Jail & Sue-age

| November 4, 2012

It’s a sign of the times when you attend an avalanche workshop and the topics include getting thrown in jail and/or sued for backcountry skiing.  Both of these topics, and a few others, were presented at the 2012 Utah Snow & Avalanche Workshop last Saturday.

The getting thrown in jail part obliquely had to do with the conflict between Dawn Patrollers and the Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT).  On days when UDOT is blasting Little or Big Cottonwood Canyon, a single Dawn Patroller climbing up one of the major avalanche paths that threaten the roads can completely shut the artillery program down. Shutting the roads down on big three-day weekends with good weather and new snow  is  worth millions of lost dollars to the resorts. To me, the ultimate solutions seems to be an avalanche-proof road or transit system, but in the meantime, an SLC ordinance is being enforced to keep the public off of public land at inopportune times.

Little Pine Dawn Patrol, aka the Jailhouse Blues.

The getting sued part started with the Taylor Mountain incident and expanded into the general issue of crowded backcountry skiing areas.  The obvious solution here is to avoid crowded areas, but the reality is that if you only have a few hours and want to get the best bang for your hiking buck, the choices may be limited.  In the case of Teton Pass, Jay Pistono estimated that it had more annual traffic than a small midwest ski resort, which I’d agree with in the case of some of the more popular Wasatch trailheads. Between sidecountry, slackcountry, dawn patrollers, one & done’rs and trad touring, plus all of the other hikers, bikers, snowshoers and flower sniffers, there is a shitload of people in the frontcountry nowadays, which causes all sorts of social (ie: legal) issues.

Kindred spirits or legal nightmares?

Rick Mrazik, an attorney who works for Three Dead White Guys Law Office, had a great presentation on the reality of getting sued for triggering an avalanche on top of someone else in the backcountry. According to Rick, a huge part of getting sued or not would first depend on how big a dickhead you are (my words, not his). If you are a belligerent, unapologetic a-hole after the fact, the victim, or victim’s family, is much more likely to sue you.  Whether they win (unlikely) or not is almost irrelevant compared to the legal fees you could incur, especially if there’s a homeowner’s insurance policy or family money involved. In the end, the attorney’s would be the main winners, and to protect against this, you can now buy a customized insurance plan from XInsurance, who was the main sponsor of the workshop. This is an interesting conundrum – if you buy this type of insurance and have an incident, you are probably more likely to get sued just because you are insured.  If you don’t and get sued, you get wiped out. As always, being broke, uninformed and clueless seems to be your best defense.

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Category: Random

About the Author ()

Andrew McLean lives in Park City, Utah and is a gear designer, writer, photographer, ski mountaineer, climber, Mountain Unicycle rider and father of two very loud little girls.

Comments (8)

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  1. Rich Mrazik says:


    I’m glad you enjoyed the presentation. I recgonize that some of your post reflects a tongue firmly in cheek, but “being broke, uninformed, and clueless seems to be your best defense” is not the message I was trying to convey.

    The backcountry is getting more crowded and we all need to act a little less like rugged individuals and a little more like part of a community. As with staying alive in avalanche terrain, the best defense is informed avoidance. Just by acknowledging that our actions–ski cutting a slope, kicking a cornice, dropping in on skiers below us–may have consequences for others, we’re most of the way to avoiding accidents that may lead to litigation.

    I’m not suggesting any of us need to be less rad when ripping around in the backountry. We just need to realize that we’re all in this together, and sometimes we need to pause or dial it back to avoid blundering in to a situation that hurts others.

    Thanks for a great blog. Pray for snow.


  2. Andrew says:

    Hi Rich – no, the broke, uniformed and clueless was my own spin on things and wasn’t at all the message I got from your presentation.

  3. Paul Diegel says:

    “As always, being broke, uninformed and clueless seems to be your best defense.”
    Hmmm. Seems like that has been tried in a lot of different fields without a lot of success.

  4. Andrew says:

    My comment about being broke, uninformed and clueless has more to do with your chances of getting sued, not with what I would consider good backcountry practice. Consider the two options below:

    1) A 21 year old with no safety equipment, beacon or avalanche training, lots of student debt and no family assets crosses out of a resort BC gate behind a group of people. Traversing to the right to get a fresh line, he triggers a slide which kills two people below him.

    2) A professional mtn guide with tons of training, experience, liability insurance and a paid-off mountain chalet triggers a slide on top of unrelated party below him which results in two fatalities.

    I’d guess the college student would have little chance of being sued because he was genuinely uniformed and had no assets worth suing for, whereas the guide would most likely be sued as he should have known better (?) and had insurance and assets.

  5. Brian says:

    Andrew-did this photo of Argenta parking happen to be on the day you ran into the AMGA course on God’s Lawnmower?

  6. Andrew says:

    Hi Brian – Hmmm, we ended up skiing over in the GLM direction on that day, but I don’t recall seeing any one else, let alone an AMGA course. The photo was taken in 2012, if that helps.

  7. Brian says:

    Oh I remember being told that you were down near the bottom of GLM while we dropped in almost off the summit of Kessler into GLM. Needless to say there was a bit of flailing, this was in 2010 though

  8. Terry says:

    Andrew, in case you missed it, here’s a crazy lawsuit lost in Canada recently.


    “A widow whose husband died while helicopter skiing in southeastern B.C. has lost her lawsuit against his “ski buddy” for not keeping an eye on him.”

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