As PCMR’s backcountry gates remain closed, users advocate compromise
Access should be maintained with safety measures to prevent tragedy, they say
With storms slamming the Wasatch Range and the avalanche danger forecasted to hit “extreme” levels, the backcountry gates at Park City Mountain Resort remain shut after two fatal slides last month in terrain just outside the resort’s boundaries.
PCMR representatives met last week with the United States Forest Service, which oversees the public land beyond the gates, but neither side has announced progress made during the talks. The gates are above the Ninety-Nine 90 and Peak 5 lifts on private land, and Forest Service officials have made clear the decision to open them rests solely with PCMR.
Many backcountry users have taken to social media while watching the flakes pile up and hoping the snowpack will heal quickly enough to ride safely, some posting photos from their safer, lower-angle tours.
In interviews and online comments, many users have acknowledged the wisdom of closing the gates in the immediate aftermath of the fatalities, but have advocated for compromise solutions that would allow continued access to public land and popular backcountry skiing spots while cutting down on the number of inexperienced users leaving the boundaries of the resort.
The gates grant access to areas of the Park City ridgeline that would otherwise require an hourslong hike, offering virtually lift-served backcountry runs that can provide lifelong memories, but also entice uninformed users into terrain visible from chairlifts that is not controlled for avalanches.
“I would see parents with, like, 10-, 12-, 14-year-old kids that clearly were tourists, and they are able to make that kind of decision, to go out of bounds,” said Greg Ceccarelli, a Park City native and backcountry user who spent many days at PCMR as a ski coach.
He suggested compromise solutions where backcountry access would only be allowed to individuals who have received at least rudimentary avalanche education, or changing the gate itself to only open when it detects an avalanche beacon, or forbidding people from accessing the backcountry without a partner.
“I just saw too many people that didn’t really quite comprehend the severity of their choices making those decisions without being informed,” he said in an interview with The Park Record. “I thought that was kind of scary.”
The men who were killed in avalanches near the boundaries of PCMR in January both accessed the terrain from the gate atop Ninety-Nine 90, and reports indicate the Park City resident who died in the most recent slide was an experienced backcountry user who had skied several runs outside the gate that day.
The kinds of measures Ceccarelli and others advocate wouldn’t necessarily have prevented that tragedy, but other backcountry users said they would like to see a good-faith effort from PCMR owner Vail Resorts to avoid stripping easy access to public lands permanently.
“I just go back to mitigation,” said Jason Shumaker, a moderator of a popular social media group dedicated to Utah backcountry riding. “Try something else instead of just closing it.”
Shumaker extolled the importance of maintaining public access to public land and said he thought the gates should remain open.
“I think they’ve done everything in their power to warn and educate people before they go through those gates, nothing short of putting up the people’s photos that have died up there,” he said in an interview with The Park Record. “… I think people should be responsible for themselves.”
Shumaker said the wildness of public lands and the sense of exploration and freedom are strong draws into the backcountry.
He said he had a season pass in the mid-2000s to the terrain that is now the Canyons Village side of PCMR and that he would use the backcountry gates as often as he could.
“It’s pretty nice. If you’re skiing at Park City or that side of Park City, you access some really, really good backcountry terrain,” he said. “I mean you can hike it from the Big Cottonwood side, but if you’re skiing at the resort, it’s pretty phenomenal. … That, I think, accesses some of the best terrain from the resorts.”
Jack Stauss, a backcountry safety educator who rarely goes three days in a row during winter without skiing in the backcountry, said there needs to be a better system in place for preventing the kind of tragedies that have occurred on the Park City ridgeline this year.
While he said access to public land must be maintained, he drew a distinction between touring for hours to reach a backcountry skiing spot versus the easy access provided by the exit points at PCMR.
“It’s not the same as hiking in a 3-mile approach,” he said in an interview. “Everybody can throw their skis over their shoulder and walk 15 minutes to an unmitigated slope. That has proved to be fatal.”
He suggested the resorts bear responsibility to educate users who leave their terrain to head into the backcountry.
Some people online have wondered why PCMR doesn’t shut the gates during the days with the highest avalanche danger.
PCMR officials have declined to comment beyond confirming a meeting about the gates was scheduled with Forest Service officials last Tuesday.
Statistics indicate that backcountry travel has gotten safer in recent years, with the numbers of fatalities holding roughly steady despite an explosion of backcountry users.
Measuring the number of backcountry users is difficult, but officials have pointed to crowded trailheads and growing backcountry equipment sales.
Shumaker said membership in the backcountry skiing Facebook group he moderates has doubled to 6,000 in one year, and that the group averages 80 to 100 new members per week.
He suggested that pandemic-fueled growth of backcountry users mixed with the dangerous snow conditions created a predictable increase in avalanche deaths. The first week of February was one of the deadliest weeks for backcountry users on record, with 15 fatalities nationwide, including a slide in Millcreek Canyon this month that killed four people.
Stauss said the snow conditions are the worst he’s heard of in at least the last 30 years.
“We’ve seen now six fatalities in the course of a month in the central Wasatch, which is staggering,” he said.
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