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Powder poachers

Tom Boyd

It’s high noon and a showdown is about to begin. Six snowriders are hiking up the edge of dark timber, making their way to sacred real estate: untouched powder on Beaver Creek mountain. They carry their skis and snowboards on their backs and a few Power Bars in their pockets, but they have no passes, no lift tickets, and no permission to ride the unopened, unprepared, un-patrolled steeps of Beaver Creek.Permission?Who needs it?Enter the security force.Cruising the base of Beaver Creek in sleek white trucks, uniformed Beaver Creek guards spy the interlopers and pull them aside. After a few vague threats, the guards admit that the snowriders have every right to hike, snowshoe or otherwise access open portions of the mountain. Apparently, says one eyewitness, the security guard “just didn’t want (Denver personal injury attorney) Frank Azar calling him.”Azar aside, the security guard cordially threatened the riders, saying that those who were caught making turns would be pulled into the ticket office to face To face what?Shame?Of the six powder poachers who encountered the Beaver Creek guard, only three decided to go ahead with the plan of attack. The showdown was over and three went down.The truth of the matter is that the mountain belongs to the Forest Service a.k.a., “the people.” But some areas are closed off. Skiers (just like hunters and hikers) have every right to head up on the hill, but they’re not allowed to ski, hike, or otherwise be on closed runs. And the base of Beaver Creek is private land, so the sheriff can charge poachers with trespassing if they’re caught on that part of the land.As for the closed areas, the Forest Service says the resorts have the right to close certain areas under the skier safety act. Ski poachers probably aren’t going to get busted for entering a closed area, but the resorts can call the sheriff in for that one, too. And jibbers take note: no matter how perfect it looks, Vail Resorts officials can’t tolerate people building big kickers in their freshly man-made snow. The image of a snowboarder impaled on a snowmaking gun may be enticing, but they’re not going to let you do it.Still, the ski hills have a certain allure for the snow-minded, and the presence of the work crew is actually part of the reason riders skip work to poach the ‘Beav instead of, say, Shrine Pass. That’s the catch the places that are easiest to access are the places that are closed off.”The way the ski company runs trucks and groomers up there makes it much easier to snowshoe it’s better than Meadow Mountain, where you’re walking on three feet of snow,” says a poacher and Vail Resorts employee who wished to remain anonymous. “And you’re more familiar with the terrain; when you’re in a place you’re never been before, you don’t really know what the dangers are.”The poachers themselves say that the desire to ride the mountain comes from a love of skiing and a love of the hometown hill all of which overrides any fear they have of reprimand or injury. And one Vail Resorts official admitted (with a blush) that big snow and early season poaching was a good problem to have, like getting flowers from the class dork.And Vail Resorts seems to “get it” when it comes to a love of skiing.”I understand people’s passion and commitment,” says Vail Chief Operating Officer Bill Jensen. “Still, if you’re going to go up there, you have to have your wits around you.”Vail councilman Chuck Ogilby proved that Vail town government certainly loves to poach. At the Nov. 5 Town Council meeting he reported great skiing conditions on Vail Mountain, which he hiked and skied Nov. 4.Don’t count on calling Frank Azar if something goes wrong: just like any other time in the backcountry, you’re responsible for yourself during early season poaching.”We and the Forest Service have no particular interest in stopping people from hiking up and snowboarding or making turns,” says Vail Director of Mountain Operations Brian McCartney. “But if people would go over and access Vail from the village, or head over to Golden Peak where we’re doing nothing, then they’d stay out of our way and we’d stay out of theirs.”Decappuccino anyone?Remember when Prince Alfonso de Bourbon skied on a closed run at Beaver Creek and ended up nearly decapitating himself on a hanging cable during the 1989 World Alpine Ski Championships? Well that’s nothing compared to what might happen if a skier had an encounter with a winch cable, one of the more interesting hazards lurking beneath the snow right now.Snowcats preparing Vail and Beaver Creek for the season are stabilized by huge cables anchored on the hillside above. The 2,200-foot-long cables – modified from the shipping industry are often buried under the snow. At 14 millimeters thick they may look benign (if they can be seen at all), but they have a tendency to snap out of the snow and whip across the ski run at approximately 200 mph.”The cables can move side-to-side as much as 100 feet, and up and down as much as 30 feet, and they can do it in the blink of an eye,” says Jensen. “It could cut you in half, or cut off your head.”This isn’t the same, friendly form of mountain maintenance that we see during the ski year. The winch cats, cables, snowmobiles, snowmaking guns and snowmaking hoses are all enough to convince resort officials that skiing on a closed run is a bad idea.But being one of the first to ride good steeps, close to town, in familiar territory is drawing about 30-50 people onto each mountain during the weekend.”The people up there hiking and skiing know they’re taking this responsibility,” says poacher Nacen Gray. “They’re not going to sue the mountain. They ski the mountain they like, and they’re doing it because they love to ski.”Gray adds that most poachers head to more remote areas, away from the hustle and bustle of mountain operations and away from closed runs. And when he’s sliding through three feet of fresh powder, alone on the slopes long before they’re trampled by thousands of visitors, he can easily hear the sound of machinery shattering the quiet, then get well out of the way.So is it worth the risk?”Definitely,” he says.


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