You could blame it on the fact that most kids don’t grow up with woods in their back yards these days like I did. On our small farm in Florida, a good percentage of our acreage was forestland, complete with a swamp that had its own gator. In the sixties, as with many of my fellow Boomers, parents were far more likely to let us wander into the local hinterlands, get into scrapes, come home bruised and dirty. We explored, possibly because there were more woods, but also because we weren’t distracted by devices. We went outside, got injured, healed, made mistakes, learned.
These days, open land, or any land at all, which provided the opportunity to learn anything about the woods is either long gone or paved over. Kids these days grow up in gated communities or apartment complexes, big cities, projects. More and more developers plowing over precious green space to make room for more big buildings, leaving few spots to build a fort, hang a tire or even play hide and seek outside.
Those of us who live in the West have seen the once wide open spaces of Colorado turned into shopping central, the once horse- and cattle-dotted plains now paved over with acres and acres of overpriced apartment homes and mini-mansions. This past summer those who have rushed to experience the Big Bad Rockies without preparation have, in some cases, paid the ultimate price. The mountains seem close, even friendly. Well, they aren’t.
However this is hardly limited to my part of the world. From Colorado to anywhere people can possibly get themselves into trouble, folks are loading up their brand new gear- or no gear at all except their cell phones- and heading into the hinterlands. This leads to horrendous situations involving injuries, weather-related disasters and even death. The Rockies- as elsewhere- have seen a big rash of death and injuries, often involving ill-prepared hikers. As widely reported, first responders are paying a high price.
One of my closest friends is a wildfire rescue supervisor in Southwest Colorado. I hear about this kind of thing first hand. People with no training, no preparation, no idea. Just heading out on a bright day. In no time they are in terrible trouble. The high country is very unforgiving of stupid.
As an international adventure traveler I see this everywhere I go, from Iceland to Norway to Croatia to Kazakhstan. The great hunger for “epic” is fed by extreme sports magazines like Outdoor, which I subscribe to. Many understandably want to see these places before they disappear. Others just want that extreme photo, and it doesn’t seem to occur to them that there was an awful amount of work involved in getting the photo that inspired them in the first place. I often find people allowed on my adventure trips who are rank beginners, and whose behavior endangers other participants. Why? First, they have no skills and aren’t physically prepared. Second, they spend so much time trying to get that “epic” shot that makes them LOOK like experts that they aren’t paying attention to the dangers around them.
What troubles me even more is that a good number of these folks don’t want advice. To wit: there is an online community spreading across America called Outdoor Women’s Alliance. I’m a member. Many of these women are highly trained experts in search and rescue, avalanche safety, virtually every kind of people-powered sport you can imagine. When untimely deaths in Colorado engendered conversations online, we also discussed behaviors that each of us saw on the mountains: dangerous, ill-advised, even scofflaw behaviors that ignored advice from these experienced women, including me.
While I decry the loss of life and the anguish it causes those families, I also have little regard for the disrespect shown to these skilled women who populate the mountains in my state and others and who work hard to prevent the very accidents and expensive search and rescue operations that cost all of us so much. I think little of the lack of preparation, the arrogance and the fantasy mindset that accompanies someone who heads into Mother Nature and treats first responders like an Uber service. What about their loved ones when their lives are put at risk, exhausted from call after call, especially from folks who could have gotten out under their own steam?
We on OWA are also concerned about the elitism that sometimes accompanies those who have perfected their sports or who “got here first.” That unfortunate attitude exists here in Colorado. Most of us agree that’s not the answer. Saving our sacred spaces and saving lives involves education, inclusion and engagement. That means everyone, not just the lucky few. OWA is full of women who want to keep the mountains safe, just as I do. “Only the super expert get to play” is no way to treat people who genuinely want to enjoy the beauty of our Rockies.
However ignoring the expert advice of the uber competent women who board, ski, climb, hike, paddle, ride, and provide damned good recommendations in these mountains is foolish indeed. If you ignore us because just we’re women, you could be heading into serious trouble. Why? Because sometimes the woman who just gave you advice really knows what the hell she’s talking about.
If one of these women tells you not to head out to ski into an avalanche area but you sneak out and do it anyway, don’t be surprised if hers is the first face you see shoveling your sorry ass out of the snow.
The search and rescue expert.
The face of expertise and competence in adventure is changing. As one OWA member commented drily on line the other day, you can’t push past every woman in the adventure group and go to the tallest guy and ask for directions any more. These days, the real team leader/expert could be that short chick you just shoved out of the way.