Friday, 30 December 2011

Skier dies after avalanche in Pemberton, B.C.

Last night I expanded my use of new media. The Vancouver Sun is offering a free download a day on iTunes. This is not a service I have used very much since I do not own an iPod nor do I feel like paying for downloads. The great success of Steve Jobs was getting people to people for downloaded music, which changed the distribution of recorded music and now video too. Up until now I have been limiting the amount of video I watch on my computer, as I regard it as a personal device, though my MacBook Pro has a 15" screen, that is quite small by tv standards. It dies of course play HD - something my tv and DVD cannot do.

For home movies we mostly borrow from the library or rent from who send the discs by mail. But I cancelled my zip subscription since they seem to have fewer and fewer hints I want to watch. I suppose at some stage we will have to consider an HD tv and a device to download or stream from internet, but my partner was persuaded that we could try out this free documentary I had downloaded from the Sun. I was about snowboarding - something one of her sons does, but within the confines of the ski resorts. This was about the extreme stuff. Back country heli-skiing - or rather "riding" - we had seen something rather similar quite recently and the photography of the mountains was spectacular.

"The Art of Flight" is said to be "a new breed of sports action film from Red Bull Media"
"Equal parts action and adventure mix with the inevitable drama encountered along the way. Two years in the making, "The Art of FLIGHT" gives iconic snowboarder Travis Rice and friends the opportunity to redefine what is possible in the mountains. Experience the highs, as new tricks are landed and new zones opened, alongside the lows, where avalanches, accidents and wrong-turns strike. For the first time, viewers are immersed in the sometimes successful, often trying quest to open up new, unexplored mountains in remote corners of the world. "

What Red Bull is doing, of course, is promoting a product to a specific demographic - young, single, adult males. And of course as much youth as they can get too. Young men have excess testosterone and an unshakeable belief in their own invulnerability. They strain against the restrictions and rules of society - and all societies have rituals and activities designed to channel their energies and enthusiasms. Some of which are successful. I will not get into the role of the product Red Bull is selling. In my own view it is unnecessary - but it is not illegal. And the way that we regulate food and drink as well as additives and supplements works in the interests of the producers not the consumers. As one would expect by a state which has been taken over by corporate interests.

Watching the movie we were struck by the avalanches caused by their penetration of back country areas where there are no ski patrol or snow grooming. Indeed in one sequence the young men stamp their boards on the top of a crest and watch as the top surface of the snow below them sheers away and slides for miles, gaining strength as it goes.

The cbc story that the title links to includes details of the very high avalanche risk in BC at present. No-one going into the mountains should be unaware of such risk. I cannot comment on the specifics of the four young men involved in this incident, not am I any kind of winter sportsman. I do not and will not slide on any surface voluntarily. But those who do must understand the risks.

The juxtaposition of the cbc story and Post Media's use of what is really a 1 hour 40 minute Red Bull commercial featuring very dangerous snow boarding in back country areas is possibly unfortunate. But is does cause me to wonder the extent to which corporations should be encouraging young people to put their lives needlessly at risk. And others who may take a more objective editorial stance but would still be happy to accept advertising material - and maybe even programming - material from them.

UPDATE The CBC is now ( 11:45 Dec 30) reporting that the skier who died after being caught in the avalanche was a ski patroller from Whistler


Robert Ballantyne said...

Hi Stephen,

I am not sure about the points you are making. The conclusion seems to be the "extent to which corporations should be encouraging young people to put their lives needlessly at risk." Are those corporations Red Bull, the riders' sponsors, and the film makers?

Also, the excess of testosterone that you mention doesn't come from watching movies like this -- it is already there. All we are seeing here is an outlet for that energy. I'd say that extreme sports is probably a better outlet (and example) than, say, urban street car racing.

At least the level of skill necessary to ride like those in the film requires years of practice, amazing fitness, some real knowledge of the mountains and the constantly changing qualities of snow... plus the ability to manage the business of planning adventures, logistics, care-and-feeding of sponsors, and maintaining a very high energy life-style. Yes, there is the risk of death. There is lots written by those who see that as adding to the quality of life -- but it is a thought-out philosophy, not just testosterone.

That said, I don't really enjoy watching extreme sports films. I hate the grating music, and I'm not particularly interested in seeing people performing extraordinary feats that I cannot. I find discovering what they can do is neither entertaining nor instructive. I particularly don't like helicopters noisily attacking mountains -- especially when I am backcountry skiing nearby. It turns the solitude into a war zone.

And that brings me to my last point; and is probably the reason that I am commenting. Today, I am at home while my skiing buddy is with friends at a destination that is only a few kilometers from the place where the skier you mentioned died in an avalanche. Today the avalanche conditions have improved slightly -- they were wicked yesterday and last night. Reading of the death, and watching the indicators of the conditions has me thinking, 'There, but for the grace...'

My point is that, since I've moved to British Columbia (in 1990), I've learned to love muscle-powered backcountry travel, especially in the winter. One of the very special features of living near Vancouver is that the wilderness -- real wilderness -- begins within the metro area. I grew up in Montreal, where visiting wilderness meant driving for many hours.

I am not a risk-taker. I believe that I have learned the skills to travel safely in the backcountry - and I think I know and respect my limits. Frankly, I don't like the word, 'wilderness.' There is nothing wild about it. It is awesome, and beautiful in all its many moods. Being there nourishes me in a way that urban spaces cannot. Out there I find the conditions to be safer and more predictable than coping in the big city. Both places require skills to survive and be comfortable.

Unfortunately, most Canadians grow up within the confines of cities and towns, and, except for brief holiday dashes to very controlled countryside, many of our citizen never come to really know the wilderness that is, after all, our heritage.

Does this matter? I think so. If our citizens never learn to experience, and even love, our wild places, there are those who will find commercial uses for those spaces. It is only a matter of time. In Canada, much of our wilderness belongs to the Crown. Who owns it? We, the people. During my life, so much of it has vanished forever. For that reason, I want people to be curious about their wilderness, to develop the skills to be able to experience it, and, when necessary, be inspired to support the voices who defend it.

Stephen Rees said...

The young men in the movie are professionals. Whenever you see a commercial - for example a fast car being driven in a lunatic fashion - there is some small print somewhere warning viewers not to attempt the same stunt. But of course that is the "cover your rear end" strategy advised by the lawyers. People do attempt to do things they see. For that very simple reason, news reporting about suicides is very restricted.

Red Bull encourages the idea that drinking their product increases the ability to achieve extra-ordinary feats. It doesn't of course. Nor does it provide anything you actually need - and it does so at a high price. And it spends a great deal on marketing - not directly advertising so much as being seen as a sponsor for the right kinds of life-style events.

That is a very cynical exploitation of its target demographic. But like all corporations, they behave in ways that we would characterize as psychotic if they were in fact people.

I do not want to criticize the sort of people who go into the wilderness and enjoy the undeveloped natural world - provided they leave it exactly as they found it. Human powered is exactly right. Skidoos and helicopters and starting avalanches are all outside that category. But if you go, you go at your own risk. I am not at all sure that others should be expected to risk their lives to pull out people who should not have exceeded their limits. Adventurous young men are not good at risk assessments, and tend not to err on the side of caution.

Some of my writing is a way of putting my feelings into words, and your comment has helped crystallize my thought. Thank you