‘Powder fever mystique’ tempts skiers and riders into closed ski area terrain
Snowmass police issued 11 rope-ducking citations in less than a week after big December storms
There’s something about the allure of untouched terrain that some folks just can’t seem to resist when they illegally enter closed terrain at the ski area in pursuit of fresh tracks, according to Snowmass Village Police Officer Dave Heivly.
Heivly calls it the “powder fever mystique,” which this year may have played a part in the “surge” of just shy of a dozen rope-duckers in a handful of days at Snowmass Ski Area.
Snowmass Village police issued 11 citations for violating ski area closures between Dec. 29 and Jan. 2, according to Heivly. He and six other Snowmass police officers each spend one day per week working on the mountain with ski patrol as part of a joint Mountain Security program with Aspen Skiing Co. Ski patrollers often catch the offenders while they’re working in a closed area and turn them over to on-mountain officers from there.
“It seems like every year when we get a big hit of these, it’s right after a storm cycle,” Heivly said. “We get fresh snow, the ski patrol’s doing everything within their power to get terrain open, and some people just get impatient and won’t wait, and they take that risk, and they put themselves at risk and the ski patrol at risk.”
If it sounds familiar, like this happens every ski season, that’s because it does. It usually tapers off after the initial burst of offenses, Heivly said.
But this season was “a little out of the ordinary.” The 11 citations Snowmass Village police issued in four days this season indicates more violations in a shorter period of time compared with the 2020-21 season, when police issued seven citations over about two weeks leading up to the new year.
The fact that Snowmass Ski Area logged 100 inches of snow in December probably had something to do with the bounty of inbounds boundary-crossers this season, Heivly said.
Heivly noted in another interview last year that it often happens in gated inbounds terrain like The Cirque, KT Gully and Garrett Gulch, but KT Gully seemed to have a particular draw with the latest string of violations.
The “vast majority” of this year’s violations happened in the gully located to skier’s right near the top of the Sheer Bliss run; there also were a few in the Cirque Dikes area near High Alpine. Every one of the violators was caught because they entered an area while ski patrol was actively conducting avalanche control work.
“They’re skiing in sometimes literally one minute after an explosion, after a bomb goes off,” Heivly said.
But Heivly doesn’t chalk it all up to a simple desire for fresh tracks, and there’s no one reason why people do it.
“Part of it’s that powder fever mystique, but there’s an equal part that’s just ignorance of the rules and willingness to take a risk” — and, in some cases, “entitlement” — that might make some people prone to entering closed terrain despite the ropes and signs intended to keep people out, Heivly said.
“There’s such a sense of entitlement in the world … not specific to skiing, but just a sense of entitlement and lots of folks who have been raised without consequences for their actions,” he said.
Enforcement and messaging seems to be a strong deterrent; the $250 fine that violators have to pay is enough that Heivly said there’s never been a repeat offender.
The Colorado Skier Safety Act states that it’s illegal to enter closed terrain anywhere in the state; if there ever were a second offense, law enforcement would up the ante to include a summons to court per the town of Snowmass Village’s municipal code. Aspen Skiing Co. may also apply other consequences like a pass suspension, though the length of the suspension depends on the “nature of the violation, the attitude of the violator and the severity,” Skico spokesman Jeff Hanle said.
The fate of life and limb can also be an ominous reminder of what might happen, too.
“It doesn’t really hit home to people until they get caught doing something that could have killed them,” Heivly said.
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