ISSW Panel Discussion – Regulating Backcountry Skiing?

Post by blogger | October 5, 2016      

Mixing it up at a conference is fun. Be a spectator, sit on a discussion panel, avoid being an individual speaker at all costs (smile). That’s my latest recipe anyway.

Panel discussion: I joined Jamie Yount (Teton Pass YDOT), Jeff Goodrich (Rogers Pass, Canada), Harpa Grimsdottir (Iceland), Rich Mrazik (attorney with Utah Avalanche), Jonathan Tukman (Telluride Resort), Doug Workman (Exum Guides) and moderator Drew Hardesty (Utah Avalanche Center) to discuss “Public’s Role in Avalanche Safety.”

During the intros I joked with the audience about having the ISSW stage on my life list, but most humor does have an element of truth. It was actually pretty cool to be up there, sharing from my half century of being involved in the backcountry skiing community. Made me think of putting together a presentation about “journalism and avalanche accidents — education, or exploitation?” There are indeed certain individuals out there that would be very interested in hearing that. Another time and another place — if ever.

Drew kicked of the discussion. He brought up two examples of avalanche incidents that involved public recreation causing greater consequences. Points being, with the increase in backcountry use (e.g., 6 or 7 year doubling time here in Colorado over past decades), are we going to need more regulation of where we can and can not ski? And what about users interacting with each other in crowded zones, is it going to get nasty, or can people learn to get along?

Example 1) The avalanche in Missoula, Montana triggered by a snowboarder that killed a woman and destroyed a house.

Example 2) Here in Colorado last winter, a group started a large avalanche that washed over a mountain highway — someone in a vehicle could have died as a result (which fortunately didn’t happen).

While the talk ranged around a bit, it came down to the old conundrums: At what point do you regulate public recreators to protect them from themselves? More importantly (in my view) at what point do you restrict public land access to protect the “innocent” (e.g., motorist on a road below), or even protect skiers who are at risk of someone triggering a slide above them?

(It should be specifically mentioned here that many ski touring venues use terrain that can be subject to explosive avalanche control measures. Appropriately restricting access to those areas is not something I’d dispute, as getting blown up is not in most skier’s sport plans. Blanket permanent closures, however, are debatable.)

Perhaps the most regulated popular ski touring area in North America is Rogers Pass, Canada. Panelist Jeff Goodrich works for Parks Canada on Rogers. From what I’ve heard and from what Jeff described, the Rogers system is quite a functional piece of work. The situation up there has evolved from total all-time closure in the 1970s, to the present state of a backcountry permit being available online, and a comprehensive guidebook that was created with involvement of the Park Service to verify feature names and other important fact checking, thus enabling communication between public and officials.

With Rogers as a sort of baseline what came up for us was “when do we need to get to the point of Rogers Pass?” Jonathan Tukman described the situation in Telluride, Bear Creek, where it’s indeed become so crowded some skiers have quit going there, and incidents such as parties triggering slides above one another have become all too common.

What’s interesting about Bear Creek is (like Rogers) at one time it was defacto closed, when the Forest Service closed the access gates due to private land questions. Then they recently opened the gates, and look out world: by all accounts the scene there has become a powder feeding frenzy.

Tukman said Bear Creek users have taken it upon themselves to organize a 2-way radio net, and that “a lot of them know each other” so it’s a somewhat tight knit situation. He said things will probably get worse when more tourists and folks who are not part of the culture begin outnumbering the experienced locals. But he seemed optimistic about there being no need for restricting use.

Likewise, Teton Pass, Wyoming. Panalist Jamie Yount of Wyoming DOT described the situation on the Pass as being surprisingly less critical than one would imagine if you saw the number of cars trying to park up there. He said a rider triggered slide out of Glory Bowl reaches the road now and then, but unless that happens more often they probably don’t need to “close Glory.”

Incidentally, I did ask Jamie about the parking up there and if it would be possible to expand. He said doing so would involve USFS land, because there is no state right-of-way for the parking. As it is, apparently if you’re patient (practicing your Wyoming mellow?) and plan ahead, you can usually park up there by either waiting for a spot (there are something like 60 at the top) or using one of the other parking spots you can get as you head west down the road from the Pass.

Exum Guide Doug Workman was on the panel as well. He has a ton of experience ski guiding the Grand Teton and doing other commercial guiding around the globe. While he did tell me he doesn’t guide skiers on the Grand any more because “there are usually too many parties,” Doug also expressed optimism that public and private can work together in most situations without excessive regulation.

In my case, I tried to interject the thought that involvement from the public could have positive values. One example is Yule Quarry Road out of Marble, Colorado, (where we own property that includes a small avalanche path as well as backcountry ski routes the public uses). A fairly large (probably class 4 when it goes full path) avalanche used to fall more often from Marble Peak, closing the road with a large vegetation choked debris pile. Now due to skier compaction we’ve not had a large event on that path since around 1995 — while other paths that are skied less go over the road regularly every winter. Clearing those slides off the road costs the quarry dearly, one less avalanche saves them cash.

Imagine that, backcountry skiers’ informal partnership with a stone quarry, helping them remain profitable. Who would have thought? Next step, get the skiers up into those other avy paths!

