The deaths of three people in an avalanche near Stevens Pass last year highlight the growing demand for a backcountry skiing experience. It’s creating a challenge for ski resorts who provide access to the expert terrain.
The double black diamond runs are no longer enough of a challenge for some skiers and snowboarders. They’re seeking terrain outside the controlled ski areas. It’s not out of bounds, it’s backcountry.
“The demand is increasing all the time,” said Rob Gibson, Ski Patrol director at the Summit at Snoqualmie. “It’s been about ten years now with the [improvements] in the equipment that makes it easier to utilize that terrain.”
Gibson points out that most ski resorts provide access to their adjacent backcountry because they operate on public land, U.S. Forest Service land.
“The forest service would like, unless there’s very particular reasons not to, to allow people to access the rest of the public land and so most of the time they either require or recommend that we provide gates where they (skiers) can leave the ski area and utilize the public land,” explained Gibson.
The challenge is safety. At Alpental, skiers must talk to the Ski Patrol and sign a liability release, acknowledging that they understand the risks and their responsibilities before they pass through those gates into Alpental’s challenging “back bowls” and on into the wilderness.
Access to the wilderness is not something they promote at the Summit at Snoqualmie.
“We certainly promote the back bowls because it’s a unique experience for the average user and at least at Alpental, it’s all very advanced, expert terrain. We’re fortunate it’s only accessible off of a fairly advanced, expert run anyhow so that limits a little bit who shows up at those gates,” said Gibson.
John Gifford, President of the Pacific Northwest Ski Areas Association says that’s the greatest challenge; discouraging less skilled people from venturing into the expert, backcountry terrain. He wants those who leave the controlled ski areas to carry shovels and probes, maybe even beacons and breathing devices.
One resort in Bozeman, Mont. requires that skiers carry transceiver beacons into the backcountry.
“I like it when resorts do things like that because it raises awareness. But you can go out and purchase that stuff and actually spend no time at all learning how they work and just carrying them doesn’t make you any safer at all,” warns Gibson. He says skiers have to understand that help might be hard to find once they cross into the backcountry.
“Once you start leaving the developed ski area, you’re a little more on your own and so partner awareness and companion rescue and all those skills become very, very important. You become the one who’s responsible for your decisions and your safety.”
Backcountry skiing is available at almost every resort in the state from Mt. Baker to to Crystal Mt., Stevens Pass to Mission Ridge. Besides safety equipment, before heading into the backcountry, ski managers say a check with the Northwest Avalanche Center is a must.