Guest opinion: Restricting access to public lands is not the answer to avalanche fatalities
In February of 2010, I visited Crested Butte for the first time. Not knowing the mountain, nor being a very strong skier, I found myself about 10 feet below a mandatory traverse skirting around a 30-foot cliff band. In an instant I was summersaulting. I waited for the lights to go out, but when I opened my eyes, I didn’t have a scratch. I later found out the run was named Body Bag. Skiing is dangerous, whether on a green circle with out-of-control skier’s flying by my 7-year-old or venturing into the backcountry.
On Tuesday, Park City Mountain Resort shut all backcountry gates. From my understanding, PCMR is under no obligation to allow public access to U.S. Forest Service lands. The backcountry gates are a luxury, although they feel like a necessity for me as I buy an Epic Pass for two specific reasons: to take my 7-year-old son skiing and to access the backcountry via the gates.
Recently there have been two tragic and publicized skiing-related deaths. But did we read about the third, an inbounds skier who hit a tree near the Tombstone lift? Since the first fatality on Jan. 8, PCMR has assigned a ski patroller to the top of 9990, warning hikers of the avalanche danger and that they should possess avalanche gear. This strategy has been effective — Saturday there were very few people exiting the now-notorious backcountry gate with its clear warning sign: “You can die, this is your decision!”
According to the Nation Ski Area Association (NSAA), the average number of fatalities in the U.S. averages 40.6 per year. In 2019, 25 avalanche fatalities were reported, and four were inbounds avalanches. If we follow the logic of closing backcountry gates, do we chop down trees so those trees cannot kill again? Backcountry gates are not killing people, human decision making kills people. My decision to take my son out skiing on a crowded run is also a dangerous decision. I’ve signed the Vail Resorts release of liability stating skiing can be HAZARDOUS AND INVOLVE THE RISK OF PHYSICAL INJURY AND/OR DEATH. News outlets have sensationalized both avalanches this year and questioned if the gates should be closed. I do not see the same media outlets covering inbounds deaths and questioning if resorts should be closed. Vail Resorts has done a great job introducing the safety team/yellow jackets to slow skiers down on busy runs. They have also placed a patroller at the 9990 gate to educate people on avalanche dangers.
Vail Resorts prides itself on community involvement, and I believe the community should be involved in this process. A permanent closure will make access to public lands difficult if not impossible from Park City. The backcountry gates are precious to local folks like me. Maybe something does need to change in response to recent avalanche deaths, but restricting access to our public lands is not the answer.
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Two Park City High School students write that small changes can make a big difference as Utahns try to preserve the beauty of their state.