Burke     Park City, Utah
2012     Jim Jack, Chris Rudolph     Stevens Pass, Washington
2012     Steve Romeo, Chris Onufer     Grand Teton N.P., Wyoming
2012     Rob Liberman     Haines, Alaska
2012     Nick Zoricic     Grindelwald, Switzerland
2012     Remy Lecluse, Gregory Costa     Manaslu, Nepal
The author acknowledges that the list omits "dozens of hometown heroes" such as Wray Landon (Jackson Hole, WY), Allison Kreutzen (Squaw Valley, CA), Duncan MacKenzie (Whistler, B.C.), Johnny Brenan (Stevens Pass, WA), and Will Schooler (Nelson, B.C.).

In the past 10 to 15 years, new lightweight alpine touring equipment has made it much easier for skiers to get into the backcountry. Websites have emerged to provide instant information about weather and snow conditions on challenging routes. Wider skis have made it easier to ski deep-snow features that would have been avoided a decade ago. Tricks developed in terrain parks have been transferred to big-mountain settings. Resorts, ski brands, and media outlets actively promote "the cool factor of skiing beyond the ropes." The author writes, "It all adds up to make the last 10 to 15 years one of the most transformative eras in skiing history" while noting that "it seems that if you're not out there killing it every day, you risk being left behind."

As the list of skier deaths has grown, "Every fall, magazines like this one roll out yet another tribute to another dead skier--the editors trying to balance paying respect to a hero and a friend while celebrating the search for deep powder, big air, and the next phenomenal athlete willing to go bigger, faster, farther than the last guy." The author notes, "People started to wonder when skiing had evolved from being a fun activity, where the day's thrills, spills, and excitement would be recounted later over beers, to a sport where any little mistake would cost you the ultimate price."

Gradually, a few skiers and journalists have started to question the trajectory of current trends. Robb Gaffney, a doctor and former ski film director, argues that skiing is undergoing "a continual cultural shift that has raised the level [of risk-taking] for all skiers, which thereby puts the sports's influencers even farther out on the edge." This has led to what he calls "nature's feedback," a rash of fatal accidents. Gaffney has launched a campaign called Sportgevity, which aims to instill in younger skiers the notion that a successful ski career does not end in tragedy. By developing patience and smarts, skiers can continue to enjoy the sport into old age. Gaffney doesn't expect today's top-level athletes to step back, but he hopes to reach the next generation "who have grown up in an environment that glorifies the deaths of their heroes."

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