October 19, 2011

The Hat Factor

Rescue rangers climb and roam Grand Teton National Park on a daily basis, poised to pick up the pieces of accidents, many preventable, some not. The day I joined a ranger on patrol he was called back to base fifteen minutes after we headed out. A skier on Ellingwood Couloir had lost control and fallen 800 feet. It was serious. I went on walking alone.

Another day I joined my friend Drew. We went off-trail toward an area favored by late-season skiers. We bumped into some local backcountry skiers, early risers finishing their day long before noon. In other words, capable. But another guy was making his way solo, with precious little gear or experience. Still, he had managed to climb a remote ridge and have a great time of it. Drew chatted with both parties about the weather, their gear, what they thought of the conditions.

I thought it must be stressful to see people unprepared in the wilderness, but Drew quipped maybe that's what it's for. I took that to mean that there is a lot that can be said for living by your wits. Risks let us find our potential. And we hope it ends well.

Also an avalanche forecaster, Drew commented how his job was not to police the backcountry but to encourage good decisions. Avalanche reports can predict conditions, but they can't anticipate prudence. On one day, he said, avalanche conditions were tricky, which didn't make a trip into the backcountry impossible, just worthy of extra consideration. His report went something like this.

With a cowboy hat a meticulous fit is crucial. It should stay on in a gallop: snug enough to stay put and loose enough to not pinch your brains. This is your perfect hat. But even then, one day a big gust comes along to blow it right off.

Therein lies the point. Lose your hat and it's time to take stock. A cowboy who straps it to his chin with stampede strings never takes that risk, but neither does he find the moment to get off his horse and reevaluate.

I live in a time when warnings come in pithy slogans or written in block letters on danger signs. So it took a while to chew on this old notion--guidance by parable. But (as any English major would) I liked it.

Soon after we hit patches of snow and the going got harder in my trail runners. Though I wanted to keep on going, I knew I might feel differently later. So I reluctantly called it a day.

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