Fresh untracked powder. Deep turns. Pillowy stacked drops. Many of us have followed the siren call past in-bound slope closure signs or beyond “exit ski area boundaries” to grab those first turns. But ski patrols and avalanche professionals advocate using caution with the drive to nab that pristine powder—with good reason: avalanches have already been highly active this season so far, and aren’t limited to backcountry or other out of bounds locations.
In the past decade, ski patrols and avalanche forecasters have watched more skiers and snowboarders compromise their safety and the safety of others to grab first tracks.
Safety and adventure don’t have to be mutually exclusive. For a safer ski season, respect slope closures.
Some resorts have avalanche-prone slopes inbounds that get closed temporarily following storms until ski patrols can mitigate the danger. But resorts have been seeing a trend in people ignoring those inbounds closures.
The closures help temper potential avalanches, which do happen inbounds. According to the National Ski Areas Association, 3 percent of the U.S. avalanche fatalities since winter 2000/2001 resulted from inbounds avalanches. Just this past week an avalanche struck in-bounds at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. Multiple skiers were caught in the slide, and five individuals were buried to varying degrees.
With Resort frustration mounting from so many skiers ducking past closures—even into zones during explosives detonation—Some areas are stepping up the punishments for violating closures, including instituting fines, rather than getting passes suspended.
Other resorts have tried an educational method, by presenting public forums to share the behind-the-scenes thinking for closing terrain following storms in hopes of trimming closure busting.
Ducking closures is one thing, but the increase of out-of-bounds skiing is quite another—especially what avalanche pros call yo-yo skiing where people ski out-of-bounds routes, then cut back into the ski area to hop the lift back up.
While this seems like safer conditions, that isn’t necessarily true. Ski resorts mitigate avalanches with explosives inbounds, they do not do so out of bounds. In the last decade, 9 percent of total U.S. avalanche fatalities occurred just outside resort boundaries.
Admittedly, “sidecountry” can be safer than pristine backcountry due to snow compaction from lots of skier traffic, but often it’s not safer. Literally, conditions can be safe and stable inside the ropeline, but extremely unstable outside.
And the risk falls on you as the skier. Colorado’s Supreme Court found that resorts are protected from avalanche-related lawsuits under the Ski Safety Act, and that resort operators are exempt from liability when a death or injury occurs due to difficult to mitigate threats, such as terrain and weather.
So, what can you do to prep for a safe winter?
- Brush up transceiver skills. Many ski resorts have beacon parks. Log some hours honing your beacon skills if you are hitting the steep and deep.
- Take an avalanche course. Find your regional avalanche center to locate educational options: U.S. avalanche centers, Canadian Avalanche Centre. For an introduction or refresher to avalanche basics and skills, take the online course through the U.S. Forest Service.
- Respect slope closures. They’re there for your safety.
Avalanches are inherent risks of the sport, and resorts have continued to do a great deal of work to mitigate that risk. But the risk can’t be eliminated.
As resorts continue to expand higher and wider, and as more and more people access more challenging terrain thanks to accessibility and better gear, remember that skiing inbounds doesn’t make you immune to the risk of avalanches.
If you ride snow, whether in-bounds or out of bounds, it’s on you to know the code, understand how slope dynamics work with snowfall and what conditions cause avalanches.
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