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Risking Reward

Essays on loss, and what we can learn from Tahoe’s sports tragedies
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There are a lot of people out there just like me, who feel an urgency to address the issue. To go down that path we first have to examine how we rationalize and justify our culture. We have to open our eyes to the intricate ways we hold onto the path of morbidity and mortality we’ve already witnessed. We honor those who have died, which is understandable. But then we continue to celebrate and revere the very same actions that have taken them away from us. Conveniently, we look right past the real drivers responsible for pushing us further and further, and we engage in things that deepen the very same culture we fear our kids are becoming a part of.

Perhaps it’s time to shed the rationalizations and look further into ourselves and our relationships with our children, each other, and our culture, all of which have quiet, but profound, impacts on our behaviors. Then we’ll be addressing the real issues that have the ability to shift our course.


John Walsh, born and raised in Squaw Valley, is Timy Dutton’s uncle. Dutton was a professional Squaw Valley-based skier who passed away from a midair skydiving collision in 2014. Walsh has also been a ski coach for 25 years and spent four years on the U.S. Ski Team. He now lives in Tahoe City.

After the loss of my nephew Timy, my emotions ranged from disbelief to sadness to anger. Our family had been hit with a gut-wrenching sadness of emptiness. At every holiday, birthday, and family event, we are reminded of the loss. My brother is reminded every day with emotions he never new existed. When you add the circumstances of the tragedy, it makes it that much more confusing.

That being said, I think that the best way to make change to these sad tragedies is like everything else that helps with change: EDUCATION! We need to raise the awareness of making better choices for both the community and our children. Some of the awareness can be about the truth behind these extreme sport sponsors. The companies’ true sponsorship is minimal in finances and life insurance, but super high in pressure and commitments. When these young athletes and their parents understand that their risk vs. reward ratio is so warped, they may challenge some of the bad decisions being made.

Also, we need to change who we truly see as heroes and idols. Is the hero the adult that works hard and gives back to the community by volunteering and coaching, or the person who chooses to do things that many consider to be dangerous with an outcome as serious as death? In the high-risk world of skiing, we need to challenge the ski areas to increase their education of respect and understanding of the mountain. This can be done by properly compensating the educators and coaches with years of experience to pass on their knowledge. We need to take this education to all of the kids in the community through lectures, camps, and mentorship. But my concern is that it may be too late due to the permeation of this invincible attitude in Tahoe.


JT Holmes got his first segment in a ski movie at 17. Since, he has pioneered ski BASE jumping, practiced wing suit flying, and been a stuntman in Hollywood blockbusters. He is now 35, and lives in Squaw Valley.

Accidents happen. I have lost dozens of friends and acquaintances to tragedies ranging from freak accidents to bad luck to statistical inevitabilities. Because of this, I started a program with the High Fives Foundation called B.A.S.I.C.S.

The goal of the program is to prevent the accidents that could have been easily avoided. B.A.S.I.C.S. is an acronym for Be Aware & Safe In Critical Situations. The goal is to raise awareness for the dangers that exist in terrain parks and in the backcountry, and encourage and enable good decision-making. We don’t try to limit progression, but we do try to get kids to use their heads, at least a little bit. As a community, we must encourage one another to make good choices.  

The action sports community is big and growing. We’ll never halt the tragedies within it. With the growing number of participants, we see a proportionally increased number of tragedies. It is just numbers, really. I don’t believe that per capita we are seeing more accidents. More runs, more jumps, more ascents, and more stunts equates to more accidents.  

Then consider the visibility of it all. Thirty years ago very few participants were idolized. Now, we have dozens of platforms for viewing exactly which sports fascinate us. Mountaineers, race car drivers, motor cycle enthusiasts, skiers, and bull riders have been crashing, dying, and getting injured since their sports inception. We’ve just multiplied every number in the equation. It seems staggering. No death goes unnoticed.

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September 14, 2017