THE BUZZ: The Game of Risk

By on March 1, 2017

Recent events in Jackson Hole highlight how people’s decisions in the valley have far reaching impacts on the community.

Morgan McGlashon ascends the Grand Teton. (Photo: Carson Meyer)

JACKSON HOLE, WY – When Jay Pistono had kids, his wife Patricia told him that if he died guiding, she would personally haunt his grave. As a young climbing guide, Pistono put his life on the line regularly, but having a family put that risk into a different light. “Everybody’s got a certain level of self-preservation,” Pistono said, “but especially when there’s family involved, there should be some sort of adjustment.”

Now, his job is to spend time on top of Teton Pass ensuring people are respectful, and responsible, that they are stewards of the area. He’s well known to most backcountry users, but is not always the most popular person out there. Skiers and snowboarders, he says, don’t always take kindly to advice. He never orders anyone on or off the mountain, but questions he poses, as simple as “Why did you decide to ski Glory today?” are enough to induce responses like, “What business is it of yours?”

Actually, he reminds them, their decisions “affect all of us.”

Blind trust

Winter in the valley has been riddled with accidents reigniting fierce conversations about safe decision-making in a high-risk town. Last week, Teton County Search and Rescue had to retrieve a skier after he spent two nights in Granite Canyon.

Mike Syverson of Telluride, Colorado, and his partner Chris Prem lost their way after venturing out of bounds. According to a press release issued by Grand Teton National Park, friends reported them missing around 7 p.m. Monday night. Prem who, unlike Syverson, had touring gear, left his partner in the hopes of finding help. He reached the top of the tram around 1:30 a.m. Tuesday, where he woke a sleeping tram operator. Prem spent the night at the mountain’s summit, while Syverson remained alone waiting for help.

Thanks to Prem’s GPS location and Forward looking infrared, Search and Rescue teams were able to locate Syverson at approximately 8 a.m. Wednesday. He had made himself shelter in the snow for warmth. But better decision making and knowledge of the area, some argue, would have resulted in an outcome that did not require a SAR mission—costly missions that often put rescuers’ lives on the line.

Meanwhile, in the wake of the now infamous skier triggered Twin Slides avalanche that swept a motorist off the road and shut down the pass for a day in December, Pistono says the conversation about whether to close the pass to recreationists is still ongoing.

And recreationists aren’t the only ones in the hot seat. Last Wednesday, a semi truck driver ignored the winter trailer closure and closed the pass for the afternoon—delaying hundreds of commuters from getting home—after lodging his vehicle near milepost 10. The driver was cited for having a trailer on the pass and fined $420.

Wyoming Highway Patrol Lieutenant Matthew Brackin could hardly remember the incident from the rest he’s seen this season. “There’s been enough this winter that it’s hard to keep track,” he said. Brackin added that, similar to what irate social media users suggested in response to PJH’s story last week, Wyoming Highway Patrol and WYDOT have had discussions about raising the $420 fine. Ultimately, however, he said it would be up to the Wyoming Supreme Court to change the amounts of fines.

Indeed, with each incident, tempers flare and citizens propose ways to ensure that such an accident never happens again. But policy change, officials say, is only effective if people are willing to listen.

“It’s a conversation that WYDOT regularly has,” said Stephanie Harsha, public relations specialist for Wyoming Department of Transportation. “What can we do better, how can we inform [people] better? But sometimes they just run the closure anyway.”

“At the end of the day, it’s going to rely on drivers to read and adhere to the signage,” Brackin echoed.

Recently, Harsha says WYDOT has increased signage on Teton Pass and worked with the Idaho Department of Transportation to put signs further back on the Idaho side. There are also signs on Broadway at the Y and at the base of the pass in Wilson. Still, increased signs and a $420 fee don’t always deter motorists from illegal travel.

Roads to mountains

Recreationists on Teton Pass and at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort also pass posted warning signs before venturing into the backcountry. There are no sanctioned repercussions for accidents in the backcountry, but decisions are often life-and-death. And, like driving over the pass, the impacts of individual decisions are far-reaching. Local big-mountain skier Morgan McGlashon thinks that people don’t often consider that when they put their lives on the line, “they’re putting other people’s lives at risk, too.”

Pistono, like Harsha, says that there is only so much communicating he can do. His job is not to stop people from skiing their dream line. Rather, it is to engage them in a conversation about what is at stake. But like Harsha noted, he says not everyone will listen.

“A lot of times when you talk to people about repercussions,” he said, “they act like you’re talking about choosing skis. They make it sound so mundane.”

Part of that mentality, he said, stems from a social media driven sense of adventure. “It’s gotten to the point for some people where talking about it or having an image of it is almost as important, or more important, than the experience itself. Gotta get the shot,” Pistono said of some brazen skiers and snowboarders. “There’s a certain amount of risk taking involved in that too.”

Of course, Pistono said it is inspirational to witness other people “do really cool stuff.” But he would like to see the definition of “cool” shift to include stories of people who “had fun for 40-some seasons and came home to their family every night.”

The female affect

Pistono shared a joke in the backcountry community that essentially says if you want to make it home safe, take a woman along.

Indeed, in the past 10 years, almost 80 percent of winter Search and Rescue missions were in search of men. Skier McGlashon is not surprised by that statistic. As a woman who skis with men, she almost always makes the more prudent decisions. “The way I approach the mountains is always more conservative, even if our skill levels are the same,” she said. McGlashon suspects that men and women perceive risk differently.

In fact, there is research to suggest that risk itself is constructed as a masculine endeavor. Sociologist Jason Laurendeau published a study in 2008 that posited risk and chaos as typically masculine traits, while order and control (risk management) are constructed as feminine. McGlashon’s conservative tendencies, then, are perhaps inherent, as she believes, but also shaped by constant conversations that attribute risk-taking with masculinity.

Those conversations also contribute to a sense of confidence among men that women don’t always feel privy to. “There’s definitely a different attitude skiing with guys,” McGlashon said. “Guys act more confident. Girls are hesitant to carry the same confidence. That’s consistent across the board with everyone I ski with.”

McGlashon said that as a female athlete, she also feels like she has more to prove. People often question her legitimacy in the mountains. “As a young female, I definitely feel pressure to make sure things go right,” she said. And it is that pressure that motivates her to make safer decisions. “Just because I’m a 22-year-old female, and you’re second-guessing me because you’re a 45-year-old dude … I do know what I’m doing here.”

The other difference, Pistono speculates, is that women are more likely to ski in groups, and particularly in groups of other women. He estimated that around a third of people who hike up Glory go it alone—and of that third, “a bulk of them are guys.” Aside from the occasional “very mellow” pass lap, McGlashon said she would never risk adventuring alone.

Community can’t be taught

McGlashon and Pistono agree that an essential part of backcountry safety is a sense of community. The more people communicate with each other and understand the scope of their actions, the safer they will be. “The only way we’re gonna make things happen is if a whole bunch of us come on board…” Pistono said. “It takes a team of people to make this work out.”

But building community takes time. “It’s a lifetime’s worth of appreciation and understanding,” McGlashon said. “Sense of community isn’t something you can teach or put on a sign.” PJH

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