Fatal out-of-bounds avalanches prompt PCMR to shut backcountry gates indefinitely

Peak 5, Ninety-Nine 90 no longer have portals to public lands

Rescue personnel gather at the site of a fatal avalanche in the backcountry near Park City Mountain Resort in late January. Following two fatal avalanches in a matter of weeks just outside its boundaries, the resort has closed its backcountry access gates indefinitely.
Courtesy of the Utah Avalanche Center

Park City Mountain Resort has indefinitely closed its backcountry gates, significantly curtailing backcountry skiing access to public lands from the Wasatch Back in the wake of two recent avalanche deaths just outside its boundaries.

In both cases, the victims accessed the Park City ridgeline after riding the same chairlift and exiting the resort from a nearby gate.

“In the aftermath of recent tragedies outside of our resort boundary, we have closed the backcountry access points until further notice,” a PCMR spokesperson said Wednesday in a prepared statement.

The backcountry gates are located near the Peak 5 and Ninety-Nine 90 chairlifts on the Canyons Village side of PCMR. They allow access to the Park City ridgeline and the Cottonwood Canyons beyond on public land that is managed by the U.S. Forest Service.

Forest Service officials say the gates are on private land and that they have no power to mandate they remain open, but that they do encourage maintaining access to public lands.

“We really do want to have some sort of backcountry access,” said Ben Kraja, the Forest Service official who manages special use permits for ski areas in the Cottonwood Canyons. Kraja added that PCMR is not under a Forest Service special use permit.

“We don’t have jurisdiction to tell them what to do on their private land,” he said.

Despite reports about a meeting between PCMR and USFS officials on Thursday, no such meeting was planned or took place. A PCMR spokesperson said the stakeholders met Tuesday and would meet again next week. Kraja indicated the Forest Service remained open to talks.

PCMR confirmed the indefinite gate closure the same day that the Utah Avalanche Center released its full report of the avalanche that killed a longtime Park City resident on Saturday. That report indicates the skiing partners had exited the gate atop the Ninety-Nine 90 chairlift three times that day to access backcountry terrain and that both were experienced backcountry skiers.

The access gates allow lift-accessed backcountry skiing, cutting off miles from the hike to the ridgeline.

“I refer to it fondly as the executive tour,” said Charlie Sturgis, longtime Park City backcountry skier and the executive director of the Mountain Trails Foundation. He continued, “You could go out, make three or four runs and then be back in town by 12, 12:30. It’s really hard to do that anywhere else.”

Now, with the gates closed, accessing that part of the Park City ridgeline would take an hourslong hike. Sturgis indicated the only feasible access to those areas of the Park City ridgeline, including Dutch Draw and Square Top, is now via the Cottonwood Canyons, which are experiencing severe and worsening overcrowding and traffic issues, especially on weekends.

Ending lift-accessed backcountry travel would significantly hinder, if not stop, local access to some world-class backcountry skiing, he indicated.

“It would mean you’ve got to drive an hour, fight with Salt Lake traffic,” Sturgis said. “I think there are solutions, but I think we need to go looking a little harder.”

Some on social media who called for closing the access gates said it might ensure only those with the dedication — and, presumably experience, skill and knowledge — to ski in risky terrain would access them, lowering the likelihood that an unprepared skier would leave resort boundaries and stumble into an avalanche.

Dutch Draw and Square Top are referred to as “sidecountry” areas that are virtually lift-accessed and require minimal hikes. Riders can often see tracks snaking through otherwise-untouched powder on those and other faces while riding on PCMR chairlifts. Experts say those tracks do not indicate a slope’s safety, but to a novice backcountry user, the runs might appear both enticing and safe.

Backcountry enthusiasts have suggested potential compromises short of closing the gates, like requiring avalanche safety equipment to leave the resort, moving the gates to less convenient locations that would still require a lengthy hike or posting photos of the deceased near the exit points.

Others have asked why the resort doesn’t close the gates when avalanche danger is particularly high.

“From the backcountry skier’s perspective the accidents are tragic, and gates, no gates, it doesn’t necessarily matter. It’s just always sad to lose somebody, no matter what,” Sturgis said. “And the closing of the access, I would hope it’s a temporary action to find a better solution to the problem.”

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