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USA Today/Denver Post on sidecountry ski deaths

post #1 of 13
Thread Starter 

'Sidecountry' ski deaths spur safety debate

By Ason Blevins, The Denver Post

 

DENVER, Colo. – Two men died last month after leaving ski-area access gates in search of untracked powder. As more skiers and snowboarders venture through access gates atop most every ski area, calls for difficult-to-reach rescues are climbing.

 

The deaths, rescue calls and swelling traffic just outside ski-area boundaries are stirring animated discussion among all players — ski-area operators, their Forest Service landlords and local sheriffs in charge of volunteer-led rescue teams — about how to handle the powder hounds who use lifts to access unmanaged "sidecountry" terrain on the other side of ski-area boundary ropes.

"It's kind of a dilemma," said Mike Ricketts, the Forest Service winter-sports administrator for Winter Park Resort, where snowboarder David Riddle died Feb. 11 after leaving the ski-area boundary through the 40 Gate at Mary Jane. "We're talking about public land and we want to allow access. We are always tossing ideas back and forth. .. looking for things we need to consider."

Lately, those ideas include expanding boundaries in such places as Steamboat and Winter Park, which could put popular sidecountry routes inside ski-area permits. Opening those drainages — such as Fish Creek at Steamboat, Zero Creek and the terrain below 40 Gate at Winter Park — would give the ski areas more control over dangerous snowpack, provide easier access out of steep-and-deep terrain and potentially thwart more accidents.

Other ideas include tweaking the wording on the signs that warn departing skiers that they are leaving the safety of ski-patrolled slopes. Some areas are shifting access gates to make skiers work a bit harder and to discourage so-called "yo-yo skiing" that enables side country users to easily leave and return to the ski area.

But each of these considerations adds a potential new problem. Expanding terrain — which can sometimes trigger intensive environmental review — can push thrill seekers to new out-of-bounds areas.

"Expand boundaries and users will continue to find new, more desirable places to ski," said Janet Faller, the Forest Service's winter-sports administrator for Steamboat.

When Aspen-area mountain rescuers and ski patrollers last season reached a lost woman who had skied out of the access gate atop Snowmass and into the cliff-pocked West Willow drainage, they asked her whether she had read the sign warning her she was leaving the ski area and entering menacing, unpatrolled terrain.

"She said, 'I started to, but it was too much information. But I have a picture of it,'" said Jim Stark, the Forest Service's winter-sports administrator for the five ski areas in the Aspen-Sopris district.

The woman's response prodded a shift in language on the signs. Instead of several paragraphs of legalese warnings, Stark erected a sign about 20 feet past the gate, with a skull and crossbones and language telling passersby they are on their own from that point forward.

Sadly, 26-year-old Snowmass skier Brandon John Zukoff was killed in February in an avalanche in the East Snowmass Creek drainage after leaving Snowmass ski area through an access gate.

At Steamboat, wayward skiers who require ski-patrol assistance in an out-of-bounds area are billed for the patroller work. A difficult rescue can run up to $1,500. In the past month, two injured skiers have been rescued from the area's nearby Fish Creek drainage using local search teams and Steamboat patrollers. One of the patrollers tweaked his knee hauling an injured man out of the densely timbered drainage.

"When the incident happens closer to the ski area, obviously we can get there faster than search and rescue," said Steamboat president Chris Diamond, who is updating his area's master plan and may propose a permit-expanding road into Fish Creek to allow better access and egress. "We've got a lot of issues here. Whose insurance covers our patrollers is one. We need to get all this back on the discussion table."

In Routt, Summit and Eagle counties, ski patrollers participating in a rescue instantly become part of the county's search-and-rescue team once they leave a resort's boundary. Vail's East Vail gate sees as many as 200 skiers leaving the ski area on a busy day, hiking toward a steep bowl that has claimed several lives in recent years. Even with the growing traffic, calls for rescue are rare: fewer than five a year at both Beaver Creek and Vail out of almost 80 regional calls, said Leslie Robertson, president of Vail Mountain Rescue.

"I'd say sidecountry skiers and riders are doing a great job of staying out of trouble around here," Robertson said.

Of the nearly 50 annual calls Summit County Rescue fields for search and rescues in terrain just outside the county's four ski resorts, about 45 are handled by the area's ski patrollers, said Joe Ben Slivka, mission coordinator for the rescue team.

"The patrollers are going to be there faster, so it's the most appropriate response for patient care," Slivka said.

In Grand County, where rescuers routinely respond to lost- or injured-skier calls on heavily trafficked Berthoud Pass, Sheriff Rod Johnson worries that increasing calls are weighing on his volunteer search team.

"If the burden becomes too much, we may have a hard time finding volunteers to make the commitment," Johnson said.

While there is always talk about how to better manage the increasingly adventurous powder-hunting skier, nearly all involved agree that closing boundaries is not a good tactic. The Forest Service is tasked with managing lands owned by the public, and barring access is not a well-liked management tool. Ski areas are anchored in the notion of personal responsibility and keeping yourself safe without heavy-handed rules or deterrents. And backcountry skiers who dedicate a lot of effort toward finding that ethereal floaty turn are rarely supportive of regulations and rules surrounding their pursuit of powder on public lands.