Summary, with a few added thoughts, how to avoid needing backcountry skier restrictions:

  • Involve public as an important information source.
  • Evaluate where public snowsports are actually reducing avalanche frequency and size due to compaction and triggering small “mitigation” slides and sluffs.
  • Encourage ski tourers to use radios and establish informal radio nets, to avoid situations that can eventually require formal use limits.
  • In places with access restrictions that are violated purposely or by accident (Wasatch), combine strict enforcement with education.
  • Technology has enabled the increased use, perhaps technology such as phone apps can help mitigate problems caused by crowding.
  • By planning access improvements, direct skiers to areas that are less problematic as well as protecting the “resource” of natural snow by using vast underpopulated areas that we’re fortunate to have in the Western United States.
  • Another excellent thing about Drew’s panel is we had attorney Rick Marzik there with us. Rick practices law in Utah, and works with the Utah Avalanche Information Center. Talking the lawyer perspective, he had some interesting points about how assigning “blame” is not that easy.

    Getting back to Drew’s original examples, according to Rick, while for example the snowboarder in Missoula can clearly be “blamed” in a social and cultural sense, legally you can blame everyone from the zoning officials who allowed a house to be built in a hazard zone, all the way to the individual who clearly didn’t see much (if any) hazard in living there.

    But Rick also made it clear that for example the “average motorist” has an expectation of safety that needs to be addressed by how public officials regulate recreation in avalanche terrain. Thus, it is indeed clear that we recreational backcountry skiers and riders better keep our act together if there is any chance we could knock a slide down on an “innocent.”

    My view on all this is if the powers work hard to partner with the public, and “institutionally” see the benefits of having recreational users in their terrain (both for practical reason, and ethical considerations such as our right to use public land), the future looks bright.

    Kudos to Drew for bringing together an interesting and thought provoking panel.

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    7 Responses to “ISSW Panel Discussion – Regulating Backcountry Skiing?”

    1. Scott McCullough October 5th, 2016 12:41 pm

      I don’t understand how a skier can be “at fault” for triggering an avalanche. The VAST majority of Avalanches are natural. The chance of the slop sliding and killing someone on the road must be far greater when there is no one on it than when someone is on it. You would not blame a climber for “setting off” a volcano by jumping on the top or a climber for a landslide. That slide the snowboarder triggered, would it not have been highly likely to of slid anyway? I understand that humans interacting with the landscape triggers slides, but it seems odd to let the blame fall on a skier rather than on the highway planner or Department of Transportation.

    2. ptor October 5th, 2016 12:55 pm

      For example 2, the Rogers model works fine..i.e. there is an organization in place that protects motorists from both skier triggered and natural events by avalanche forecasting, control and closure. You make/own a road for public use…you gotta make it safe. Otherwise the motorist should carry a radio and binoculars to make sure there’s no skier coming after they’ve made their own snow safety evaluation about exposing themselves.

    3. Coop October 5th, 2016 1:49 pm

      Interesting read, wish I could be at ISSW!
      Keep the updates coming!

    4. Cassidy higgins October 5th, 2016 10:33 pm

      I agree that the highway needs to keep the road safe taking skier triggered avalanches into consideration, if a slope triggers that easily than it should be mitigated anyways. As far as permits go I don’t think it will stop the problem, look at mt rainiers DC route, you need a climbing permit but it’s still super crowded with bottlenecks and climber triggered rockfall on a lot of days. Unfortunately with backcountry skiing taking off I think that some areas are going to get crowded and that is going to be one more factor to take into consideration when skiing avalanche terrain. We might just need to tour a little farther to get away from the crowd

    5. Justin October 6th, 2016 7:21 am

      Great article Lou! The issue of regulation in the backcountry is really important… and kinda scary. I think education and awareness is really key. I would venture to guess that the majority of cases where a skier might be considered “at fault” for triggering a slide would be those in which the skier was uneducated, unaware, or not practicing the safe travel habits they should have been. We do have a responsibility to consider the safety of others in the backcountry and if we ignore that responsibility we may well end up in a situation where the actions of a few could ruin the fun for all.

    6. Lou Dawson 2 October 6th, 2016 8:16 am

      Other than in the case of preventing skiers from being blown up by avalanche artillery, I’d agree that permit systems and such are probably a bad idea, indeed judging from existing programs, which trend to simply being layers of bureaucracy that appear to exist only to perpetuate themselves — or perhaps produce revenue.

      That said, we’d better mind or act, because there are always individuals out there who think in terms of controlling us.


    7. dylan October 6th, 2016 4:31 pm

      hey, great content, enjoying the more frequent posts – been a long time reader, first time poster

      I understand why you focus more on the western half of the country but BC access and the impact thereof, in New England (vt especially) there is a lot of talk about access and impact, the catamount trail, Dartmouth college and RASTA(acronym) are doing some pretty interesting work – i would like to suggest you (or anyone else interested) take a look at some of the backcountry access issues they’re dealing with and looking at for the future

      it’s much less focused on the safety and peril of others and more on the environmental impact, being that way because the vast majority of skiing here is done in the woods where Avy and exposure risk is much lower.

      sorry for any disjointed thoughts (im mobile posting) but I thought I would drop this into the convo

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