Facing Risk

Avalanche Danger Decision Point enroute to Mary's Nipple at Grand Targhee Ski Resort
Avalanche Danger Decision Point en route to Mary’s Nipple at Grand Targhee Ski Resort

Five years ago, I had an epiphany and a book idea was born. The impetus appeared in the August 13th, 2010 edition of my local paper, the Idaho Mountain Express.

New York skier’s heirs sue rescuers for $5M


“DRIGGS, Idaho — The family of a New York man who skied outside the boundaries of a western Wyoming ski area and was rescued the following morning but later died of hypothermia has filed a wrongful death claim.

“Edward J. Fitzgerald made contact with a sheriff dispatcher in Idaho using a cell phone after he realized he was lost last winter.

“The claim contends Idaho officials botched the rescue attempt and failed to communicate with Wyoming rescuers trying to locate the 46-year-old after he went outside Grand Targhee Resort boundaries, which the claim says weren’t adequately marked. ….

“The claim contends that Idaho officials didn’t tell Wyoming rescuers that Fitzgerald said he was by a stream, or that his cell phone battery was getting low.

“The claim also states that when rescuers found Fitzgerald’s tracks just before midnight, the rescuers didn’t search South Leigh Canyon, making ‘the grossly negligent and reckless decision to postpone the search until the next morning.’

“Rescuers have previously said they followed the tracks for about an hour but eventually called off the search for the night because of avalanche concerns, rough terrain and poor visibility.

“The claim also contends that once Fitzgerald was found unconscious and unresponsive about 8:45 a.m. on Jan. 20, there was an ‘unjustified’ delay of more than two hours before he was taken to a medical facility.”

My first thought: Does this New York plaintiff have any understanding of winter snow conditions in the vast terrain in the Rockies? There are many valid reasons to suspend a search until morning. As well, many factors can cause a prolonged extraction by Search and Rescue.

This lawsuit reminded me of The Last Stunt, a film my husband and I had seen as part of the Banff Mountain Film festival a few years previous. The Last Stunt depicts the tragedy of Terry Forrestal, a stunt man for many famous movies, including several in the James Bond series. Forrestal experienced a bad crash while BASE jumping in Norway. A rescue effort was immediately launched by the guides and fellow jumpers. Due to the rugged terrain and immense distances, rescuers knew they would hike throughout the afternoon, evening, and well into the night to reach the precarious ledge where Forrestal had crashed. During the night, having no communication with rescuers and possibly believing himself to be abandoned, Terry Forrestal attempted another BASE jump using his backup emergency chute. He perished in his attempt to get himself down to the floor of the Norwegian fjord. The Last Stunt recounts Terry’s life and the events leading to his death, as well as the rescue efforts.

It also recounts the many, many lawsuits taken out by his sister against the BASE jumping guides and the Norwegian government. Her interviews in the film display the bitterness of this vengeful woman against what she calls “death tourism.” Yes, BASE jumping is dangerous. In most places it is illegal. Should it be outlawed worldwide? Terry Forrestal’s sister thinks so. Others disagree.

These two tragedies and lawsuits, brought to mind another such situation, but with a far different outcome. On April 23, 1994, Barbara Schoener had no way of knowing that her run in the mountains would be her last or that she would become California’s first fatality from a mountain lion attack in 85 years. When she failed to return home, her husband followed her route, but found only her car at the trail head. Searchers looked all that day and were back at it the next morning. Three friends made the gruesome discovery of her body in a shallow grave down a steep embankment well below the trail. Hours later, police discovered that what appeared to be murder was actually a fatal mountain lion attack.

Norman “Pete” Schoener, Barbara’s widowed husband, filed suit against the State of California for not managing its mountain lion population and for not posting warning signs at the trail head. However, in an unexpected turn of events, Pete Schoener soon rescinded his lawsuit stating, “Barbara and I have always taken responsibility for our own actions. Barbara chose to run and, on a very long shot, she did not come back. This is not really the fault of the state. In my opinion, people should take responsibility for themselves.”

Remembering these incidents while reading of the Fitzgerald lawsuit, it struck me that many people are not fully honest with themselves when facing risk. Instead of accepting personal responsibility for risk undertaken, many blame others when tragedy strikes.

This life is fraught with danger. Much as we desire it, it is impossible to completely safeguard against every peril. We have made gains preventing injuries and combating illness. We have acquired an appearance of safety. There is a growing mindset that not only have we attained safety, we are entitled to it. Frustrated with this mentality, I decided to write a book and created a title:

Dare Not Fail: Risk-Taking in the Age of Entitlement

The fire of passion falters when not fueled. The school year started. Life with a preschooler at home and second grader in school caught me up in day-to-day living. My book idea moved to the back burner and was eventually abandoned. However, the fire that I thought extinguished was merely banked. in April 2015, a curious series of events over two weeks fanned my idea back into blazing life.

