Every outdoor pursuit has its hazard. For mountain bikers, it may be a rut or a rock garden in a steep, technical downhill stretch. If you’re a surfer or kayaker, you’re always susceptible to a sneaker wave or hole waiting to school your ass. And wilderness trekkers may have to contend with lions, tigers, bears or more likely West Nile virus. For skiers and boarders seeking the untouched powder potential of backcountry slopes, suffocating in the bowels of a pile of gravity-driven snow is likely your biggest adversary.
Backcountry skiing including telemarking, heliskiing and catskiing are all growing in popularity nationwide. Increased interest in backcountry skiing has also led to increased avalanche fatalities. Editor-in-chief Marc Peruzzi for Skiing, struggles in his editorial this past November with the pros and cons of backcountry skiing. Peruzzi, a self-titled “rope ducker” addresses the need for personal responsibility while at the same time acknowledging the dangers and fun of venturing out of bounds.
“As with life, skiing is a calculated risk. I’d ask myself: Should I stay on the crowded groomer where some moron could hit me or ski fresh snow in the unpatrolled glades where I could smack a tree and die of exposure?”
With all the potential danger, backcountry skiing still holds a strong appeal for skiers seeking fresh powder and challenging terrain. “It’s the closest thing out there to be free like a bird with a motor being attached-it is very empowering. You get to experience new terrain … new skiing opportunities you would otherwise never get,” says avid backcountry skier, Paul Shankenberger.
In response to growing public interest in backcountry skiing, The New York Times reported recently that “the ski industry is responding with education programs designed to heighten awareness and minimize the risk.” Regionally, a number of resorts have accomodated this surge in interest with avalanche safety courses and backcountry guides. While some nearby ski hills have very open relationships with their backcountry; others do not. Following is a round-up of where you can and can’t backcountry ski at area resorts.
SCHWEITZER SKI RESORT
“We have an open gate policy, so there are a few places where you can experience backcountry skiing,” says Schweitzer’s Marketing Manager, Patrick Sande. This does not mean, however, that you can expect Schweitzer to manage those areas. According to John Pucci, the director of Schweitzer’s Ski Patrol, “we just take care of the designated ski area as seen on the map.” There is no avalanche control or skier assistance available in the backcountry.
There is, however, the Selkirk Powder Company, a backcountry guide service that operates in conjunction with Schweitzer, and Pucci says that Schweitzer’s ski patrol would be involved in rescue attempts, especially if the Selkirk Powder Company comes into any trouble.
Pucci also says that the mountain’s ski patrol would not be involved in rescuing snowmobilers in neighboring areas, and that backcountry rescues are conducted at the victim’s expense.
According to Hendrik Weigldt, the Snow Sports Manager at Red Mountain, “there’s a lot of backcountry skiing” there. The way the lifts are set up at Red means that backcountry skiing entails a short hike to the top of one of the nearby peaks, and from some of them you can ski back into the ski area itself.
Weigldt also says that “if people get lost, [the rescue] is their responsibility,” a reminder of the importance of always telling someone about your plans to head into the backcountry. That way, they can put a rescue attempt in action if you fail to come home. At Red, there is a local volunteer search and rescue team in which some of the mountain’s patrollers are involved.
“People often make arrangements to be picked up,” says Weigldt, if they know they’ll be coming out on the mountain access road, or they hitchhike.
“People generally are pretty careful,” Weigldt says, “but we’re hoping they’ll start paying us to do it through our guide service.” No hitching? Stellar.
This might be the smallest ski area around, but its backcountry potential is right up there with the big dogs. “We have tremendous backcountry opportunities right out of our back door,” says General Manager Phil Edholm. “Once you’re out of the boundary, it’s public domain.” Like the other resorts, Lookout Pass posts significant signage to inform potential backcountry adventurers of the risks they’re taking by crossing the ski area boundary, and provides no routine assistance or snow management for the backcountry area.
“If they do need some kind of assistance, or if they’re lost, that triggers a response from the Shoshone County Sheriff’s Department Search and Rescue,” or from the comparable department in Montana, said Edholm.
So don’t take the risk unless you’re prepared to owe the county a lot of money for saving your skin.
Then again, “some people say it’s the best backcountry skiing in the country,” says Edholm, “they call it a little Alta [Utah].”
WHITEWATER SKI RESORT
Another small ski area with immense backcountry potential. “We encourage people to enjoy the backcountry safely,” says Anne Pigeon, the area’s Marketing Manager.
