Rolling the dice. Knowing when to take a hit or fold in the cards. Hitting a jackpot by betting the House. Entertaining a Vegas Casino, an adult Disneyland if you will, seems no different at times then when you cross the boundary ropes at the borders of North America’s various winter playgrounds. When skiers and snowboarders cross a rope, the one thing they seem to forget is that the odds always favor the House (in this case, Mother Nature).
Over the past 15 years, we have seen many resorts become “Disneyfied.” In order to compete with the cruise and travel industry, many ski resorts have attempted to add diversity to the ski experience. At Big Mountain, MT, guests can now take “thrill sleds” down the mountain. Vail offers “Adventure Ridge” activities, which include tubing and snowmobiling. Meanwhile at Snowbird, the mountain school advertises a ‘guided backcountry’ tour. Many resorts, including Ski Cooper, Monarch and Grand Targhee offer skiers the option of snowcat skiing.
Management within today’s large conglomerate ski companies admit more attention is being paid to grooming these days because it is what their customer base is asking for. A great example of the change in grooming style can be seen at Steamboat, CO. Runs that used to be filled with VW-sized moguls (such as ‘Rolex’) are now being groomed weekly into high-speed boulevards. Locals there have even started a “Stop the brutal grooming” campaign.
According to Denver Business Journal, in 2001-2002 Vail Resorts spent $55.8 million on-mountain upgrades that would include, “work to increase grooming of ski terrain across all its ski resorts.” In 2001, ABC news interviewed Roger McCarthy, Chief Operating Officer of Breckenridge Resort. McCarthy stated that ski crews were “going to go for some of the steeper stuff” that season.
At some resorts, black diamonds don’t cause second thoughts like they used to. I can remember when getting down a run like “Rolex,” meant something. Now, adventurous intermediates are going well beyond their limits when they see once foreboding expert trails appear nothing more than a steeper plane of corduroy carpet for them to exploit. Today’s destination skiers and, surprisingly many local weekend passholders, are shrugging off the warning signs posted and in the process putting the ski industry in a tight squeeze. These ‘weekend warriors’ assume that they are boarding a ride at the local Six Flags theme park. Although “Superman: The Escape” looks downright scary, they know that they will arrive back at the station in relatively one piece. Destination skiers are taking the same attitude with many expert trails.
In 1999, Solitude Mountain Resort was found “65% guilty” of allowing a group of intermediate level skiers’ access into an expert-only area known as Milk Run. During the day, a number of skiers had descended that particular area in difficult snow conditions without problem, but the 3 intermediates found themselves overmatched with the terrain and attempted to hike out. During the hike out, one of the skiers slipped and fell over a 30-foot cliff to his death on the icy slopes below. Freeskier reported on this incident in Oct. 1999 and Jill Adler commented that, “Maybe these skiers were overcome with a case of Disneyland Syndrome – mistaking a ski resort for a controlled environment where all the threats are imaginary.” The frightening part is that recreational skiers are taking this non-chalant attitude one step further into the backcountry.
Last winter, after a week of downright puking powder storms and a late nightcap on Park City’s Main Street, I awoke to an excited phone call from a fellow ski bum. “Hey, check out the bluebird today. Want to go hit ‘The Driveway?'” The thought evoked a rabid curiosity in me. I had already chewed up most of the in-bounds powder at the ‘Bird and the backcountry seemed to have stabilized over the past few days. “Sounds great,” I volunteered.
Kendall and I met up a few hours later at the base of the Tombstone chairlift. We had recently contacted the Utah Avalanche Center for the daily Wasatch backcountry avalanche advisory and found that conditions were expected to have ‘moderate’ risk on Eastern slopes above 8,000 feet. Besides having the information we needed, we also carried the typical backcountry rescue gear. The Canyons has one centrally located access gate and to reach it requires taking both the Tombstone and 9990 lifts. Scattered amongst each lift tower in plain sight are warnings related to backcountry skiing. Additionally, there is a ski patrol station adjacent to the top terminal of 9990. The access gate has a sign across it stating that you are leaving the controlled ski area boundary and that by exiting you have a possibility of death (in 2000 and 2001 skiers lost their lives in the Square Top avalanche zone just North of the 9990 peak).
