Steve Romeo is dead. The influential backcountry skier and blogger died in an avalanche in the Tetons less than a week ago. As the Black Diamond blog put it: “Steve never wasted a day, or an hour, and he was leading the life he dreamed for himself, which is the most any of us can ever aspire to. It’s easy to see he died doing what he loved, but Steve Romeo’s real legacy is that he lived doing what he loved. Live to ski—that was his motto.”
I’ve somewhat guiltily indulged in mocking Tetonat.com over the years, for what I saw as his occasional tendency to advocate and promote a rather uncritical view of living in the mountains. Yet there is no disputing that he lived doing what he loved, and the use of outdoor pursuits in ensuring a satisfying and meaningful life could not be closer to my heart. In addition to an impressive archive of powder days and ski lines, the 5+ years of TetonAT tell a story increasingly interested in contemplating the reasons anyone spends time doing technical sports in the mountains, primarily through the lens of avalanche safety. In the last year, more and more posts mentioned or were devoted outright to that forgotten center of the avy triangle, the human factor.
Any death like this one ought to ask a host of questions, the first one in this case inevitably being about the reason for increasing avalanche fatalities. The first answer, when snowmachines are removed from the discussion, has to do with an increasing user base and is in most respects a business and public policy question. The more interesting question concerns why such a substantial percentage of those deaths continue to be experienced users. This naturally segues into the third and fourth questions: is backcountry skiing excessively dangerous, and what level of danger is acceptable when seeking to “live doing what you love”?
I’m not qualified to answer the third question, but I do think post-TGR ski culture, the GoPro universe, and the internet are at least partially to blame, or at the very least need to feature prominently in the discussion. All these tools help to make the extraordinary, if not ordinary, at least much more accessible. The inspirational reach of this is hugely empowering and democratizing, but I cannot help but think it dangerous. Backcountry skiing, at least in the more alpine forms the get close to ski mountaineering, may well fall into the realm of outdoor pursuits I choose to not do because the odds are just not good enough. Running class V whitewater, technical alpine climbing, paragliding; all things I find intriguing but will never do. The objective hazards are too great. While I don’t think statistics are especially useful here, it might reveal more about me than anything else that I find such things off-putting. But the next step in bringing full attention to the human factor in avalanche education has to be the virtue of backing off, or not going in the first place. It’s good to see influential voices like Andrew Mclean and Jeremy Jones discussing this openly.
That said, it’s easy to see I have a hard time hearing “s/he died doing what he loved” occur far more often with reference to certain backcountry user groups. For many reasons, not the least of which because it is almost always he, and increasingly a female partner and children left behind to grapple with the long term application of such an attitude. In the end, the one thought which rises out of the fog here is that this is such a one-dimensional view of the process of finding meaning in life. There are likely to be, or at least I hope, a full and diverse spectrum of interests which unfold throughout 5 or 6 or more decades of adulthood, many of which are interests whose nature is necessarily unforeseen and depth of satisfaction is inscrutable. It strikes me as presumptuous to think that the passion of one decade is so worthy as to risk the annihilation of the rest.