Where and when the idea that safety gear in and of itself makes people safe entered the American mainstream is unclear, but it has now reached the point of a dangerous absurdity.
Forget the mountains of Alaska dotted as they are with the locations of those who wore an avalanche beacon into the death trap that killed them thinking the technology would save them if the worst happened.
Turn your attention instead to Portage Glacier about 50 miles east of Anchorage where it is only by luck or the grace of God that no one has died in recent weeks.
Skater Paxson Woelber made news across the state and beyond when he last week captured video of the ice on the lake rolling after a huge piece of the glacier calved. The photo above this story is his best rendition of the size of the piece of ice that fell.
Using the people in the photo as a measure of scale, you can estimate the ice to be 50 to 60 feet tall and probably about twice as wide. Another photo appears below.
Note in the larger photo the people within yards of the ice that fell. Compared to some of the photos you will find if you spend some time searching Instagram, they are rather far away from the ice that broke free.
On Instagram, you can see people posing in fractured ice at the glacier’s face, standing under overhanging seracs, wandering among obviously freshly fallen and refrozen glacier ice with their infant children and pets, and more.
“My girlfriend and I were scrolling through photos from Portage on Instagram yesterday,” Woelber emailed when asked if he had any photos of people close to the glacier face in the days before the ice fell. “People were actually climbing around ‘inside’ the calving face, between the big plates on the face. One person posted a photo of herself holding her infant on a big pile of fresh rubble underneath the calving face, with the caption ‘me and my baby at Portage.'”
If you spend some time on Instagram as Woelber did, you will also find a significant number of people responding to the many photos by saying, “Oh, I want to do that.”
Only no one should want to get within a quarter to a half mile of that glacier’s face unless he or she has a death wish. The ice poses dangers no amount of safety gear can mitigate.
There is simply no safe way to get close.
Helmets, helmets, helmets
And yet, in the wake of Woelber’s video, came the inevitable warning to take safety gear.
Chugach National Forest spokeswoman Alisha King told the Anchorage Daily News that her agency recommends against venturing onto Portage Lake at all, but if people must go they should carry safety gear and feel trained in how to rescue themselves.
None of the safety gear would do a thing to prevent people from being crushed to death by thousand of pounds of falling ice. The suggestion of safety gear is actually a dangerous distraction. It could lead the wholly ignorant to go out and buy the gear thinking it will protect them.
If a big chunk of ice calves off the glacier and hits you, you will die. It will not matter what gear you bring with you. You will be smashed like a bug hitting the windshield of an automobile at 65 mph.
Yes, some of the gear suggested by the newspaper – a throw rope and “ice tools, such as an ice pick (sic), for self-rescue” – could be useful for safety in case of thin ice on Portage Lake or any lake.
Throw ropes and ice picks (not ice tools; those are used for climbing) are a good idea for everyone skating in a group on a lake with thin ice, and ice picks should be a norm for anyone traveling on ice anywhere whether in a group or not.
I wear mine around my neck whether snowmachining or skating, even fat biking on ice. Ice picks can be punched into firm ice and used to leverage your body out of the water if you fall through.
You can find a video demonstrating their use for self rescue here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QKpAzvXSldA. The website Instructables has instructions on how to make your own picks, or what it calls “ice claws” for only a few dollars, or you can go to many Anchorage sporting goods stores or snowmachine dealers and buy a set.
Along with wearing the picks around your neck, you might also want to wear a fire-starting kit in a waterproof pouch. It would suck to pull yourself out of a potentially icy grave only to die of hypothermia if your are far from nowhere with no access to warm, dry clothes or with no one around to provide the same.
Safety gear always makes sense, but only if you know how to use it. And only if it doesn’t lull you into the sense that you are now safe because you are carrying it.
It could kill you
Anyone who concludes there is some safety gear that is going to save him or her from the ice of a calving glacier ice is suffering from a dangerous delusion.
And any news organization that even obliquely suggests there is a safe way to approach the face of Portage Glacier is being dangerously naive. There is no safe way to approach that glacial face. Anyone getting close is playing the natural world’s version of Russian roulette.
Safety, sad to say, isn’t about luck. Safety is, by and large, about judgment. Unfortunately, as a society, we increasingly undervalue judgment and overvalue gear.
It’s so much easier to tell people to just “buy this crap and you’ll be safe” than to advise people on sensible behavior.
Maybe we can blame part of this gear fixation, and especially the helmet fixation, on cyclists who started wearing helmets in the 1970s instead of demanding safer cycling infrastructure, or maybe more so on companies that saw a big money-making opportunity.
A lot of the country’s present helmet mania seems to track back to that period.
Helmets were good money for business, and a wonderful crutch for politicians who don’t want to deal with systemic safety problems affecting a minority of voters, especially if spending money to make that minority safe offends the majority.
Who needs safe bike trails? Shut up. Put on your helmet. You’ll be fine.
Put politics and capitalism together, stir in some good intentions, and you’ve got the perfect mix to make helmets the go-to solution for safety on many fronts: Biking, skiing, skateboarding, paddling and more.
And, of course, the fact that helmets might indeed save a life only helps fuel the helmet push. If it saves but one life….
It’s surprising no one has introduced legislation to require that the elderly, many of whom die from head injuries suffered in falls, be required to wear helmets from the time they get out of bed in the morning until they go back to sleep. But that could be coming soon.
A 2011 study found the fall mortality-rate for those over age 65 averaged almost 41 per 100,000 from 2003 to 2007. For comparison sake, the bicycle death rate is 2.3 per million (0.23 per 100,000). Even in Florida, the deadliest state in the nation, the cycling death rate is below 1 per 100,000.
There’s a far better argument for elder helmets than cycle helmets, which is not to say there isn’t more that could be done to make cycling safe. U.S. cycling death rates are significantly higher than those in Europe where authorities have focused less on helmets and more on creating infrastructure that protects cyclists and pedestrians from motor vehicles.
“In contrast with the United States, many northern European cities have extensive auto-free zones in much of their centers; most neighborhood streets traffic-calmed with speed limits of 30 kilometers per hour (20 miles per hour) or less; sidewalks on both sides of almost every street; pedestrian refuge islands for crossing wide streets; clearly marked crosswalks, often raised and with special lighting; and pedestrian signals at intersections and mid-block crosswalks with ample crossing times,” a 2017 study in the American Journal of Health of Public reported.
“Facilitating safe and convenient cycling, many northern European cities have extensive systems of separate bikeways, both on-road and off-road, often including priority traffic signals and advance stop lines for cyclists at intersections. US cities only began building separate bike facilities in the 1990s, and, even currently, they lag far behind northern European cities in the extent, quality, and integration of their bikeways.”
But who needs actual, sensible safety solutions when we can just tell people to buy safety gear, and they’ll be safe?
And helmets are a wonderful, wonderful thing in theory. If they made the brain within the head within the helmet function better, they would be the answer to many problems.
The sad reality, however, is they do nothing to improve human judgment, and at least one behavioral study has suggested they might serve to undermine judgment, which would only serve to compound the problem at Portage Glacier.
People headed for the glacier don’t need to be told about safety gear; they need to be bluntly told to stay the hell away from the face of that ice. Exactly how far?
I don’t know. Some have suggested a quarter-mile. Something tells me that might be too close.
Surely the U.S. Forest Service, which at one time prohibited kayakers on the lake in the summer because the agency considered the waterbody an “unsafe” place to paddle, can figure out a safe distance and at the very least warn skaters, studded-tire cyclists and walkers of how far to stay back before someone gets killed.
Such advice would be way more useful than any safety gear.