Friday, April 08, 2011

Sad Incident in Jackson Hole

A sad recent incident in Jackson Hole illustrates one of the major difference between skiing in the US and skiing in Europe.

A 78 year old, retired physician was arrested for skinning up the mountain at Jackson Hole to watch his granddaughter race.

In the US (really, in North America) you are not allowed to cross ski area boundaries under penalty of arrest. You are not allowed on inbounds ski trails without a lift pass, even if you are not using the lifts. This, despite the fact that virtually all ski resorts are on leased Federal Land. Land which, in theory, belongs to all of us. In Utah (for example) at Park City and The Canyons, which have an adjoining boundary, it is against the law to cross from one to the other - even if you have bought a lift ticket for both. People are arrested for this all the time.

In Austria, the concept of trespassing and property rights are fundamentally different than in North America. Austrians are not allowed to prohibit reasonable passage across their land. Property owners can put up reasonable fences, and those crossing must exercise reasonable courtesy (can't drop trash, can't camp out, can't create disturbances at odd hours, can't cause any damage) but for the most part, anybody can put on a pair of skis or snowshoes on one side of the Austrian Alps and cross the entire country using whatever route they please.

Both sides respect these laws.

I guess the key phrase is "reasonable". In Austria, if you are crossing somebody's land and fall off their mountainside, you can't sue. It is your own damn fault. If you die in an avalanche, whether you are inbounds or out of bounds, you can't sue. You need to be aware of hazards like cliffs, terrain traps, and unstable snow packs. You need to have a clue. You need to accept risk. Here in North America, with lawyers suing everybody in sight for anything they can think of, and anybody to whom something bad happens claims to be a victim of somebody else's negligence, all bets are off.

It's a bit like the gun control issue. One would think reasonable people could come to a reasonable agreement for the greater good. But once lawyers and lobbyists take over, any hope of reasonableness vanishes. I really don't blame ski resorts for enforcing crazy laws, because legal costs threaten the viability of every single resort in North America. Patrolmen have a right to prohibit uphill travel at certain times to certain areas so they can perform avalanche control, which involves howitzer cannons, nitrogen-powered missiles, and explosives. That is certainly reasonable. OTOH, as a backcountry skier, I just have to shake my head at a 78-year-old guy, who's got 75 years of ski experience, out for a casual skin on a groomed cat track on Federal Land, being put in handcuffs and thrown in the clink. That is not reasonable.

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