Backcountry Safety is a Shared Responsibility
From my twitter post on the topic, archived here
Recently, A local SAR team rescued a hiker that was abandoned by her group and it bothers me, a lot. I’ve been ruminating on this for several years.
About 25 years a go a friend of mine was climbing at the smoke bluffs in Squamish, setting up a top top rope. Near him, someone was preparing to be lowered but had rigged it wrong – he’d placed the rope over the webbing without a carabiner – an accident as described in the link below.
My friend pointed out the error, but the other climber replied with a “fuck you” and continued to be lowered. My friend reached over and managed to clip a single draw between his anchor and the rope – just before it cut through the anchor webbing. Thus saving his life.
My point here is this: there is one thing we can rely on in this life more than anything else, and that’s human fallibility. SAR people know this intimately. People make mistakes. They don’t deserve to die because of those mistakes. “These things we do, so that others may live”
But here’s my message: We’re all in this TOGETHER. In recognition that people are fallible, that nobody knows everything, and that we all approach the backcountry with varying degrees of competence and experience, we owe each other assistance.
SAR volunteers are looked upon as heroes, but any one of you can be a hero at any time by looking out for your friends, and every other backcountry user on the trails.
You’re a community of users. Mentor each other!
You know those liability waivers that people make you sign? The ones that say you take all responsibility for your own safety? Those are lies. Those are legal documents. The truth is that you’re all responsible for each other – because anyone can make a mistake.
And when I say shared, I don’t just mean hikers. The ski hills, the tour operators, the gondola developers, the heli-ski guides – we ALL share this responsibility. Regardless of what the legal waivers say, we owe each other our best effort – to educate and prevent accidents.
This attitude that it’s all “personal responsibility” is all fine and good, but doesn’t account for human fallibility. If you’re organizing a trip, you’re the leader. Regardless of what the waiver says, you are the person who created the conditions for this trip to happen.
Likewise, if you build a trail, a gondola, or a backcountry hut – you created the conditions for people to use that resource. You owe those users your very best effort to educate them about the risks, conditions, and skills required, regardless of the legal fine print. And finally: stop blaming the victims. Nobody starts the day with the intent to cause an accident. Most SAR tasks are the result of a lack of knowledge.
We need a new backcountry manifesto. When you venture out away from the safety of civilization, you need to obey the unwritten rule: stop, and help each other. This needs to be taught in every backcountry safety course, and written on the back of every legal document.
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