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Backcountry popularity increases

Allen Best
Special to the DailyWith the backcountry increasing in popularity, ski resort operators, federal officials and local agencies don't alway agree on how to best ensure the safety and freedom of skiers and snowboarders headed for slide-prone areas.
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In the case of Beaver Creek’s Stone Creek Canyon, which extends lateral from the top of the ski area down to Rose Bowl, the Forest Service in the 2002 Revised Forest Plan added the area to the Beaver Creek’s permit area. It’s still outside the resort’s operating area, although Vail Resorts personnel have begun studying the work for them should they put it inside the ropes. It won’t be easy.In a dummy case last year, ski patrollers took a sled containing a hypothetical injured person from the canyon back into the ski area. It took 2 1/2 hours.”They have done some snow safety studies, to find out what it would take to do avalanche control in that area,” says Dave Ozawa, snow ranger at Minturn headquarters of the U.S. Forest Service. “And then there’s the matter of creating an egress route from the canyon at the bottom of Rose Bowl. It would take probably cutting some trees and grading a platform.”Far busier is from the top toward the Bald Spot, the slopes flushing back toward Grouse Mountain. Avalanches have been noted in that bowl, but no fatalities since use picked up beginning in about 1996. That area cannot be controlled, because the top part is located within the Holy Cross Wilderness Area. The boundary is located 200 or 300 yards from the backcountry gate.The lack of fatalities there is more a matter of luck then prudence, says Farnham St. John, a manager at Venture Sports in Avon. “I’m amazed at the perception that just because it’s near a ski area that it’s perfectly safe to ski. We’ve been lucky so far,” he says. “If the whole mountain slides, it doesn’t take more than six inches of snow to put you six feet under.”In the East Vail chutes, the dangers are widely known because of the deaths a decade ago. In revising the Forest Plan, the Forest Service considered putting the chutes into the permit boundary for Vail Resorts, to give the resort operator responsibilities for abating risks.While some within the ski company favored this addition, the company ultimately rejected taking over the responsibility, because of the liability and financial cost of management.Besides, many in the community who ski the East Vail Chutes like it just as it is – more risky, but thick with rewards.=========================This is the second in a two-part series examining both the allure and danger of skiing the backcountry.Seven people have now died in an area adjacent to Telluride called Bear Creek Canyon. It is the most extreme mountaineering terrain found in Colorado adjacent to a ski area, says Ken Kowynia, a Forest Service snow ranger who has worked in Summit County, Telluride and Steamboat.”The only place that’s even close is at A-Basin, with the Beavers, but even that is not quite as extreme,” he says.After trying to block access to that area throughout the 1990s, the Forest Service in 2000 restored access via one gate. Backcountry enthusiasts cheered, but, despite danger that last winter produced another fatality, want yet more access.Freedom of choiceAmong those who dislike the continued closure is Bill Masters, the longtime sheriff of San Miguel. Now a declared member of the Libertarian Party, which essentially argues for personal freedom, Masters has refused to press charges against those who violate the rope closure. In any event, federal officials doubt any jury in Telluride would convict anybody for violating that particular closure.When the Forest Service did try once, it ended up with egg on its face. Federal agents armed with Mace confronted four skiers who emerged from the canyon on skis, charging them with illegally crossing ski area boundaries. The skiers denied it – and it turns out they were telling the truth. They had accessed the canyon using a legal if difficult backcountry from the town of Ophir.Bear Creek Canyon is a pickle for the Forest Service because it is not uniformly dangerous, says Kowynia. Yet neither the Forest Service, the ski area, nor the sheriff have the resources to monitor changing conditions. So, the boundary is managed for the worst-case situation. But that invites routine disobedience.On the final day of the ski season last year the closure was violated by 500 skiers.Pulling passesProbably the most effective way to discourage rope-ducking is to remove all skiing privileges for two years, which is the Telluride Ski & Golf Co.’s policy. “If you live in Telluride and you don’t get to ski for two years, that’s not good,” points out Ed Ryberg, regional director of ski area operations for the Forest Service.More warnings at backcountry gates? A sign at the Arapahoe Basin gate warns of extreme danger. But how much stronger can advice be? Given what has happened before, it’s safe to expect more grisly fatalities adjacent to A-Basin and other ski resorts in the future.Still, federal officials say they are comfortable with what they’ve done. Their decision rendered in 1996 by U.S. District Court Judge Daniel Spar buttresses their case. In that case, the family of a woman who had died in an avalanche after leaving Arapahoe Basin sued the ski area and the Forest Service. Both had been negligent, family members said, because they had not done enough to deter her from her choices.The judge rejected the argument. The avalanche, he said, occurred outside of Arapahoe Basin’s well-defined boundaries, and the Forest Service had followed its policy. In the mountains of Colorado, you’re still entitled to make choices – and die as a result of them.


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