Government management of citizen risk has long been a subject of debate. An infamous example linked to outdoor recreation dates back to 1865, following the deaths of four people on one of the world’s most iconic mountains. Lessons learned from that moment in history still apply to Colorado’s outdoor recreation landscape today.
On Switzerland’s first successful ascent of the 14,692ft Matterhorn, an English leader and his team of six ran into big trouble on their descent. Ultimately, a rope would break and four people would fall 4,000 feet to their deaths, one of whom was an English lord.
Although followed by a tragic stroke of luck, the summit of the Matterhorn was a major achievement in mountaineering. With the disaster that accompanied the ascent and a subsequent investigation into whether or not the survivors were to blame (they were exonerated), the event attracted widespread media coverage in Britain and around the world. As a result, the dangers of mountaineering were exposed to the public.
Given the lack of communication technology in the 19th century, it is unlikely that many people had a thorough understanding of what the sport of mountaineering entailed, including the severity of the risks. It has been said that no other mountaineering accident “has created such a sensation”, with coverage of this event putting the dangers associated with mountaineering in the public eye.
According to a New Yorker article, the accident prompted Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom to consider banning her citizens altogether from participating in the sport. The Huffington Post paraphrases the Queen, saying “she would never again allow English royal blood to be wasted on the Matterhorn”. Similarly, a New York Times article published at the time of the event reportedly wondered “why…the best blood in England [was to] wasting oneself by climbing hitherto inaccessible peaks.”
Ultimately, a ban on mountaineering or the ascent of the Matterhorn would never be enacted, and the publicity that accompanied Queen Victoria’s suggestion would increase interest in the summit among brave souls around the world. This boom in interest would help the nearby town of Zermatt become the renowned travel destination it is considered today.
While a ban on mountaineering might seem like a far-fetched proposition, there are several recent examples of where dangerous events on the slopes have led to sport-related restrictions.
For example, a number of accidents eventually led Nepal to ban foreign climbers from attempting a solo ascent on many popular routes. Although not quite the same as a mountaineering ban, several roads in the United States have been closed in recent years due to liability issues related to permission to access terrain. dangerous, especially the summit of Mount Lindsey in Colorado.
A common factor with these rules, restrictions, and regulations being put in place tends to be the prevalence of accidents on a certain trail or in a particular area. This highlights how important it can be for the local outdoor recreation community to manage risk while recreating, planning ahead and working to gain experience over time instead of taking too much risks too quickly.
Those entering the Colorado Wilderness should make sure they have the right gear, have adequately researched the adventure, and have someone know where they are going and when they will be back. Not only could following these basic safety principles help prevent another accident-related trail closure, it could also save a life.
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