VAIL, Colorado - The East Vail Chutes were listed as No. 6 on the ESPN Sidecountry Awards list of the top 10 stashes of sidecountry terrain in 2011. The terrain's recognition on the national level highlights its popularity and allure, but more importantly, it highlights a danger that is becoming increasingly accessed by inexperienced skiers and snowboarders.
Sidecountry is a term that describes backcountry terrain that is easily accessible, usually via ski area boundaries, but ski patrollers, resort operators and first responders to backcountry rescues hate the term. Beaver Creek Snow Safety Director Jeff Thompson said there is no such thing is sidecountry - you're either in-bounds, or out-of-bounds, period.
Such local backcountry areas that are referred to as sidecountry include the Bald Spot, accessible from Beaver Creek, and East Vail, accessible from Vail Mountain. U.S. Forest Service Eagle-Holy Cross District Ranger Dave Neely said hundreds of skiers and snowboarders access the East Vail backcountry each day.
"Backcountry/sidecountry access is probably the biggest issue we're facing in ski area management now and into the future," Neely said.
Vail athlete Hunter Schleper was in the backcountry a few days ago and said he saw people without any gear, asking Schleper and his friends where the terrain headed. That was the same day Schleper, an experienced backcountry skier and former U.S. Ski Team member, witnessed his friend trigger an avalanche.
Schleper said he was with two other friends skiing out of bounds, although he wouldn't say where exactly they were skiing. Schleper, 21, went first and checked the terrain.
"I skied it, stopped at a tree, looked up and waited 30 seconds or so, then one of my buddies went," Schleper said. "Then, on his second turn, it just popped - we heard a shotgun sound."
The sound was the sound of an avalanche roaring down through the gully they were skiing. Schleper was holding onto a tree and yelled up to his friend to get out of there. His friend was able to ski to the other side of the gully and also grab onto a tree.
Schleper said he's been in slides before, but this "was crazy." He said his group went into the backcountry knowing the dangers, and they were prepared with airbag float packs, avalungs and other avalanche gear.
But, too often, people enter the sidecountry without the proper gear. Schleper said when he sees people who don't belong back there, he asks what they're doing and whether they know where they're going.
"I try to point them back to where they came from," he said.
Shane Kennedy said on the Vail Daily's Facebook page that the worst case of ignorance in sidecountry terrain he has seen was when two guys wearing Kansas City Chiefs jackets, blue jeans and gaiters were standing on top of the cornice above the suicide chutes above Mushroom Bowl.
"Thankfully, we were able to talk those two yahoos out of dropping in there," Kennedy said.
'On your own'
The accessibility is a concern, and Vail Ski Patrol Director Julie Rust said she thinks more and more people are heading into the backcountry each year. She said the ski patrol's concern is that those who aren't prepared have an expectation that the resort's ski patrol can help them if something goes wrong.
"Our focus is in the ski area boundary," Rust said. "When you leave the boundary, you really are on your own. ... They should have all the right equipment, know how to use it, have a partner, know where they're going, have a plan and they shouldn't be able to turn around when they see the conditions might be more than they want to take on."
The Colorado Avalanche Information Center reports that an average of 25 people die in avalanches every year, based on data over the last 10 years. The avalanche danger in the backcountry right now is considerable, or a Level 3 out of five levels of danger.
"On Saturday, a snowboarder was partially buried in an avalanche on a northeast-facing slope below treeline near Vail," reported Tim Brown, of the avalanche center, on Thursday morning. "The slide was up to 5 feet deep and 200 feet wide. He triggered the avalanche after dropping off a 30-foot cliff and rode the debris for about 700 feet. On Sunday, two skiers were caught and one was fully buried and recovered without serious injuries in the northern end of the Sawatch zone. They triggered the slide on a northeast-facing slope above treeline near Buckeye Peak, south of Fremont Pass. The second skier deployed his balloon pack and was able to locate his partner with a beacon search, a visual clue (ski pole) and by hearing his partner moan under the snow."
The slides highlight the center's main concern right now: persistent slabs.
"Backcountry travelers triggered this type of slide almost daily over the last week, and our snowpack is still touchy," Brown reported. "You are most likely to find this problem on northwest, north, northeast, east, and southeast aspects. Our snowpack is still very shallow in most places and many of the areas with the deepest snow are the most dangerous."
Some backcountry enthusiasts say the risk is worth it, while others are holding back. Local professional skier Drew Rouse has been in the backcountry this week and said "if you use your head, it's really fun right now."
Assistant Managing Editor Lauren Glendenning can be reached at 970-748-2983 or firstname.lastname@example.org.