Slide-prone backcountry areas growing more and more popular with skiers and snowboarders | VailDaily.com
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Slide-prone backcountry areas growing more and more popular with skiers and snowboarders

Allen Best/Special to the Daily

The victim was typical. Friends described him as an expert, even an “extreme” skier. He was relatively young, 30, and had often used Arapahoe Basin’s lifts to gain access to the high backcountry.

From the backcountry gates he and his friends traversed to an area called the Rock Garden. Tilted 35 to 40 degrees, the avalanches risk there is high more often than not, say skiers familiar with the area. After a storm last March, which was furious enough to shut down Interstate 70 for several days, the snow was particularly fickle, pushing the avalanche danger to “high/extreme.”

Because of that risk, the four men descended the slope in two-minute intervals. The second skier was part of the way down when the snow fractured four to six feet deep. Quickly shimmying up a tree, he survived, but Kenneth Carl “K.C.” Ratcliff was not so lucky. The snow flung him down the hill, battering him against trees. Not buried but badly injured, he was removed within an hour only to die soon after at a medical clinic. He was the seventh fatality near Arapahoe Basin since 1982.

From Vail to Snowmass to Telluride, fatalities among “out-of-area” skiers have been common enough to become predictable. For ski area managers – but especially the U.S. Forest Service – out-of-area skiers pose a sometimes tricky question of providing backcountry access. The fundamental task is to provide access, but in ways that discourage avalanche deaths.

The appeal

Part of the appeal of out-of-area skiing and snowboarding – “out-of-bounds” now refers to roped-off pockets within a ski area – is the more quiet, untamed nature of the terrain. “All of a sudden everything’s just right with the world – and just a few feet away from the boundary rope,” says Breckenridge resident Ellen Hollinshead.

And ski films that show performers cascading across rock bands amid blankets of fresh snow have induced more beyond-the-ropes adventuring.

Additionally, changes in technology – high-speed lifts and side-cut skis – allow skiers to chew up snow more rapidly within ski areas. Those addicted to powder then must look elsewhere.

“Powder days are becoming shorter and shorter, and the window at a ski area is only open for a short time,” says Ken Kowynia, a Forest Service snow ranger who has worked in Summit County, Telluride and Steamboat. “I understand the appeal of backcountry skiing. That is what Silverton Mountain Ski Area is working to capture – basically, the essence of what skiing is about, that mountaineering experience, the unmanaged mountain experience.”

Farnham St. John, a manager at Venture Sports in Avon, concurs. “It’s not crowded. You’re not dodging people,” he says of the backcountry adjacent to Vail and Beaver Creek.

“But mostly it’s the snow. We haven’t had snow in probably a week and a half, but I skied the East Vail chutes just a couple of days ago,” St. John said earlier this month, “and the powder was thigh-deep. That’s the reason to do it.”

Finally, for those who duck ropes – an illegal act under Colorado law – instead of using the backcountry gates, there’s also an element of flouting authority that seems to appeal most strongly to younger men.

Aware of dangers

Avalanche danger in these areas adjacent to ski areas is not uniform. Some areas are dangerous much of the winter, others almost never.

The East Vail chutes are fickle enough to have claimed four lives by avalanche and, more recently, the life of a snowboarder who suffocated in a tree well. Aware of the danger, St. John says he takes precautions.

“I wouldn’t go there without A) a partner, B) a beacon, and C) a shovel. If you don’t have any of those things, you’re going to get in trouble should an avalanche occur. Also, I get a daily fax from the (Vail-Beaver Creek) ski patrol about weather, and I study the other slopes to evaluate the snow stability,” he says.

“A lot of people think that a cell phone is going to help, but as long as it takes for help to get there, you’re going to lose your buddy.”

Those who survive avalanches are almost always dug out by companions, not by rescue teams summoned from nearby towns. Very few people survive avalanches after being buried for more than 30 minutes. But then, many people don’t survive when they are found immediately, as witnessed by the case near Arapahoe Basin last March.

So why does St. John, despite being aware of the dangers, head through the gate of Siberia Bowl?

“For the deep snow,” he answers.

A notorious winter

This issue of out-of-area or “yo-yo” skiing first flared in the 1986-87 winter when three skiers near Telluride and four at Breckenridge died in avalanches. They had used lifts to get into the backcountry.

Bowing to pressure from then-Summit County Sheriff Delbert Ewoldt, the Forest Service agreed to a strict closure at Breckenridge’s Peak 7, but later put the area within the resort’s permit area. As such, Breckenridge was given responsibility for managing the avalanche risk. The tactic has worked. No avalanche death has occurred there since.

The Forest Service has tried to use that strategy elsewhere. At Beaver Creek, for example, one skier was killed in 1992 in an avalanche in Stone Creek Canyon, lateral to the top of the ski area. Last winter, another skier nearly died. He was buried under four feet for of snow for 6 1/2 minutes, long enough to have killed some people.

The Forest Service has put Stone Creek into Beaver Creek’s permit area, hoping Vail Resorts will expand into the canyon and hence manage the avalanche risk.

That more deaths haven’t occurred recently adjacent to Vail and Beaver Creek may be due partly to weather. Backcountry snow conditions during recent winters have been marginal. But Brian McCartney, vice president of operations at Vail Mountain, also believes that education has made skiers and riders more cautious.

Still, McCartney, who was longtime head of ski patrol, admits to being annoyed by the attitudes of those skiers and snowboarders who venture into backcountry areas without being fully prepared.

“There’s a group that just wants to storm around out there, they want to be on their own, they don’t want to be told what to do or listen to any advice,” he says. “But as soon as they have any problems, they want your help, and they want it in a big hurry.”

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A simple glossary

Ski areas for years have been cranky about news reports of skiing tragedies that occur near, but outside ski areas, believing that they incorrectly suggest the dangers of skiing on their slopes. Ski area managers, Forest Service snow rangers, and avalanche personnel have developed a lexicon to guide the discussion:

– Out-of-bounds skiers and boarders are those who cross roped or signed closures, either to closed areas inside ski area boundaries or to gain access to the backcountry.

– Out-of-area skiers and boarders are those who venture out of the ski area boundaries, but do so using authorized access points, including gates.

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