To quote from a song by John Prine: “How you ever gonna get sunshine / Peeking through venetian blinds? / Don’t you know, all that fear / Begins and ends at the same place: Here.”
Or, as Helen Keller stated: “Security is mostly a superstition... Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.”
These two quotes come to mind as our change of seasons in the mountains brings both great opportunities and great dangers.
Consider, for example, how hearing a casual report of regional trail conditions can create choice points.
In my day to day life, I have the opportunity to be offered many up-to-date, first-hand verbal reports of trail conditions from runners, hikers, and hunters. As a result, last week I knew that the late October snow had mostly, but not entirely, melted off of the Perimeter Trail systems which encircle Ouray.
The southeast section of that fine trail system was said to still have some icy sections, which prompted a few hikers to avoid those upper reaches while still enjoying the mostly dry trails up to those. Deciding to indulge in one final trail run above Ouray before our next storm, I went to consider a trail run for myself last Sunday, near sunset.
Sure enough, some icy patches exist between the Portland trailhead in Ouray and my destination: the Chief Ouray Mine just past the falls of Portland Creek. I encountered just two other people on the round-trip: one was a solo runner who was just finishing the entire Perimeter Loop that evening. The other was a hiker with trekking poles, who stated he had turned back before reaching the Chief Ouray mine, due to the exposure of steep drop-offs which exceeded his comfort zone.
I had intentionally made the choice to initiate a run from a trailhead at 7,900 feet elevation late on a November day, on a trail system with some few confirmed snowy and icy sections. I do not recommend necessarily making such a choice. Any individual who takes on an outing must act solely on his or her own behalf.
For instance, consider a hunter from much lower elevations carrying a heavy pack along with perhaps more body weight than he or she did five years ago. Now consider another outdoors participant, perhaps a hiker or runner with only the clothes they are wearing and just a small beltpack, acclimated to the altitude and unaccustomed to interrupting a planned loop outing.
Neither of these two people can head out into the backcountry free of all risks. There exist many variables which must be considered for a “Go” or “No Go” decision. Even then, before the decision, the most accurate assessment of the existing risk level for an outing gets influenced by one further important element.
Risk tolerance versus risk avoidance is this final element.
It was not just the fact of spending a few hours on late day ice on a foot trail above Ouray, but additional reasons that bring this “risk” topic to mind. One is the recent sad loss of a Montrose outdoor adventurer whose watercraft sank off of the Florida coast. An apparent fall during a solo trail run near Mt. Ruffner outside of Telluride claimed the life of another man a year ago.
In addition, last winter’s tragic avalanche death near Senator Beck Basin on Red Mountain Pass further demonstrates that expert instruction, years of experience, and access to advanced digital tools, data, and safety equipment are not able to eliminate our risks in the backcountry.
Furthermore, this winter will mark the thirtieth anniversary of the avalanche death of another Montrose man skiing on Red Mountain Pass as well, not far from the highway. Just three months before his untimely death, he was one member in a team of four of us who had camped in Yankee Boy Basin and successfully completed a winter climb of Mt. Sneffels together.
Whenever we read about a tragedy like any of the above, it is a natural human reaction to unconsciously try to determine why such an incident could not happen to oneself. For instance, “Well, they should have known it wasn’t safe.” This tendency, however, can create a false sense of security in one’s own decision-making.
Instead of thinking in terms such as “is it safe”, current teaching in outdoor skills studies in recent years encourages backcountry users to think in a different way. It can be useful to see it as a continuum, with “risk tolerance” on one end, and “risk aversion” on the other end.
As for the three of us on the trail last Sunday, each of us had a differing degree of risk tolerance, and had acted on it accordingly, rather than applying an all-or-nothing standard.
Admittedly, sometimes staying home is one’s best choice, too.
John T. Unger is a Diplomate of the American Chiropractic Board of Sports Physicians, with over 25 years of practice in Montrose. He mourns for the lost life of each of the above backcountry users who perished while in pursuit of their own versions of adventure. Ideas for future columns are welcomed at sportsdocunger.com.