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plexus

Backcountry policy

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Just wondering now that it has been a few years since Mt Baker instituted it's backcountry policy what some people think about it. Is it too stringent? A good idea?

 

What's bringing this up is that the TV station I work for in Denver, we decided to talk with the pro patrol up at Loveland Pass yesterday in regards to backcountry safety. This is stemming from the large Utah avalanche and the risks the search and rescue were taking being on that loaded slope to find these people, who made a poor choice in going into that terrain at that time.

 

I informed our reporter about the Mt Baker policy and wasn't sure if Colorado areas instituted the "You must have a beacon, a shovel, a partner, etc" rules. There is the 1979 Ski Safety Act out here but it's more for legal purposes and outlines what penalties a person can face for going down a closed run or a collision with another skier.

 

I did some calls to the areas and none of the Vail resorts require this, Loveland doesn't require this and neither does Breckenridge. Pretty much they have signs stating if you go out of bounds, you're on your own.

 

I'm curious of the consensus is out there. There are parts of it I like, but I never like rules when it comes to personal safety. If a person wants to drive without their seatbelt, fine, it's there choice, but automakers should be required to put them in there.

 

Ironically and tragically enough, there was a skier who died at Vail yesterday, fell going to fast on an expert run and broke his neck, and there was a 18-yo snowboarder at Keystone that went into a tree and was airlifted to Denver. The ironic part is it's Skier Safety week at the resorts. frown.gif

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There is entirely to much litigation in the United States. The prevaling thought being that people must be protected from themselves. In many instances this is no doubt true. We have all seen people do stupid and dangerous acts, BC and otherwise. Still, there needs to be an assumption of risk and an acceptance of accountability for ones actions. other parts of the world you are on your own. Rescure is neither imminent nor expected. It is costly if it happens at all. As for the risk to SAR members. I have been involved in SAR for many years, active and otherwise. Again the risk is assumed and understood. It goes with the territory. If people did not place themselves in situations of risk BC, then there really would be no need for SAR groups at all.

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In a more perfect world:

Back country skiers would exhibit an absolute degree of personal responsibility and self reliance.

There would be zero regulation of OB skiing.

There would be zero expectation of rescue OB.

There would be zero perceived obligation to rescue OB.

Rescue operations that did take place OB would be strictly voluntary and free of charge.

 

I abhor the current day climate of increased regulation...howeva...there are an incresing number of OB incidents involving those who exhibit zero common sense and/or intelligence. these seem to make such regulation inevitable.

 

I guess it's not all recent; I distinctly recall getting hassled by the Patrol at Crystal over thirty years ago when a small group of us wanted to buy single ride tickets to ski OB there. "We have to go out and rescue you and blah, blah, blah." Bullshit. No-one was ever forced at gunpoint into the S&R trade.

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Baker's policy is relatively recent. It came after the Valentine's Day avalanche of the big record-breaking snow year, '98-'99. One skier and one snowboarder were caught in that one, which was only a few weeks after a snowboarder jumped a rope to ski out of bounds and became missing. It was pretty hard to even find the corpses since none of them were wearing beacons. Two of the three weren't found until they melted out much later.

 

What happens in situations like this is ignorant surviving relatives whine "there ought to be a law" and if they get the ear of a non-skiing legislator, you might just get one banning all out-of-bounds skiing. Making boundary rules which don't prohibit your travel provided you are appropriately prepared, takes steps in the direction of public safety, without having to create a law.

 

Having seen how this works in practice, it cuts down on the out-of-bounds travel until folks pony up for transceivers. I think on the whole it does what was intended, it makes it such that those that are out-of-bounds are better equipped for self-rescue and have a bit more of a clue as to proper backcountry travel etiquette. Many resorts open and close the "backcountry" which risks lending the impression that at some times it is "safe". Presuming it is hazardous at all times, yet not restricting your travel if you are prepared and leaving the gates open doesn't limit the skilled person and forces the unskilled to think twice.

