Expert? Think again | SierraSun.com

Expert? Think again

Michael S. Terwilliger
On Fire

I just finished reading the editorial “Staying safe on the slopes” (Sierra Sun Feb. 25) based off the recent fatality near Anderson Peak when a party of folks were caught in an avalanche.

As I read about this unfortunate event, two things jumped out at me as they always do when I read about the most recent fatality in the hills. One is almost every time the person or party was “experienced.” And two, there is no discussion about accountability. Let me elaborate some.

When I first moved here it did not take me long to develop an attitude that goes something like this: The next time I have a person who is under 50 years old tell me they are a professional river guide in the summer and a professional backcountry guide in the winter, I am going to slap them. I don’t have a problem with folks who do that for a living, what I have a problem with is the attitude.

Frankly, there are not very many experts in this life at all, regardless of the occupation or endeavor. The expert opportunities are even less when you are 22, and I can’t print what those are in this paper. The expert/experienced attitude is killing people on a fairly regular basis.

I wish I had a dollar for every person my department has pulled out of the Truckee River during the summer when they were with rafting or kayaking, as many people do. They were, of course, experts or experienced.

How about the people we pull off the rocks off Old 40 who complain that it took the fire department too long to get them down after they fell and broke something or died. They tell me they are experts as well, but who fell here?

Avalanches are fairly common and we share stories around the firehouse about the last three or four folks who have died locally from sliding and shifting snow, all who were “experienced” backcountry skiers.

I can’t begin to tell you about the numerous deaths and horrific life-changing events we haul to various care facilities in the ambulances from our ski areas each winter, and almost all of those folks are “experienced” skiers.

Based of my experiences, here is an observation: I don’t know who designates you or anybody experienced or an expert in something like rafting, skiing, backcountry touring or rock climbing, so let me share a secret. Just because you have done it for some time and survived does not make you an expert. I know people who have skied the backcountry for 30 years and have about six months experience. You see, experience is only as good as your ability to absorb or learn, and as we have seen recently the experience teacher grades real hard.

It is not difficult to see where I am going here. When you head for the hills, just remember that you are not as good or as smart or as experienced as the elements you are about to challenge, so use your coconut. Take this advice if nothing else: Be concerned when the person you are with says they are an expert, or at least let them go first.

My next issue is accountability. I am not advocating people stay in their homes where it is safe. By no means, go out and enjoy this great place and play. Just keep in mind there is a severe toll that will be paid when you disregard nature’s ability to hurt you. That toll is a life of pain for lost friends and loved ones.

There is another pain that pales in comparison. That would be the loss of money. You see, these groups or agencies that are prepared to come get the less fortunate cost money to develop, equip, train and maintain. When we come get you there is a cost and it will be passed on to you. You are accountable for your actions when you embark on these journeys. So if the fear of injury does not bother you, or the fear of a broken heart does not bother you, think about your wallet.

All right, I am off my soapbox on this issue, but let me finish by way of explanation. I know you are an expert and I know you are experienced. I just wanted to wake up those of you who have read this far. Please be careful and be aware of your limitations.

And while I have your attention, please make sure my fire engines and ambulances can see the address on your house. Have fun and be safe.

Michael S. Terwilliger is chief of the Truckee Fire Protection District.