The O. Zone

Pot-smoking press release further clouds Vail Pass avalanche tragedy

By David O. Williams
Real AspenApril 22, 2013
Why does it possibly matter that the victim of an avalanche near Vail Pass on Thursday had been smoking marijuana – in particular a strain called “Dead-Head OG”?

That was the first question I asked myself after reading a press release from the Eagle County Sheriff’s Office that day detailing the tragic death of 38-year-old Mark McCarron of Westminster.

Thinking perhaps that sheriff’s officials had reason to believe that marijuana consumption had in some way contributed to the accident – particularly because they put the information in the second paragraph of their release – I featured the pot smoking far too prominently in a re-posting of that release on

For that I apologize to the victim’s family and friends and anyone else who was offended. While I’ve taken a beating in the comments section of my own website, it’s nothing compared to the pain they’re feeling – a pain exacerbated by a calloused and inflammatory press release by the sheriff’s office. Readers have been eager to shoot the messenger in this case, while ignoring the source of the message: the Eagle County sheriff.

It’s relevant when alcohol is a factor in a fatal car accident to include that information in a press release, but drinking and driving is illegal. For anyone 21 or older, smoking pot and snowboarding is not a crime in Colorado after voters last year approved Amendment 64.
A deadly slide near Vail Pass on Thursday (CAIC photo).

And, as Michael Roberts of Westword so aptly pointed out in a recent blog, naming the type of pot is even less relevant. Officials apparently saw some irony in the name “Dead-Head.”

The three friends involved in Thursday’s tragedy were reportedly using a snowmobile to make laps in an area called Avalanche Bowl, enjoying the six feet of snow that have fallen in the area since early April. They allegedly were enhancing the experience by getting high. So what?

Weed and snow riding go together like … well, like drinking and snow riding. In Austria, the nation that perfected the art of alpine skiing, it’s all about gliding from one gasthaus to another for a stein of beer, a glass of wine or a shot of schnapps. Olympian Bode Miller famously admitted to racing drunk, although he was then slammed for his bad judgment.

And that’s what Thursday’s story was all about. Clearly, law enforcement officials were trying to imply that McCarron’s judgment – and the judgment of his friends -- was impaired by being stoned. Since they reportedly admitted the fact to police, McCarron’s friends might have had the same concern.

I’ve skied in the backcountry. I’ve skied inbounds under the influence. I’ve never skied the backcountry under the influence. Mostly because I’ve always wanted to have all my wits about me -- to be able to make the right call about skiing a particular slope, or to be able to react quickly and calmly in an emergency.

At the beginning of the season I wrote a column all about making the right call this avy season. I’m in no way implying that McCarron and his friends weren’t able to because they were stoned, I’m just saying that in similar circumstances I might not trust my own judgment.

With all the late spring snow, Colorado’s backcountry is a very dangerous place these days. The awful tragedy on Saturday near Loveland Pass – five snow riders killed in the worst avalanche since the 60s – underscores the need for extreme caution. There have been 11 avalanche deaths in the state this season – six of them since Thursday.

Everyone who’s died so tragically has been well-equipped, experienced and reportedly making informed and educated decisions. But those facts demonstrate how none of that is a guarantee of safety when riding in the backcountry. A clear head should be the final mandatory piece of equipment.

That’s the point, I think, that the sheriff’s office was so clumsily trying to make with its press release, because while riding the backcountry stoned isn’t a crime in Colorado, a fatal avalanche also doesn’t just impact the victim. Rescuers put their own lives at risk to respond.

It’s also worth noting – as Vail Resorts went to great lengths to do in a press release about closing day on Sunday – that “using any ski lift or trail while impaired by alcohol or controlled substances is prohibited under the Colorado Ski Safety Act.”

So there are consequences for being bombed and bombing a run inbounds as well, although ski companies come off as a bit hypocritical on that topic given how much revenue they derive from $10 on-mountain beer sales.

Still, skiing and getting stoned have been around since the 60s in Colorado. Drinking and skiing longer than that. Snow riding under the influence isn’t going away (nor should it), but people just need to use good judgment when they do indulge. And I need to use better judgment when re-posting official press releases.

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