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Carrying a shovel and transciever is a great idea; the transcievers make it a lot easier (and less risky) for SAR to find the bodies, and beacons do save some lives. On the other hand, carrying this gear may actually encourage risk-taking by engendering a false sense of preparedness. Statistically speaking it is people with some avalanche knowledge, and who are probably carrying beacons and shovels, who are most likely to be caught in an avalanche. When a ski area requires that skiers show that they are using beacons and shovels before entering the back country the ski area is making sure that the skiers realise that they are risking their lives. It sorts out the skiers who know there is risk involved from those who may simply be ducking under the ropes on the spur of the moment. What would be even more useful would be for the ski area to post current avalanche forecast information at the top of lifts that provide access to the back country (or at the ski area entrance). Special warning flags could be displayed durring times of particularly hazardous conditions (sort of like small craft warnings).

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Lets look at backcountry sking like boating. When my friends talk about perople putting themselves at risk to rescue climbers and skiers I always remind them that far more money is spent rescuing recreational boaters and do they think they should have to pay for a rescue at sea?

Likewise boaters have some mandated laws regarding lift jackets and safety gear, so you can't have it both ways.

I think if you are going to use a ski-area gate it is acceptable to require becacons, shovels and partners.

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You should talk to Jackson Hole Ski Patrol as well. They possibly have the most progressive back country policy in the country.

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You should talk to Jackson Hole Ski Patrol as well. They possibly have the most progressive back country policy in the country.

 

They may now, but that certainly wasn't the case a few years ago. They would fanatically chase tourists that looked like they were even thinking of ducking a rope. Other places have been more progressive on access for longer than Jackson Hole.

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The avalanche at the Canyons raises a lot of questions and debate. Which policy is best for the public and which is best for the Canyons (or any ski resort adjacent to National Forest backcountry.)

 

Many American ski resorts including Jackson Hole have moved away from opening and closing gates and chasing skiiers in favor of a more Euro policy. Keep the gate open and force all that go through to read the skull and crossbones sign warning of potential and iminent death. By doing this they actually reduce their liability because they are not making any claims that the area is safe or not safe. The old policy of opening and closing gates actually increased lability for the resorts because it presumed they knew best. By keeping the gates open at all times, the liability is always on all that that pass through.

 

The problem with the gate at the Canyons and presumably at many other resorts is that it provides access to a BC area, but the skiiers then return to the resort to ride the lift and make another lap. So skiiers are technically out of bounds, but realistically still skiing the resort.

 

When I lived in Park City, they had a policy that you can leave the resort, but do NOT come back. To do so meant loosing your ticket and possible fines and prosecution. Unfortunately this would not work at for Dutches Draw at the Canyons because the drainage forces you back into the resort. So unless the BC area is truly in another drainage and you can't come back to the resort without skinning up again, are you realistically in or out of bounds?

 

The gate at the Canyons is at the top of 9990 Ski lift. The gate is an easier hike from there than the walk from your car to the lift. What if the gate were at the bottom, and to enter and ski Duches Draw you actually had to skin up? Under those circumstances, most of skiiers would be more knowledgeable about BC conditions then Joe Blow and his wife that actually follow someone past the gate.

 

Gates from ski resorts offer a BC experience to people who aren't qualified to judge for themselves whether they should go or not go. Thus the skull and crossbones. Unfortunately, they don't percieve the skull and cross bones the same way as a bottle of poison because they regularly see people drinking from the bottle with no ill effect. Still, it is a risk and they should think twice before drinking!

 

I asked my brother who is a very experienced BC skiier if he would have gone through the gate that day? He suspects he would have. Utah has very dicey conditions due to an early snowfall in November followed by a long cold dry spell and then lots of snow for 2 weeks. The TG layer way down at the base recieved the critical weight that day. Skiier compaction had no effect in stabalizing the slope. The crown face was 10-12 feet and Dutches Draw is exactly that....so all that snow was funneled into a relatively small area and piled up high and deep. If all the skiiers had trancievers, it would have helped with body recovery, thats all.

 

Requiring skiiers to wear a transciever and carry a shovel may essentially have the same effect as opening and closing a gate in that it leads the ignorant public to believe they are "safer". I don't think however it really increases the realistic margin of safety and therefore would not really improve the situation as far as people dieing or not.