Each day I have hiked up to the access gate, I have noticed a large number of ‘day tickets’ exiting the boundary with no apparent avalanche rescue equipment and undoubtedly little knowledge of the dangers that exist. On one instance, I had counted more than 40 of these people. Fortunately for us, “The Driveway” was located an additional 15 minute hike North of the main off-piste areas. On our way to “The Driveway,” we needed to cross the ridge above the infamous “Square Top.” “Square Top” had seen unusual stability this past season (only releasing big twice). It looked very inviting with only 3 tracks gracing the virgin headwall.
After a little debate, we decided to “test out” the snow conditions. There were no ‘gomers’ in sight so we felt pretty comfortable roping up and descending 50 feet or so to dig a pit and conduct some ski-cutting. Both of us were educated on the dangers of skiing “Square Top” and knew that it had to be absolutely ideal conditions to even consider. While we were doing our careful analysis on the upper edge of the slope- two snowboarders and a skier appeared. As they approached us, we could tell that they had no backcountry rescue gear, but were teetering on top of one of Utah’s most infamous slide paths.
Rather than cause an incident, we decided to play it cool. Kendall suggested, “You guys know about this peak, right?” They just nodded and kept walking. Not a moment later, they jumped in above us to our right and started bombing straight down the nasty Avalanche-prone terrain with no knowledge of the snow conditions. Kendall and I just about flipped out that these idiots could have started a slide and taken us down with them. It was a furious, but frightful moment. But, they were lucky. Only a small amount of snow spattered out from their boards. This time around, they had beaten “The House.” Next time, they or others around them might not be so lucky.
With the temporary rage that we had felt now behind us, we continued our safety checks. Then after much careful debate, we allowed ourselves into the Beast’s lair. Rewarded with 1500 vertical feet of untracked Utah powder, we reached the bottom in exuberance- “Square Top” had been conquered. “Square Top” has this mystique about it. Some seasons, it just doesn’t get skied because of the immense danger. During those seasons, mostly the ignorant ones leave tracks while the more cautious take other lines that are less dangerous, like “The Driveway” or “Dutch’s Draw.” There is no escaping the danger, though.
The Canyons has some of the most accessible backcountry terrain amongst major North American resorts and the management has done more than enough to warn of the apparent dangers. “Everything that is hip right now is extreme,” said Katie Eldridge, Director of Communications for The Canyons Resort. “We’ve done everything we can to really (make) an effort to put up extensive signage. Our responsibility is to inform our guests of the risks, but people are going to do what they are going to do.”
These incidents seem to be spiking across North America and are not only isolated to The Canyons Resort. They happen at every hill. In March of 2002, 1 skier and 2 snowboarders were caught in an avalanche out-of-bounds at Sugar Bowl, CA. According to Sugar Bowl patrol, the party was not carrying avalanche safety equipment. One person died in the accident. Another skier died alone in avalanche country on the backside of Aspen, CO the same month. In 2001, 5 unequipped snowboarders were caught in a slide just outside the boundary of Big White near Kelowna, BC. They were lucky and survived.
Year in and year out, skiers and snowboarders regularly get caught in fatal avalanches while searching for untracked powder outside Arapahoe Basin, CO. Areas including “Marjorie’s Bowl” and “The Beavers” claimed lives during the 1999-2000 season. It is a common concern among educated backcountry travelers that the increasing number of avalanche deaths by uneducated skiers and riders exiting resort boundaries could force future closure of such gates, especially in such a litigious country as the U.S. There are few resorts that require all backcountry parties to check in with Ski Patrol before exiting the resort boundaries. Aggressive resorts such as Snowbird and Whistler attempt to advertise Avalanche safety classes that are available to the general public.
It is a shame that mainstream baby-boomers and recreational skiers try to make ski resorts account for the individual skier’s ability and mistakes. Those mistakes will possibly cost the freedom of more accomplished skiers in future years. And while those ignorant ‘Disneylanders’ blatantly ignore danger signs, a certain responsibility rests upon us as accomplished skiers to help educate and warn them of the dangers. Those people may not see the risk of betting their life in a game against Mother Nature (similar to folks who take a hit at the Blackjack table when the dealer has a bust-card), but their actions may take the other nearby players down with them. When the playing gets rough or people start taking stupid risks, there’s always another table to look for- but the odds still favor the House.