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Young men behaving badly

JULIE SUTOR
summit daily news
Ski patrollers manage a gate at Monetuuma Bowl in February at Arapahoe Basin. Poachers who don't respect gate closures endanger themselves and ski patrol and rescue personnel.
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SUMMIT COUNTY – The amount of open skiing terrain in Summit County continues to decline while spring rolls along. Bad behavior by skiers and boarders, on the other hand, seems to increase as the ropes creep inward.

Poaching closed terrain is among the most common – and dangerous – of spring-time rule-breaking. And young men in their late teens and early 20s comprise the majority of offenders.

“It’s not a new thing,” said Arapahoe Basin general manager Alan Henceroth. “Sometimes they do it, and they don’t realize it’s a hazard. Sometimes they just don’t care. It’s hard to deal with either of those reasons.”

For ski areas, such infractions can be frustrating and confounding, since they put the safety of both riders and rescuers at risk.

“Nobody wants terrain open more than we do. If it’s closed, there’s a good reason for it. This time of year, we’re running out of snow in some areas, and there are enough hazards and obstacles that it’s not a good skiing experience,” Henceroth said.

Furthermore, avalanches are a very real threat in closed terrain, even inside the ski area boundary.

“It might feel hard and safe to (a skier or rider), but we’ve studied the snow, and it doesn’t meet our standards of safety,” A-Basin Ski Patrol director Patrick O’Sullivan said.

Particularly during long warm periods when wet snow doesn’t refreeze overnight, wet slides become a concern, and entering closed terrain could have deadly consequences.

“Just because you have five inches of cold snow on top doesn’t mean there can’t still be slush underneath,” O’Sullivan said.

In response to risky (and illegal) behavior, ski areas pull passes by the dozen and prosecute poachers under the Colorado Ski Safety Act. But neither those punitive measures, nor the obvious safety concerns, seem to stem the tide of rule-breaking each spring.

With their ski passes and their lives at stake, it seems illogical that skiers and riders would take the risks of entering closed terrain. But logic doesn’t heavily factor into the decision-making process for the demographic group most likely to poach, according to University of Colorado psychology professor Tina Pittman Wagers.

“Adolescents are kind of notorious for having poor impulse control,” Pittman Wagers said.

In terms of neurological development, human adolescence spans the ages of 13-25 for males. Females usually mature by age 23. During that period, there are a host of reasons why they take risks that seem unnecessary or doltish to people in other age groups. In fact, adolescent males deal with a perfect storm of evolutionary, physical, social and neurological factors that practically destine them to go out of bounds, both literally and figuratively.

“Even in nonhuman adolescents, like rats and chimps, we see a lot of the same behavior. Adolescent rats do a lot of the same stuff as human adolescent males,” Pittman Wagers said.

At some point during adolescence, males must move away from their families and find somewhere else to live. So for the sake of survival, it becomes advantageous to give less deference to authority.

“This desire to try things their families haven’t and things that other adults have defined as off-limits for them – it’s evolutionarily appropriate, and we all do it, regardless of our species,” Pittman Wagers said.

For the same reason, adolescent males are drawn to novelty. So as ski areas and individual runs close, making laps on the same slopes over and over holds little appeal.

As the importance of family-defined boundaries wane, adolescents become much more preoccupied with the opinions and expectations of their peers. And since authority figures are less important in peers’ minds too, the allure of risky behavior is compounded.

In childhood, people are rewarded for complying with parents’ requests. As an adult, too, rewards come from following the rules, i.e., earning a degree, succeeding at work and obeying the law.

“In adolescence, all that goes out the window. Risky behavior garners a lot of social status from friends who are egging them on and talking about it later,” Pittman Wagers said.

Mating and courtship are also very important to adolescents, further driving risk-taking. Males in particular will take on risks that demonstrate strength and physical prowess. And at that age, their bodies are especially strong and agile, amplifying their sense of what’s possible athletically.

“If (a skier or rider) is looking at an out-of-bounds area, he’s thinking, ‘My buddy is going to think I’m so cool. And he’s going to tell this story to that chick I’m interested in when we meet up at the bar.’ That incentive is much more powerful for an adolescent than for someone who’s 40, who’s thinking, ‘I’m going to get in trouble with ski patrol, or I’m going to break my leg.'”

The deck is stacked against adolescents neurologically as well, when it comes to risk aversion. The prefrontal cortex, which helps humans control impulses, is relatively underdeveloped in adolescents. But subcortical parts of the brain, which deal with emotional information and evaluation of incentives, are very active in adolescents. So for a 20-year-old who’s contemplating ducking a rope, the emotional thrill of fresh powder could be much more salient than the physical or legal ramifications of breaking the law.

“They pay a lot more attention to short-term gain than long-term consequences. They’re paying a lot of attention to especially exciting positive incentives,” Pittman Wagers said.

Julie Sutor can be reached at (970) 668-4630 or jsutor@summitdaily.com.


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