Record editorial: A dilemma for PCMR as it decides fate of backcountry gates
In the wake of two fatal avalanches just outside its boundaries last month, Park City Mountain Resort took a significant step: closing the gates that essentially provide lift-served access to some of the most popular — and dangerous — backcountry areas along the Park City ridgeline “until further notice.”
Many members of the community lauded the action, arguing that it was long overdue given the history of avalanche deaths in the backcountry beyond the gate at the top of the Ninety-Nine 90 lift on the Canyons Village side of the resort. The closures, they say, should be permanent.
Many others, though, blanched at the move. By closing the gates, the resort, for all intents and purposes, is restricting access to the public land beyond its boundaries — access that backcountry users in the Park City area have enjoyed for years and that, for some, justifies the cost of purchasing a season pass each winter.
Both sides offer compelling arguments. And as PCMR determines a long-term plan for the gates, the debate unfolding in the community makes clear that, no matter what the resort ultimately chooses to do, pleasing everybody will be impossible.
On one hand, the benefit of keeping the gates closed is clear: It could save lives. Five people have died in avalanches along the Park City ridgeline near the Ninety-Nine 90 gate in the last 15 years, including three in the last 14 months alone. The circumstances of the tragedies vary, but there has long been concern that the slopes visible beyond the resort boundaries entice skiers and snowboarders who aren’t prepared to enter the backcountry.
At the same time, the terrain past the gates is public land. While PCMR has the right to close the gates, there are legitimate concerns about the implications of walling off access to the ridgeline beyond. For many backcountry enthusiasts, the ability to reach untouched powder with a quick ride up Ninety-Nine 90 or Peak 5 is one of the things that makes ski season in Park City so special. To get to those backcountry areas otherwise, someone would have to drive down to Salt Lake City and into the Cottonwood Canyons, then undertake a lengthy hike.
There’s also something to be said for the idea that people are capable of determining the level of risk they are comfortable taking, though it must be noted that rescue crews are also put in harm’s way when they are summoned to aid someone caught in a slide. The gate at Ninety-Nine 90 spells out the danger in no uncertain terms: “You are leaving the ski resort,” it says, along with the words “You can die” in bold black letters.
At first glance, there seems to be a common-sense middle ground: closing the gates when the avalanche risk is high and leaving them open when it’s not. But the resort must weigh whether that would leave it vulnerable to liability if a fatality were to occur on a day when it chose to leave the gates open. Other potential solutions worth exploring include PCMR requiring someone to carry avalanche gear to exit the boundaries or moving the gates to harder-to-reach locations on the mountain, but the question of how effective those measures would be at preventing fatalities remains open. Even experienced backcountry users, carrying all the right equipment, have been killed by avalanches just outside the gates.
What will the resort ultimately do? That’s yet to be seen. One thing is clear: PCMR is facing a difficult decision as it determines the fate of its backcountry gates, one with no clear-cut answers.
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