"I don't think any entity should try to control what and where backcountry users access and go," said Telluride skier Kim Havell, who has served on the local rescue team for 12 years and regularly skis the area's most remote lines. "We have to own our own choices and not place blame and the burden of responsibility on regulatory agencies."  

post #2 of 13

"I don't think any entity should try to control what and where backcountry users access and go," said Telluride skier Kim Havell, who has served on the local rescue team for 12 years and regularly skis the area's most remote lines. "We have to own our own choices and not place blame and the burden of responsibility on regulatory agencies." 

 

 

I agree!  I don't plan on ever using it, but I purchase the COSAR card just in case.

 

http://www.huts.org/whats_new/corsar.html

 

Perhaps they should sell something similar to Carte Neige in the US.

 

http://www.natives.co.uk/news/2004/10/16cart.htm

 

If you can't self rescue, then you should be prepared to pay!

post #3 of 13

Five Swiss skiers who didn't know the route had to be plucked out of the Madesimo sidecountry -- just under the tram -- by a helicopter last week. All paid for by my tax money, thank you very much.

http://www.laprovinciadisondrio.it/stories/Cronaca/395346/

post #4 of 13

I usually purchase a Colorado big game hunting license and there is an S&R fee tagged onto each license. I wonder if that would cover me while back country skiing? The cost is negligible compared to the total cost of the tag. Pretty close to the CORSAR cost, I believe. I like the skull and crossbones "you're on your own" message. I'm sure a lawyer would shoot holes in it but that's the sentiment that I believe needs to be conveyed to people. Some people just don't realize what they're getting into. I went into the Fish Creek drainage outside of Steamboat last month with a friendly, local "bear" and had a great run. A tobogan ride out of there would be a lot of work for the local patrollers or S&R guys (and gals). Anybody up for a run down into Berthoud on Thursday? Should I take my beacon, shovel and probe to Winter Park with me? I promise you can have first tracks.biggrin.gif

post #5 of 13

If I would just read the darned link I would've know the hunting license does the same thing as the CORSAR card. The CORSAR card is the means to collect funding from the hikers. The S&R fee on the hunting tag is the means to collect it from the hunters. Maybe the could tag 25 cents onto the lift ticket cost to cover the skiers? It's not like a lift ticket is expensive or anything.rolleyes.gif

post #6 of 13

I think that two things could be done to help. The first is to make avalanche classes more accessible, all the classes that I have seen are usually offered as three day blocks which means at least one day during the week. Why can't they split it into two weekends or something else that offers people more flexibility to their schedules.  

 

Second I think that people need to shift their focus from avalanches. Avalanches are certainly one if the top dangers but in the process many people aren't taught proper traveling and preparation skills. It seems that a number of accidents could be avoided by teaching people the proper amount of water to carry, the essential items to pack such as a map, and how to properly asses when to turn around. Also on maintaining situational awareness, I know, from my limited treks, that I am much more cautious when going up then coming down. after the first turn it's kinda like 'oh it didn't slide I'm good to go.'( I do proper assessment just the mentality that sets in). From talking to others I'm not the only one this happens to. Once we start skiing avalanches kinda of become a secondary thought to how great the skiing is and what line we want to ski.   

post #7 of 13
Guys. Please don't post the full article. Newspapers, especially the Denver Post are immediately filing 200k copyright suits against sites where this is done. Just post the first paragraphs and a link.

Google "righthaven" if you want to wince.
post #8 of 13

My biggest fear when skiing lift assisted backcountry (aka sidecountry), is who might be skiing in on top of me.  I have seen some sketchy stuff lately & tend to go out farther or not at all when the frenzie is on.

JF

post #9 of 13

We don't need to give anybody more control over public land.  

 

Let the folks take responsibility for their own decisions.  If I ski off a cliff and die in the back country/side country it's my own damn fault, and nobody elses.  He who calls the tune pays the piper.

 

I'm all for better wording on signs, like "The ski area ends here, if you go through the gate, you're on your own." 

 

We need more personal responsibility, not just in skiing, but in the whole North American way of life, and by personally responsibility, I don't mean making folks pony up the cash for something they never asked for.

post #10 of 13

The new gear has made the rush to the OB much more popular but teaching people personnel responsibility to some of these riders can be difficult.  Restricting access is not the answer, sharing knowledge with the next generation is key, if you can get them to listen.

post #11 of 13


 

Quote:
Originally Posted by lonewolf210 View Post

I think that two things could be done to help. The first is to make avalanche classes more accessible, all the classes that I have seen are usually offered as three day blocks which means at least one day during the week. Why can't they split it into two weekends or something else that offers people more flexibility to their schedules.  

 

Second I think that people need to shift their focus from avalanches. Avalanches are certainly one if the top dangers but in the process many people aren't taught proper traveling and preparation skills. It seems that a number of accidents could be avoided by teaching people the proper amount of water to carry, the essential items to pack such as a map, and how to properly asses when to turn around. Also on maintaining situational awareness, I know, from my limited treks, that I am much more cautious when going up then coming down. after the first turn it's kinda like 'oh it didn't slide I'm good to go.'( I do proper assessment just the mentality that sets in). From talking to others I'm not the only one this happens to. Once we start skiing avalanches kinda of become a secondary thought to how great the skiing is and what line we want to ski.   


 


Avalanche safety, traveling and preparation skills, and tree well awareness.  See:  http://www.treewelldeepsnowsafety.com/ 


Edited by quant2325 - 4/2/11 at 1:36pm
post #12 of 13
Quote:
Originally Posted by quant2325 View Post


 


 


Avalanche safety, traveling and preparation skills, and tree well awareness.  See:  http://www.treewelldeepsnowsafety.com/tree_wells.php 

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