Skier, friends earn different sort of ticket
Summit County correspondent
KEYSTONE ” The Summit County Sheriff’s Office ticketed the snowboarder who spent Friday night outside Keystone’s boundary and two companions for ducking a rope, said Sheriff John Minor.
Rescuers found Sam Mason, the 20-year-old snowboarder from Texas, on Saturday morning in the Keystone Gulch area west of the Diamond Back trail, on the back side of Dercum Mountain. He’d been lost since Friday afternoon.
The group was cited for violating the Colorado Ski Safety Act, which prohibits skiers and snowboarders from entering closed areas.
Mason’s rescue was the second time the Summit Rescue Group and other rescue teams from around the state have located a missing snowboarder at Keystone since the resort opened. In mid-November, John Ryan, a snowboarder from Erie spent two nights in the Jones Gulch area near the Spring Dipper trail before rescuers located him. He also received a ticket.
Minor said the closed areas at the resort are well-marked, but that the unseasonably heavy snowfall has added an unpredictable element into the mix this year.
“We have people now going into closed areas that might have gone into a closed area last year, and they can’t handle it. The snow is exceptionally deep … We heard reports during this rescue that there was eight feet of snow back there,” Minor said.
Ski Safety Act violations are punishable by a fine of up to $300, but Minor wants to see that amount raised to at least $500, with a portion of the funds earmarked specifically for search and rescue teams in Colorado. The law was instituted in 1979, and the fine is outdated, Minor said.
“[It] is still a significant amount of money, but this thing doesn’t hurt like it used to, and it needs to hurt again,” he said.
Minor also said he believes the fine should be non-negotiable.
He said he intends to work with Colorado Ski Country USA, the lawyer who helped draft the safety act and state legislators to stiffen up the fine.
Dan Burnett, a local who’s been a search and rescue volunteer for 25 years, said the all-volunteer Summit Rescue Group would support a fine increase, but that the move probably wouldn’t prevent most people from going where they aren’t supposed to.
“There’s a developing culture of people that disregard ski area boundaries,” Burnett said. “It’s very concerning because truly the safety of the mountain rescue people is jeopardized whenever we have to go into closed areas because they are closed for a reason. … It’s kind of a human mentality to think, that sign, that rope closure doesn’t apply to me.”
Although the Summit Rescue Group doesn’t charge people when they retrieve them from the backcountry, the rescue operations can be stressful and costly for volunteers who often leave their paying jobs to work for free on a potentially dangerous rescue mission.
And the costs to the county can add up, too, Minor said.
The tab for a Flight For Life helicopter ride is about $1,000, which comes on top of food and fuel costs for emergency responders. Plus there are indirect expenses, such as ski areas diverting ski patrollers to help with a rescue operation, as Keystone did this weekend, Minor said.
“I feel sometimes like the taxpayers of Summit County are subsidizing somebody’s foolishness and I don’t like that,” Minor said.
Minor said he doesn’t know yet if the Sheriff’s Office will ask either the Mason group or Ryan to pay restitution for the costs of their respective rescues, and that the decision will depend on the final bills for the missions.
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