Edited by David_Parker

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Transceiver or no, the releases occuring on that layer in the Utah BC will smoke you right now, no chance of survival.

 

If you read the avalanche forecasts from the days leading up to this tragedy, the cagey veterans were nervous, and there was plenty of documentation of massive, and in some cases, unprecedented releases occuring.

 

I have no comment about that gate at The Canyons, but making it so a skin is required might change the typical user of that out-of-bounds area. I hear it is typically people who have no idea about the difference between out-of-bounds and controlled in-bounds, yet go to the resort specifically to ski/board this area. I certainly would not be going there on any day, specifically because I would not want to ski with people above me who have no concept of b.c. etiquette. I wonder what they will do. I would guess status quo will not be the answer chosen. At the very least, I would think the resort would stop promoting it as a reason to visit (not sure if they do anyway, but it seems the word is certainly out there).

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There is that same layer here in Colorado. I did a pit back in December and found at the time: three inches on top in the melt freeze cycle; 12 inches of good pack on top of another 12 inches of horrid hoar. My wife and I were on snowshoes that day so I went ahead, traversing the slope that was more prone to fail and then she followed. On the way down, I triggered some shallow slides to clean it up, but that hoar layer could make it sketchy come spring

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I like Mt Baker's backcountry policy, but I'm biased as I take advantage of it all the time. However, I would say that there are many people out there that don't seem like they should be, but I've talked to groups that skinned up Herman and didn't think they should be out there either. Somethnig that came to mind recently...

 

A few weeks back, we headed up to Baker on Friday night because it had just dumped 28 inches in the last 24 hours. Saturday morning we arose to another 5, I believe. We immediately knew that it was going to be an inbounds day and that there wolud be great boarding inside the lines. I brought my transceiver to the mountain, but left it in the car. We hit first chair and spent the morinng and early afternoon under chair 6 having a great. However, by 11 or 12 I was amazed to see groups out on the arm, hemispheres, and on table mountain. Now I'll admit that I don't know a ton about avie conditions, but NWAC was reporting considerable danger and it was still snowing on top of all that fresh even that morning. Being out in the BC jsut seemed retarded. Am I mistaken?

 

Later that night I was in The Tap Room and ended up talking to a group from Canada. They had never been to Baker but spent the day out on Table. I asked them if they were at all concerned about avie conditions and he said something like...

 

"Well, there was a group ahead of us that did a block test and we saw them ski down all at the same time (i.e. not 1 at a time) and nothing happened. It seemed fine." He seemed completely clueless.

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There were many tracks already in Dutches Draw before it released as well.

 

Some of the photos of the crowns on these slides are outrageous. You would get hurt falling off of them.

 

Standard snow pit analysis would be useless to detect this weakness, unless you drive around the backcountry in a Bobcat.

 

I think making people climb to reach OOB terrain is the answer. If you make resort skiers do the slightest bit of work, interest seems to drop off quickly. It seems silly to advertise this gateway to the backcountry, then when an accident occurs, just say "hey we put a sign up there, it even has a skull and crossbones". But I have not been there.

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There were many tracks already in Dutches Draw before it released as well.

 

This had been the case in the past with other avalanche accidents in Dutch's Draw and similar drainages on the same ridgeline. All are wind-loaded, all are steep and all are on the crest of the range. Dutch's Draw has been an accident waiting to happen ever since the Canyon's opened that lift (which accesses shitty inbounds terrain btw) and the resort has known it all along. I

 

don't think that resorts should be liable for these accidents, however the arrogance that The Canyons resort has exhibited during its expansion is inexcusable: I.e. "Let's expand into mediocre private terrain in order to increase our acreage into forest service land de facto.

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Some of the photos of the crowns on these slides are outrageous. You would get hurt falling off of them.

 

Standard snow pit analysis would be useless to detect this weakness, unless you drive around the backcountry in a Bobcat.

 

.

 

I posted this photo in another thread, but it seems relevant here, too. The release point/fracture line appears to be 8 to 10 feet deep.

