Hadley Hammer: Skiing & Social Media Ethics

Open Mic is the series on BLISTER where we invite various people in the outdoor industry to say what they have to say, and share whatever it is they feel like sharing at this particular point in time.

Today, we hear from Hadley Hammer:

Hadley Hammer: Skiing & Social Media Ethics, BLISTER
Hadley Hammer in Chamonix (photo by Pierre Cadot / Yucca Films)

“I went out that day because I saw a story. I saw a story of that face. I’m pretty sure those guys went there that day because they saw the same thing on social media.”

– Ari Tricomi, professional freeskier

During the winter of 2021, professional freeskier Ari Tricomi went out to check a zone for a potential film day in Zillertal, Austria, that she saw on a friend’s Instagram. When her group got there, they decided it was unsafe to ski. So they turned around and spent the day riding safer slopes nearby.

A few laps later, while riding the gondola up, they saw a powder cloud coming down the face. Instead of riding the face, they ended up assisting in an avalanche rescue. They unburied a 15-year-old boy. A boy who would lose his life the next day in the hospital. His best friend saw the whole thing.

When emulating your favorite basketball star, your risk of dying is pretty low. But emulating your favorite backcountry skiers carries a different set of consequences. Any way you slice it, backcountry skiing is a dangerous sport. And the consequences can be injury at best and death at the worst. Snow doesn’t always provide clear feedback.

As a skier, I know sometimes I’ve gone out and made good decisions and sometimes I’ve gone out and made bad decisions that I’ve gotten away with. Learning to move through avalanche terrain takes years of experience, close calls, education, and practice. And even then, we are making educated guesses. Even the experts aren’t operating risk free. Emulating a pro skier could cost you your life.

I have been wondering what my moral obligation is to the people that follow me. What, as pro skiers, is our moral obligation to our communities? Do social media posts need disclaimers, context, or lengthy explanations?

Hadley Hammer: Skiing & Social Media Ethics, BLISTER
Nearing the summit of the Grand Teton (photo by Ben Hoiness)

Formerly, ski content only came out in every fall with three to six annual ski films that were released on a country wide tour and eventually made it to smaller tv screens through VHS tapes and DVDs. They would get riders excited for the season to come. A season that was usually about two months away from when most people would first see the movie. The film schedule created a natural gap between the aspirational skiing shown on screen, and the actual skiing that was done by viewers.

These days, the real-time nature of social media, with content being delivered all winter long, shortens that gap. And viewers have near instant and intimate access to what professionals ski daily during the winter. We aren’t just seeing the polished Alaskan spine lines, but also the backyard laps. The aspirational becomes inspirational. And often, zones that are posted on social media see increased traffic the next day. Instagram has become a tool not just for entertainment, but to gather beta about local conditions.

I spoke to Ari two seasons later about the accident. “I didn’t know what an avalanche was until that day,” she tells me. “I’ve never seen snow, my favorite element, be such a killer.”

Ari is a trained professional skier. She does annual avalanche training provided by the production company, Legs of Steel. She has since taken first aid courses after learning through that experience that you need to know more than just how to find and dig out someone, but also know how to treat and / or stabilize them in the field. And she has looked at her relationship with social media.

For her, that relationship is a work in progress. In a video she posted days after the accident, Ari said, “Maybe we have such a bigger responsibility towards kids with Instagram and social media we produce. We mostly show the beautiful sides of things and the hype of skiing a line, but most of the time, there is no explanation of why we chose to ski the line.”

When I asked her how she feels, two years later, about social media, understandably it’s still not completely clear. “I have tried since that day to share a bit more about safety and conditions and my decision making, but at the same time I don’t want to become an avalanche bulletin. It’s pretty hard to find the balance between being a cool skier and delivering a good message.”

It’s unrealistic and, I’d even argue, unfair for athletes to have to put disclaimers on everything they do. The inefficiencies of disclaimers themselves are well researched, and I’m not sure they would be an effective solution for…for what I guess is the root of the question: what are pro skiers for? For education? For Inspiration? For beta? For advertising?

