Backcountry skiers are petitioning Park City Mountain Resort to reopen access gates
Gates to remain shut this year, future status is uncertain
The gates allowing lift-served access to backcountry terrain from Park City Mountain Resort will remain closed for the rest of this season, resort officials confirmed, with a decision on the gates’ future expected before the lifts start turning once again next fall.
A group of local backcountry users, however, are petitioning PCMR owner Vail Resorts to reinstate access to the U.S. Forest Service land beyond its boundaries and for a seat at the negotiating table where the fate of the gates will be decided.
There are two exit points high atop the Canyons Village side of PCMR, one above the Peak 5 chairlift and the other above the Ninety-Nine 90 Express.
The latter gate was used by two men who died in separate avalanches in backcountry terrain earlier this year just outside the ski area boundaries. Days after the second fatal slide, PCMR shut the gates indefinitely, and confirmed last week that the gates would remain closed for the duration of this ski season.
“We appreciate the community’s patience, understanding and input as we’ve evaluated the backcountry exit points at Park City Mountain following the tragedies outside of our resort boundaries,” the resort said in a prepared statement. “We have been and are taking this time to carefully analyze the situation and have discussions with our resort partners including the U.S. Forest Service.”
The gates are on private land and U.S. Forest Service officials have said they do not have the authority to order PCMR to open them, though the agency advocates for public access to public land. PCMR and Forest Service officials have met multiple times to discuss the issue, but have not announced any conclusions from those discussions.
The local petitioners, longtime backcountry skiers who call the ongoing closure of the gates “unacceptable,” include Megan McKenna, Matt Lindon and Roy Crandall. They addressed their online petition to decision-makers at Vail Resorts, including CEO Rob Katz and PCMR Chief Operating Officer Mike Goar.
The petition, which had more than 1,300 signatures Tuesday morning, asks Vail Resorts to reopen the access gates immediately and to invite all stakeholders into the discussions.
“While final gate decisions may be Vail Resorts to make, they should not occur in a vacuum without meaningful community input,” the petition states. “The stakeholders most directly impacted by this decision and most noticeably absent from the conversation thus far are the skiers and riders that use the backcountry access and the ski patrol that will have to maintain, enforce, and respond to access-related issues.”
A PCMR spokesperson indicated that the resort was still working on the issue and exploring potential solutions.
“We understand the public’s desire to have backcountry access via the resort and are committed to resolving this issue, and we will announce more specific details of what that will look like prior to the start of next season,” the prepared statement said.
The petition requests local leaders voice support for reinstating access to public lands from PCMR. It goes on to say the closure of the gates would be “the end of an era” and that many people in the backcountry community purchased Epic Passes primarily to use the gates.
Without the gates, accessing parts of the Park City ridgeline adjacent to PCMR would take a mileslong hike, likely from Big Cottonwood Canyon. When the Ninety Nine-90 gate is open, users can access the ridgeline with a short bootpack from the top of the lift and easily traverse north or south.
The backcountry gates, particularly the gate above Ninety Nine-90, can draw skiers and snowboarders with limited backcountry experience into terrain that is not controlled for avalanches. People riding the chairlift can often see tracks on otherwise untouched snow in out-of-bounds terrain in an area known as Dutch Draw, just south on the ridgeline from the gate.
That area has seen four fatalities in the last 15 years.
It is ultimately Vail Resorts’ decision whether to reopen the gates. Backcountry users have suggested potential solutions ranging from requiring safety equipment to posting photos of avalanche victims to closing the gates on days that have high avalanche danger.
Other resorts, like some in the Cottonwood Canyons, have gates lower inside their terrain, requiring backcountry users to commit to a longer hike to access a ridge.
PCMR has not commented on these ideas.
Experienced PCMR visitors have said they’ve seen streams of people exiting the gate without proper safety equipment, many seeming to be tourists, apparently without knowledge of the potential consequences of their decisions.
“Because the vast majority of avalanche victims leaving the Canyons gates did not have a beacon, shovel, and probe, requiring avalanche gear to leave the backcountry gates seemed like a logical response to many locals,” the petition states.
That likely would not have prevented the tragedy on Jan. 30, when Parkite Kurt Damschroder was killed after exiting the Ninety Nine-90 gate. He was remembered as an avid and experienced backcountry user, was traveling with a touring partner and carrying rescue equipment.
The petition states that the local backcountry community was devastated by Damschroder’s death and hoped it would spur a conversation about improved avalanche awareness and backcountry access.
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Park City’s late fire chief Paul Hewitt was remembered for his desire to help others, largeness of spirit and improbable feats during a public memorial Thursday.