430225-canyons.jpg.a4eb170d264f0486dfaf20222386c5a5.jpg

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So I've never quite understood the deal with going OB anyway. If you ride the lift, duck the rope, and then return to the ski area, what is the big deal? And how is it possible for the ski area to limit your use of the resort if you do this? Especially, if you are on federal land the entire time, OB and at the ski area.

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Are you saying people should be free to do lift-accessed laps through uncontrolled 35°+ terrain? Just clarifying.

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Yeah sure, why not? Actually I'm more interested in the legal side of things. What gives resorts the ability to restrict access or prevent people who have gone OB from returning to the resort and riding the chair back up, particularly if it is government land.

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On NPR today (between noon and 1 pm if you want to go to their website and stream it) they interviewed an avy expert from Utah who has studied demographics of avalanche victims, plus apparently other victim characteristics, in an attempt to peg the psychology behind the decisions to ski in risky backcountry terrain. Except that I heard a few interesting factoids, especially the one that mixed gender groups get nailed more than same gender groups, I found the piece disappointing. True, it was aimed at an uneducated audience, but even so, it said very little beyond "Why on earth would anyone ski past a sign with a scary skull and crossbones on it? Well, because they've done it before and not gotten killed, so they stop feeling scared about it."

I find it interesting that, in spite of stories like the one above at Baker with ignoramuses skiing the BC, most North American avy deaths seem to involve people with quite a bit of BC experience. The NPR piece dug a very shallow pit that IMO did not reach the critical unstable layer, which is: when experienced people, who know the risks and make a habit of practicing more or less risk-averse behavior, get nailed precisely because they venture into unstable terrain even when they know better. What makes this happen? Please respond.

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Check out Ian McCammon's Heuristics in Avalanche Terrain paper at:

 

http://www.snowpit.com/ (look under articles)

 

He visited Mt. Hood with PDX Mtn Rescue for some training, and presented this study. Quite interesting how he links it to advertising, etc.

 

Makes you feel like a chump when you think of all the times you did this stuff!

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Thanks Iain. I figured someone had delved this deeply. I can't wait to read the whole thing. I haven't myself had any close calls that I was aware of (i.e. if you come within a hairsbreadth of triggering a fatal slide, you usually won't know it), but I suspect that I've had more moments of risk in medium terrain which I crossed casually than in scarier terrain approached with greater care.

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So I've never quite understood the deal with going OB anyway. If you ride the lift, duck the rope, and then return to the ski area, what is the big deal? And how is it possible for the ski area to limit your use of the resort if you do this? Especially, if you are on federal land the entire time, OB and at the ski area.

 

Jake, when you buy a ticket at a resort, you are agreeing to ski by their rules. The resort may have stipulations with their contract with the Forest Service to deny access from the resort. But more importantly, ducking ropes often puts people still in the resort at risk. At Alta and I'm sure many other resorts, there are places where ducking a rope could cause an avalanche to come down on inbounds skiiers. You better pray you don't get caught in Utah. They will prosecute!

 

The interesting thing here is who are the policies protecting really? The resort or the general public? It seems the only alternative to an open gate with warnings is a closed gate. Which do you prefer?

 

BTW, the hike from 9990 to Duches Draw is way to easy to keep out an average skiier.

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Yeah ok. That makes more sense in terms of causing avalanches on people below in the resort. I don't see any reason why you should not be allowed to use the lift to cut down on hiking time in you want to go OB though in an area where people in the resort can not be affected. The ski area should allow this access and also be free of liability should someone die out there after using a lift to get outside of the boundaries.

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So if someone built a gate onto I-5 for people to play dodge-the-car for $5, would they be liable if someone gets decked?

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So if someone built a gate onto I-5 for people to play dodge-the-car for $5, would they be liable if someone gets decked?

Is Union Pacific liable for the Salem dodge a train?

 

Seriously - I'd prefer to see US ski areas evolve to where your lift ticket pays for the US of the lifts and a portion of controlled pistes. If you want to ski elsewhere, have at it - at your own risk.

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