Skiers’ decision disturbing
The recent massive avalanche in Maroon Bowl was set off by four young local men who left the Aspen Highlands Ski Area after ignoring specific warnings, crossed the ski area boundary, and entered into the bowl. Fortunately, no one died.
This event provides an ideal moment for pausing and reflecting on the boundary policies of ski areas and the responsibilities of skiers and riders in the backcountry.
I am writing to provide my personal perspective and am not speaking on behalf of others. I have worked on ski area boundary access issues since the late 1970s as an attorney for the Aspen Skiing Co., have assisted in the drafting of significant amendments to the Colorado Skier Safety Act, have participated in the negotiation of the U.S. Forest Service backcountry access guidelines, and am a backcountry skier and rider.
The Colorado Skier Safety Act includes provisions that relate to ski area boundary management. Consistent with such law, the local community , working through the sheriff’s office, the Forest Service District Ranger and the Aspen Skiing Co., has worked very hard to establish a model program of backcountry access.
This program includes the maintenance of Forest Service access gates, public service notices regarding snow stability, and community awareness of prudent decision-making in the backcountry.
This program was put to the test in 1986 when a skier kicked off a massive avalanche on Peak 7 adjacent to the Breckenridge Ski Area that resulted in four deaths. That avalanche, like the ones in recent days, occurred during a known avalanche cycle.
Every ski area in Colorado closed access to the backcountry through their boundaries following the Peak 7 avalanche, except the Aspen Skiing Co. ski areas, who alone stayed with the developed access program.
Thereafter, Forest Service representatives from numerous districts worked with Colorado ski areas to develop boundary management guidelines that, until recently, were implemented by ski areas in very different ways.
Our community’s program has become the standard for boundary management and access to the backcountry. It is a far cry from the sheriff chasing backcountry skiers in the past. The use of the Forest Service access gates and simple, understandable warnings has been duplicated by ski areas throughout Colorado and the Rocky Mountains.
One of the reasons for the success of this program is that it has been embraced and respected by the community. For over 16 years I have told ski areas throughout the Rockies that the Aspen community has been successful in reducing backcountry incidents through education, information and prudent judgment rather than rules and restrictions.
We should be proud of this program that provides for informed access to public lands, and it should not be compromised.
The exercise of the right to use our public lands comes with obligations to oneself, one’s partners and one’s community. Freedom of choice involves risk, responsibilities and consequences.
Sure, the choice to ski/ride Maroon Bowl was solely that of the four young local men who ventured into the bowl. However, as members of the local community, such choice necessarily impacts the community.
Ski patrol members watched in horror as the young men ignored their specific advice to the contrary and skied/rode into the bowl. Rick Deane watched with trepidation from below.
These, and other members of the community, have had the horrible task of digging bodies out of avalanche debris in the past. Fortunately, that was not the case this time.
In addition to the significant tragedy that would have accompanied a death in the bowl, the loss of a local in the face of the known and publicized avalanche cycle would have been embarrassing to the community and would have jeopardized over 20 years of hard work to provide access to our public lands through ski areas.
The opportunity that this experience provides us is to reconfirm our own, and the community’s, commitment to education, information and the exercise of prudent judgment when assessing and accepting the risks of the backcountry; this applies to both experienced and inexperienced backcountry users.
Of course, there is no way to totally mitigate or avoid all risks of avalanches in the backcountry, and they will occur. On the other hand, while a backcountry skier/rider may be alone on his or her skis or board, they are representatives of their partners, families and community and must be mindful of the responsibilities and obligations that flow from the exercise of their freedom.
With respect to the Maroon Bowl avalanche, to merely conclude that these young men faced death and survived would be a tragedy in and of itself. The mountains are to be respected, for they are unpredictable and fickle.
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