On April 13th, 2015, Christ and Pop Culture published “Sailing to Paradise: Sin, Disease, and Natural Disaster.” In this article, I wrote how our Pacific Ocean sailing adventures from Mexico to New Zealand brought my husband and me into a deep faith in Jesus Christ. Because of my article, a friend drew my attention to a This American Life rebroadcast: “A Call For Help,” which I had not heard the first time it aired. In the first segment from May 2014, Ira Glass interviews Eric and Charlotte Kaufman. Along with their two young daughters, Eric and Charlotte were rescued off their Hans Christian 36 sailboat, Rebel Heart, in April 2014 while underway from Mexico to the Marquesas. My husband and I sailed the same waters fifteen years previously in our only home, our sailboat. Every ocean sailor knows the day may come when they need to call for help and abandon their home. It is a rare occurrence. As I listened to the Kaufman’s tell of needing to set off their EPIRB to effect a rescue, I wept.

The Kaufman’s arrived stateside to vitriolic accusations that they were unfit parents. Large segments of Americans condemned them for egregiously risking their daughters’ safety. Those condemning the Kaufman’s were outraged at what they perceived as perilous behavior. How dare they take such risk! The error is not sailing offshore with a one-year old and a three-year old. The error is believing the fallacy that complete safety is an attainable goal.

And I wondered, Whatever happened to the Wrongful Death claim filed all those years ago? I went searching and discovered that it had been settled out of court in October 2012. I also discovered that the plaintiff wasn’t content.

“‘They never acknowledged doing anything wrong,’ [Edward J] Fitzgerald[, Jr — father of the deceased] said of both Idaho and Wyoming Search and Rescue teams. …. ‘This is pathetic. People in Idaho and Wyoming think they’re safe, but they’re not.’”
(Wrongful death tort claim settled — The Valley Citizen, October 31, 2012  http://thevalleycitizen.net/stories_news_detail.php?pkStories=643, accessed May 2, 2015)

The persistent American/Western mindset that we are entitled to a safe, comfortable life had me thinking that it was time to resurrect Dare Not Fail.

I live in Idaho near world-famous Sun Valley Ski Resort, where my husband and I ski all winter with our two children. Not only do I not think we are safe while adventuring in God’s gorgeous creation, I know we are not safe from injury and death. I’ve been hit and seriously injured by others twice while skiing. One collision resulted in knee surgery and a long recuperation. The second resulted in a concussion that affected me for weeks. I chocked up both as being part of the risk I take skiing.

Researching the Fizgerald lawsuit, I also discovered that Death in the Tetons: Eddie “Cola” Fitzgerald’s Last 24 Hours, by Susan Tatarsky, was published two months previously in February 2015. I ordered a copy and wrote a review.

Within the week of listening to the This American Life broadcast with the Kaufman’s, a video of Naghmeh Abedini was played at a Bible study I attend. One of the leaders of the study group is a good friend of hers. Mrs. Abedini is the wife of Saeed Abedini, an American pastor imprisoned in Iran for his Christian faith. In this video she speaks of all that God has been accomplishing in her life through the agony of having her husband, her children’s father, imprisoned in Iran and beaten for his faith in Jesus. At the end of the video, Naghmeh read a letter Saeed wrote to their daughter for her eighth birthday, part of which reads:

“I want you to read the book of Habakkuk. He had the same question as you. But see that the Lord answered him in Habakkuk 2:3, ‘the vision comes and doesn’t delay on time, wait for it.’ Mommy and I always had big desires to serve Jesus and had great vision to be used for His Kingdom and for His Glory. So today we pay a cost because God, who created us, called us to that.

“And so I want you to know that the answer to all of your prayers is that God is in control, and He knows better than us what He is doing in our lives and all around the world.

“Therefore declare as Daniel and his friends Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-­Nego did in Daniel 3: 17-­18!

“‘If that is the case, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and He will deliver us from your hand, O king. But if not, let it be known to you, O king, that we do not serve your gods, nor will we worship the gold image which you have set up.’

“And learn and declare as Habakkuk did that even if we do not get the result that we are looking for, God is still good and we WILL praise His Holy Name.”

And I thought: This is it. This is the antithesis of the safe-life entitlement mentality. Our God can save us from tragedy, but even if He does not, yet will I worship Him.

Nothing promises us a safe, comfortable life in this world. And yet, so many think that we are entitled to just that and somehow believe we can attain it. And so, those of us who live in a manner that is obviously risky, we had best not fail! Because failure to stay safe strikes at the root of that numbing lie. Failure to come through the risk unscathed demonstrates that complete safety is an illusion.

I married a man who grew up skiing in the mountains and have lived at a ski resort for more than eleven years. I have skied at Grand Targhee in near white-out conditions as Eddie “Cola” Fitzgerald did. I have sailed the same waters as the Kaufmans. I live an hour away from Perrine Bridge, the only man-made structure in the United States where BASE jumping, the activity that claimed Terry Forrestal’s life, is legal year round without a permit. I live and run in the mountains of Idaho, a state inhabited by mountain lions like the one that killed and ate Barbara Schoener. Also residents of Idaho, the Abedinis live less than a three hours’ drive from me.

Which of these accounts I will investigate further in my book and which I will not, I cannot say at this point. One chapter is near completion. Several other stories have come to my attention in which the consequences of risk have exacted heavy tolls.

The serendipitous events within a two-week time span that resurfaced my old idea were too much to ignore. I discussed it all with my husband. He enthusiastically encouraged me to pursue the writing of Dare Not Fail: Risk-Taking in the Age of Entitlement. So I sally forth into this new project while a small, scared little voice inside timidly declares, here I go

Yes, by the Grace of God, Here I Go.

[Photo: Todd Mandeville]