Guest opinion: Leaving the ski resort boundaries? You do so at your own risk.
Utah Avalanche Center executive director
I work my way to the front of the singles line and the three guys next to me motion for me to join them on the high-speed quad. As the chair races it’s way to the top, the three guys point to the slope in the distance with just a few tracks and comment on how awesome that line would be. They pull out their phones and look at the resort trailmap and start talking about the short hike up and then the traverse to drop the slope. I bite my tongue for a little while, but as their excitement grows, I feel the need to speak up.
“Did you know that slope is in the backcountry,” I say matter of factly.
The response I get is that it can’t be backcountry because they can see it from the lift.
“As soon as you exit the gate at the top of the lift, you are outside the resort boundary. That means you are in the backcountry and you are responsible for yourself. There is no ski patrol out there. Do you have avalanche rescue equipment?”
“What’s that?” is the response I get.
“When you are in the backcountry, everyone in your group needs to have an avalanche transceiver, probe and shovel, and you need to know how to use them.”
“We don’t need that, we will always be able to see this lift and will be able to ski right back to the lift line. Plus, we are really good riders and that will keep us safe.”
Trying to make the situation real, I add, “Did you know that 50% of avalanche fatalities in Utah over the last 21 seasons have been people who have skied out a gate at a resort? Did you know that four people have been killed just on the slope in the last 15 years?”
This catches their attention for a brief moment before they respond, “There probably weren’t tracks on the slope. Other people have skied it and they didn’t have an avalanche so it is safe.”
I am starting to see a problem develop. “Unfortunately, other tracks is not a sign of the slope being safe. There are many instances of avalanches occurring on slopes that have dozens and even hundreds of tracks.”
I don’t get a response from this and we are nearing the top of the lift. I give it one last try, “It is your choice if you want to hike out the gate and ski outside the resort. You make your own decisions, but remember that if you get in an avalanche or get injured you will put a lot of people at risk to help you. Other people in the area are at risk in an avalanche. Search and Rescue will need to be notified to rescue you. Accident investigators will need to be called. Your action could risk 12 or more other people.”
As we slide off the lift, I take a hard right down the cat track. I look back over my shoulder and see the three men standing at the backcountry gate. The transceiver check is a solid red X, indicating no transceivers are detected. They appear to be reading the avalanche terrain warning sign. With luck, they are also reading the avalanche forecast that is posted next to the sign. They appear to be contemplating their options and then I see them turn around and ski down the cat track towards the bump run under the lift.
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Steve Berlack, whose son died in an avalanche in 2015, writes in a letter to the editor that “[i]f you want to venture into the backcountry, do it safely. Get the education you need. … Understand the forecast. Make conservative decisions like your life depends on it.”