Slopes, backcountry have different risks |

Slopes, backcountry have different risks

Nicole Formosa
NWS Blue Sky4 BH 12-20

KEYSTONE – A look at recent statistics paints an unnerving picture of the dangers of snow sports. Inside the ski area boundaries, an average of 38 people have died on American slopes each year over the past decade while 42 people per year were involved in a crippling accident. This season, five skiers have died in Colorado.Avalanche data is even more intimidating: Colorado ranks the highest in the nation for avalanche deaths between 1950 and 2005. Summit County leads the state’s counties in avalanche fatalities and one-quarter of all avalanche fatalities occur two miles from a ski area, said Nick Logan, assistant director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.The flip side is that since 1990, Colorado’s population has increased 38 percent, but the number of avalanche fatalities has not followed that surge, Logan said.

“We like to think that is the (avalanche center’s) program doing its job, because we do a lot of forecasting and a lot of avalanche education,” Logan said.Ski safety in-bounds and in the backcountry was the topic of a recent meeting in Keystone. The discussions were laced with ski patrollers’ stories of skiers lost in the backcountry and fatal collisions.At Keystone, for instance, there hasn’t been a death since a season three years ago in which nine people died on the slopes, said Chuck Tolton, the resort’s director of mountain operations.”A lot of that is luck. A lot of that is a very focused effort on the part of our employees, on the part of our ski patrol, our yellow jackets, mountain management to elevate awareness and provide this education,” Tolton said.The mountain has become less tolerant of irresponsible behavior and more aggressive in calling the sheriff’s office to report problems. Plus, this year’s budget included a $100,000 increase for the Slope Watch program, Tolton said.

Risk management consultant Jim Moss said resorts need help educating the masses of skiers and riders who visit the mountains each year.”If you’re going to get tired of putting your money into search-and-rescue and seeing your friends up all night going out and looking for the ‘idiots’ of the world, you’re going to have to do a little more, and you can’t just rely on the resorts to do it, it’s going to have to be community-based,” Moss said.Later during the session, local Jennifer Kermode questioned the adequacy of backcountry access points from local ski areas.”There are a lot of people who feel the access points to get into the backcountry from ski areas are unacceptable and that’s why (skiers are) ducking the ropes in the wrong places,” Kermode said.

Logan recalled a 1987 avalanche that killed four people in Breckenridge’s Peak 7 bowl, which was outside the ski area boundary at the time, but easily reached by a short traverse from the top of nearby bowls.Following the incident, many discussions and public comment sessions were held with the U.S. Forest Service, which ultimately decided to relocate access points.”We said, ‘Great. let’s make it so they can access that land, but let’s just make it a little harder for the person who really doesn’t want to hike up there to get it,'” Logan said.Vail, Colorado

Support Local Journalism