Borrowing a tactic from outdoor brands, Avalanche Canada, a non-profit dedicated to Canada’s public avalanche safety, has their own ambassador program. Prolific skiers, snowboarders, ice climbers, and alpinists of all ages are part of their program: Avalanche Canada’s vision is to inspire, engage, and empower recreationists to enjoy Canada’s winter backcountry and be safe from avalanches. Our ambassadors are helping us achieve that goal by endorsing avalanche safety through their networks. These riders are highly accomplished in the winter backcountry and we are excited to have them on our team, promoting Avalanche Canada training programs, our Mountain Information Network and our forecasts. With their help and influence, our messages of awareness and safety can reach a wider audience.”

Hadley Hammer: Skiing & Social Media Ethics, BLISTER
Spine Skiing, Yukon Canada (photo by Tom Gaisbarger)

Chris Rubens, now in his second decade as a professional skier, is part of Avalanche Canada’s ambassador program. The area around Revelstoke has had a scary snowpack this season, with bad persistent layers. Rubens has been using his social media to bring awareness to the situation and equally to offer alternatives in the form of safer zones and cross-country skiing antics. I chatted with Chris about his feelings, and he said:

“The short answer is I do think we have a moral obligation to share [the education] side of it. My take on it has changed a bit and I’m trying to explain to people the consequences. I don’t think many people fully understand the consequences, and to be fair, you don’t understand the consequences till you’re a part of a serious accident. You’re not the same person for the rest of your life. And that needs to be a part of your decision making.”

As an athlete, sometimes we just want to feed our egos and share the rad stuff. It’s part of our job. But in talking to Chris (who does — and posts — plenty of rad stuff), the rationale to moderate this kind of content starts to make more and more sense. “I think the majority of people are just trying to make the decisions better and you as an athlete, you have this powerful position where what you say has a lot of weight. With sketchy conditions [this season], I was super conscious of what I was posting. I can ski fast, and I know where I can safely ski. But to send the average person down the same slope would be dangerous. I would ski it but not post it. It didn’t go with the message I want to portray right now.”

There’s so much negative on the internet, but the internet can be a tool for good. And having a net positive impact, feels like a good contribution to an otherwise divisive media. What Chris posts doesn’t impact my adrenals. It inspires, educates, and is beautiful.

In any of the ski towns I’ve lived-from Jackson to Innsbruck to Chamonix — there is a lot of social media that is rather unsoothing. GoPro videos of near misses, people posting their adventures on high-risk days, and the constant downplaying of risk with word choices like “jaunt, romp, cheeky, stroll, and boop” when describing alpine lines with high consequences. This particular form of ego stroking drives me a bit nuts. Yet I understand that the context of my life shapes my own personal reaction to this kind of content-reactions that are highly sensitive. My boyfriend died under a pile of snow. As have friends, mentors, and members of shared communities. And those losses suck. My life has gone on and is still beautiful, but is in no way better because those people died in the mountains.When I see someone post about a near miss on Instagram, I don’t see entertainment, I see how close their own friends and families were to having a massive hole in their lives.

Does that mean “they” should stop posting such content? Probably not. Did I stop following those accounts? Yes. But I’m a fairly rational adult. I can make those kinds of decisions and distinctions. What I can’t get out of my head is the 15-year-old boy.

We can’t forget that we are talking about human lives here. Those are the stakes of the game we are all playing. And as Spider-Man’s Uncle Ben (or Voltaire depending on your preferred source) said, “with great power comes great responsibility.”

Maybe there’s no clear answer whether athletes have an ethical responsibility. But why not take the responsibility anyway? Why not give context when needed? Why not hold off on posting until conditions are appropriate? Why not educate where and when you can? As Ari said towards the end of our conversation, “Maybe we can use this tool for good things, too.”

About Hadley Hammer

Hadley Hammer is a professional skier. She is also a reader, writer, and a multitude of other things…

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3 comments on “Hadley Hammer: Skiing & Social Media Ethics”

  1. This is a great article from a great outdoor professional bringing awareness to how dangerous the sport we love can be. Thanks for sharing this with the world.

  2. This really resonated with me. Now I can’t stop seeing the words “boppin” or “stroll” all over backcountry ski activities in avalanche terrain sometimes with triggered slides!

  3. thanks for the thoughtful dialogue. its this type of conversation that can promote a changing of the of lens through which we experience social media.

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