After 2 avalanche deaths in as many years, the backcountry gate leading to Dutch Draw gets attention
Decisions about whether to shut backcountry gates are made by resorts, Forest Service says
There have been nine avalanche fatalities on the Park City ridgeline since 1998, an avalanche forecaster recently said, each death a tragedy and, taken collectively, a challenge for those who work to make backcountry travel safer.
The two most recent skier-related avalanche fatalities in Utah have occurred in an area known as Dutch Draw that sits just outside the boundary of Park City Mountain Resort.
Dutch Draw is on public land managed by the U.S. Forest Service, while the resort is on private land. There is a gate governing access to the public land on the Park City ridgeline a short walk from the top of the Ninety Nine 90 lift that brings riders to the top of the Canyons Village side of PCMR.
Kevin Steuterman, who died last Friday, exited the resort through that gate. So did Raymond Tauszik, who died in late 2019.
Ben Kraja, a U.S. Forest Service official who manages special use permits for ski areas in the Cottonwood Canyons, said the agency does not govern whether the gate, which is on private land, is open or shut.
“It’s entirely up to the ski resort,” Kraja said of managing backcountry access gates. “We don’t mandate it, but we do encourage the ski resorts to provide some sort of access to public land. It’s totally up to them — it’s on private land, it’s their own private gate.”
A representative from Vail Resorts, which owns PCMR, wrote in an email that the resort does not prohibit public access to U.S. Forest Service land outside the ski area boundary.
“Park City Mountain does not manage the lands or the inherent hazards that exist outside its ski area boundary. Guests who access backcountry terrain do so at their own risk and are responsible for their safety,” wrote Jessica Miller, Park City Mountain Resort senior communications manager. “Guests leaving the Resort boundaries should be experienced and knowledgeable about backcountry travel, and be prepared with the appropriate gear and safety equipment.”
PCMR ski safety professionals manage avalanche risk inside the resort, detonating bombs and cutting slopes to reduce the risk of a slide onto ski runs. But that work stops at the ski area boundary.
Riding up Ninety Nine 90, it’s common to see turns snaking through otherwise-undisturbed snow in Dutch Draw and beyond.
That can entice skiers who may not know about the dangers of the backcountry, avalanche experts have said.
“If they’re doing that, why wasn’t I invited to this party?” Utah Avalanche Center forecaster Craig Gordon said Tuesday evening. He was speaking during an annual state of the snowpack talk put on in partnership with the Park City Professional Ski Patrol Association, a Zoom meeting that drew 300 attendees.
The state of the snowpack isn’t good, Gordon indicated. There hasn’t been much snow, and much of what is left is resting on a weak layer that can slide with minimal provocation.
The Utah Avalanche Center’s forecast for last Friday, the day Steuterman died in Dutch Draw, said that human-caused avalanches were likely to occur in terrain with the same characteristics found in Dutch Draw.
“Keep in mind: If you are leaving the ski area through an exit gate, you are entering the backcountry and likely stepping into a CONSIDERABLE avalanche danger,” the forecast stated. “Previous tracks are zero indication of stability.”
To get to Dutch Draw, Stueterman and his partner exited the backcountry gate, which features a skull and crossbones and the words, “you can die.”
Neither were carrying avalanche safety equipment.
Members of backcountry skiing social media groups have wondered whether posting photos of the people who have died in Dutch Draw might give skiers more pause before entering the uncontrolled terrain.
In the last 15 years, avalanches have killed four people in Dutch Draw.
Some asked why PCMR didn’t shut the gate while there was considerable avalanche danger.
Kraja indicated that if PCMR were to close the backcountry gate when there was particularly high avalanche danger, that might open the door to legal liability for accidents that occur when the gate is open.
“They’re getting into basically avalanche forecasting with the area outside their boundaries,” Kraja said, indicating he was speaking generally about how ski resorts manage gates and not about the Ninety Nine 90 gate in particular.
PCMR is not under a U.S. Forest Service special use permit, Kraja said, as it sits on privately owned land. He said the Forest Service reviews the winter management plans for resorts in the Cottonwood Canyons that have permits to operate on its land. Those plans include information about where access gates would be located, but not about policies to close the gates or keep them open.
He said the Forest Service encourages, but does not mandate, access to public land through backcountry gates.
Forest Service officials indicated it would be hard to justify restricting access to taxpayer-owned land even though people continue to access the backcountry without proper equipment or experience.
“It has easy access and it’s also alluring because you can see it within the resort,” said Mark Staples, director of the Utah Avalanche Center. “You can see people skiing powder. ‘Oh that looks fun, let’s ski that.’”
He added that the presence of tracks does not indicate a slope is safe to ride.
And despite the Utah Avalanche Center’s accurate forecast last Friday, an avalanche still proved fatal.
“It’s hard,” said forecaster Nikki Champion. “Our goal is to just reach as many users as possible and hope that people have access to information.”
Staples said it comes down to education. He said low-angle slopes can still be skied with relative safety.
He advocated for anyone interested in backcountry riding to attend an avalanche safety course.
“Many, many people go through that gate and other gates at ski areas around the country and safely and responsibly enjoy the backcountry,” Staples said. “You can almost think about it as a trailhead to our public lands. It’s a great option to go out and enjoy our public lands. With that comes responsibility on the user.”
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Vail Resorts announced two lift expansions for Park City Mountain Resort set to take place next summer. The Silverlode Express and Eagle lift are to be expanded, with the latter slated to be realigned to end near the top of the King Con Express, changing access from the PCMR base.