Whitewater offers avalanche safety courses, including a one-day intro course and a three-day hands-on learning experience. They also offer an introduction to backcountry skiing lesson through the ski school that will help students learn to find a good route, how to skin their way up, and how to ski back down safely.
Skiers can come to Whitewater and hire the resort’s guides, “snow safety avalanche technicians,” or they can even buy a one-ride ticket (after signing a waiver) that can take the first few hundred feet of hiking out of the picture.
Pigeon cautioned, however, that some of the most visible out-of-bounds territory is also the most dangerous. “There are so many places to go through touring that are less steep and less dangerous,” so the resort tends to encourage ridge-touring rather than peak-hiking and cliff-hucking.
KIMBERLY & FERNIE
Elsewhere in the Canadian Rockies, the backcountry beckons. “Backcountry access out of Kimberly is limited,” says Chris Elder of Resorts of the Canadian Rockies, but at Fernie the freshies are just a duck and a hike away.
“It’s very much an open policy,” says Elder, ” but we hope they make an informed decision.” Fernie posts signs to warn skiers and riders of the risks. They also post current avalanche conditions and encourage people to take the right equipment and a partner. “They should be prepared for self-rescue,” said Elder. If a rescue situation were to escalate, the RCMP, provincial emergency program, and the mountain’s ski patrol could be involved in the recovery.
As at other resorts in B.C., the provincial search and rescue team, consisting of local volunteers and organized by the provincial government, could also be involved in a rescue attempt.
Fernie and Kimberly both have mountain guides available for hire, generally to help patrons get the most from an in-bounds experience, and there are also several backcountry guiding companies based in Fernie.
49 DEGREES NORTH
With the new construction at 49 Degrees North, the resort effectively incorporated its backcountry. Much of what used to be out of bounds is now in. That doesn’t mean, however, that there isn’t plenty of backcountry around the resort.
“Skiers and boarders wishing to go outside of the marked area boundaries do so at their own risk. Areas outside of area boundaries are not patrolled,” says Josh King, 49’s Marketing Manager, quoting the resort’s policy verbatim. “Search and rescue operations may be authorized and conducted by the Stevens County Sheriff’s Department. You and your heirs will be financially responsible for this service.”
King said that the resort ski patrol would be involved in potential search and rescue, especially within and very near area boundaries, though rescue attempts outside of the resort would be operated by the local Sheriff’s Department. Snowmobile tracks abound near 49 for backcountry access, but don’t poach the off-piste unless you’re prepared to answer to the Stevens County Sheriff.
If you want to beat the crowds at Mt. Spokane, night skiing is great way to do it. Skiiers and boarders are at a minimum during the evening hours. Mt. Spokane, however, does not encourage backcountry skiing.
“[Backcountry skiing] is something all of our risk managers dwell on. Out-of-bounds sking or riding is just that, you are skiing or riding outside of the operational boundary of that particular ski area that was set forth by the individual ski area(s) and/or other various parties, to ensure the safety of each and every guest. Most of this acreage is not patrolled,” says Gabe Lawson, Mt. Spokane’s Marketing Manager.
While Mt. Spokane has some backcountry routes that are frequented by local skiiers familiar with the terrain, these areas are un-patrolled, “except by other skiers,” says Lawson, though if a rescue attempt became necessary Mt. Spokane’s volunteer ski patrol would assist the Park Service in trying to find the lost skier or boarder.
Another mountain that controls access to its backcountry with gates and warnings. “We have zero tolerance for anybody who ducks a rope or goes out of bounds anywhere except our designated backcountry gates,” says Dave Alley, the Director of Ski Patrol at Silver. That is not to say you will get in trouble for skiing out of bounds on Silver, but the Ski Patrol urges backcountry skiers to be careful and to be aware of the dangers they might encounter. There is no avalanche control, nor any routine Ski Patrol presence in the backcountry, though patrollers would participate in any necessary rescue attempt, Alley says.
“The sheriff’s department will be called and you’ll accrue the costs.” Silver’s Ski Patrol was involved in four rescues last year in the backcountry, each one demanding long, tiring days from patrollers who’ve been on the clock since well before dawn. Don’t think they won’t charge you for the overtime manpower when you decide to play hide and seek in the backcountry.
For a summary of ski conditions at area resorts, please visit: www.ski-inlandnorthwest.com/conditions.php
For avalanche conditions please visit the following website: www.fs.fed.us/ipnf/visit/conditions/backcountry/index.html
For avalanche advisories, please call:
Idaho Panhandle NF: (208) 765-7323
Lolo & Bitterroot NF: (406) 549-4488
Northwest Montana: (406) 257-8402