Vail Valley experts urge backcountry caution |

Vail Valley experts urge backcountry caution

Melanie Wong
Vail, CO Colorado
Dominique Taylor/Vail DailyVail Ski Patrollers Brian Salerno, center left, and Brice May, center right, test out the avalanche simulator Wednesday on Vail Mountain.

VAIL, Colorado ” Eagle-Vail resident Brian Enselien remembers the rush of snow that caught him while he was backcountry skiing near California’s Lake Tahoe.

The avalanche was relatively small ” when it settled, he was knee-high in snow ” but he said he was amazed by the force of the slide.

“It’s scary,” he said. “It’s crazy how much power is behind all that snow.”

Enselien has done some backcountry skiing and also frequently goes into the “sidecountry” ” or areas that are out of ski area boundaries but easily accessible from the resort mountains.

While many, like Enselien, take advantage of the easily accessed areas in search of untracked powder, not everyone has the proper training or equipment for the terrain, said Beaver Creek ski patroller Dave Martin at a recent backcountry training class.

Participate in The Longevity Project

The Longevity Project is an annual campaign to help educate readers about what it takes to live a long, fulfilling life in our valley. This year Kevin shares his story of hope and celebration of life with his presentation Cracked, Not Broken as we explore the critical and relevant topic of mental health.

“We watch people who leave the gates, and (a majority) of the people who go back there have no equipment,” he said, adding that everyone who goes out-of-bounds should carry a beacon, probe and shovel.

After attending the training class, Eagle-Vail resident Bogdon Pastor said he will definitely think about investing a beacon and some training.

He usually skis the out-of-bound areas near the ski resort ” without any equipment, he admitted sheepishly.

Texas skier Jimmy Smith said he’s followed other people out into the sidecountry areas before, although he doesn’t have backcountry training or equipment.

“I’m definitely unprepared,” he said. “But I usually go with someone who knows where they’re going.”

Avon resident Ryan Ellis said he has ventured out to some of the popular out-of-bounds spots, such as the Alta Chutes behind Beaver Creek.

“I usually just make sure it’s been skied before,” he said.

He would like to go out further, after getting the proper equipment and training, he said.

Others say that they never go without equipment, and that experience with the local terrain is one of the surest ways to be safe.

“I go to the same places over and over, so I usually know it pretty well,” said Billy Mattison, who often skies East Vail as well as terrain in the Gore Range. “You know when the conditions are good.”

Vail ski patroller Chris “Mongo” Reeder agreed, saying that even though he has skied the backcountry for years, it wasn’t until he joined the patrol that he was confident making his own backcountry decisions.

He also added that he never ventures past the ropes without a pack of equipment.

“If we don’t have the gear, that kind of makes our decision for us (whether or not to go),” he said.

Skiers should be prepared, even when in heavily skied areas right outside of resort ropes, such as East Vail, or the Bald Spot and the Alta Chutes at Beaver Creek,

Some don’t realize that the areas are unpatrolled and that slides occur, ski patrollers said.

In December, there was a 4-foot deep, football-field wide avalanche caused by a skier on the Bald Spot, which can get significant traffic, said Zander Kestly, Beaver Creek’s mountain safety attendant supervisor.

“We do have some great backcountry access, but people need to know that we don’t patrol out there and if something happens, it could be hours before we get out there,” he said.

From below the Bald Spot outside of Beaver Creek’s ropes, Kestly looks out over a meadow of pristine powder.

“You see why people want to come back here,” he said. “But you’ve got to respect it.

Reeder said it’s shocking how many people exit Vail Mountain’s gates and blow past warning signs and ropes unprepared.

“People are under the impression that since you can view (these areas) from the lift, because you can look across at these areas that are full of tracks, that there is avalanche mitigation out there ” which is not true at all,” he said.

In fact, Mango’s Mountain Grill staff in Red Cliff has reported that they often get skiers who wander in completely lost after having skied out of Blue Sky Basin.

This has been one of the worst years for avalanches in Colorado, said Scott Toepfer, an avalanche forecaster with the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.

Some popular backcountry areas, such as areas on Vail Pass, Shrine Bowl and Ptarmigan Pass have seen avalanches this season, he said.

“Some people may have a false sense of security in these heavily used areas,” Toepfer said. “With places like East Vail ” it’s popular, we all know it. The problem is that all of your safe backcountry protocol can fly out the window with a group of people coming in behind you. It’s a very complicated game. You’re trying to balance risk and reward.”

The avalanche center posts daily risk levels based on observations from around the state. The ratings range from “low” to “considerable,” meaning that “human triggered avalanches are probable,” to “extreme.”

In fact, according to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, more slides happen when the avalanche risk is “moderate” or “considerable” because people consider it lower risk and more people end up in the backcountry.

“Put that in perspective,” Beaver Creek Ski Patroller Kurt Kincel told students at the training class. “If it were ‘probable’ that you wouldn’t make it back home from the library today, would you still come?”

– Skin and Ski Tour: Never been in the backcountry but want a taste? Check out the Vail Nordic program’s introductory tour. Ski some trails with a guide and learn how to use basic backcountry equipment.

For more information, call the Vail Snowsports Nordic School at 970-754-4370

– Backcountry Access: Learn about avalanche awareness and proper gear at

– Colorado Avalanche Information Center: Check out the area’s avalanche forecast at

Staff Writer Melanie Wong can be reached at 970-748-2928 or

Support Local Journalism