Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Out of bounds, out of safety

Resort, avalanche center warn of ‘sidecountry’ hazards

Express Staff Writer

Sun Valley Co. Snow Safety Director Rich Bingham, left, and Sawtooth National Forest Avalanche Center Director Chris Lundy stand just inside Baldy’s boundary line near the top of the Christmas lift on Monday. Warnings are posted along the boundary. Photo by Willy Cook

Skiing untracked powder has an undeniable allure, especially when that powder is as easily accessible as Baldy's "sidecountry," out-of-bounds areas on the flanks of the ski mountain.

But the Sawtooth National Forest Avalanche Center and Sun Valley Co. say they're concerned that skiers in search of fresh snow aren't aware of the dangers of out-of-bounds skiing.

"For all intents and purposes, it's just backcountry terrain," said Chris Lundy, the center's director. "Sidecountry is backcountry."

The distinction between the two is minimal. While backcountry skiing involves a hike up an ungroomed mountain, sidecountry skiers take a chairlift up to access an out-of-bounds section of a ski area.

"Baldy's surrounded by areas that are skiable," said Rich Bingham, snow safety director for Sun Valley Co. "People blur the line between out of bounds and in bounds."

However, skiers may not realize that when they "duck the rope," they encounter risks not present on groomed, maintained runs. Avalanches are one of the main dangers, Lundy said.

"Avalanches can and do happen there," Lundy said of the sidecountry. "A lot of people don't even realize that."

Avalanches also can happen on Baldy's controlled slopes, as was demonstrated last year when a slide near Seattle Ridge killed Ketchum resident Tim Michael. But the risk is significantly less in the designated ski area, as the ski patrol uses explosives and other measures to reduce the risk of a slide on well-traveled runs.

"That reduces the avalanche risk in bounds to something that's reasonable," Lundy said. "Once people cross that boundary, that risk reduction is gone."

If an avalanche were to occur in the sidecountry, an injured or buried skier would be on his or her own, Bingham said. The Sun Valley Ski Patrol does not provide medical assistance or rescue to skiers who get hurt or stuck out of bounds.

"People need to be responsible for themselves when they go under the ropes," Bingham said. "You get hurt out there, and the sheriff is in charge of your rescue."

But avalanches aren't the only danger. The most popular sidecountry area, a section known as "The Burn," is filled with rocks, falling and fallen trees and gullies that can pose risks to the unprepared.

Lundy said that despite its risks, The Burn is an appealing place to ski. The terrain was made more attractive when the 2007 Castle Rock Fire ripped through the backside of Baldy, clearing trees and changing the area's topography.

"It opened up things that used to be too thick to ski," Lundy said. "There's a certain allure, with the contrast of the black trees and the white snow."

Lundy said he believes that while The Burn area is not responsible for the out-of-bounds skiing trend on Baldy, it is a driving force behind the sidecountry's growing popularity.

"People have been skiing out of bounds on Baldy for years," he said. "It's not a new phenomenon, but now we have all this new terrain."


With new terrain comes new risks, however, and Lundy said he's heard inexperienced non-locals discussing ducking the rope to try out The Burn.

"It was pretty apparent they were unaware of the hazards," he said. Bingham added that he's seen entire families and unaccompanied teens ducking the ropes to find powder.

Bingham and Lundy both said that if skiers mean to ski the sidecountry, they must prepare as though they're headed into the backcountry. Ideally, sidecountry skiers will take avalanche-training courses, ski with a partner and carry a backpack with an avalanche beacon, probe and shovel.

Bingham said he's not sure how many people duck the ropes on a daily or even weekly basis, but the sidecountry skiing trend has grown significantly.

"It's not every day [people duck the ropes], but it's the powder days," he said.

He noted that new technology, such as wider skis, make powder skiing much easier and more popular.

"There's a large percentage of people who ski over a hundred days back there every year," he said.

Lundy said that so long as skiers are prepared, there's nothing inherently wrong with ducking the rope on Baldy.

"We don't pass judgment," he said. "It's just people having fun."

Lundy said the avalanche center and Sun Valley Co. are focusing their efforts on educating out-of-bounds skiers who may not be aware of the risks. To get skiers involved in the process of developing awareness of out-of-bounds hazards, the center and Sun Valley Co. will hold an informal discussion at Whiskey Jacques' in Ketchum next week.

Bingham said the idea is to reach the sidecountry skiing demographic and discover their perspective.

"I thought, let's talk about it," he said. "Let's throw out some free beer and meet some of them."

The discussion, titled "Avalanches and the Sidecountry: Help Us Help You," will be held on Tuesday, March 15, at 5 p.m. at Whiskey Jacques'. The event will include free beer and a question-and-answer session with the center and the ski patrol. The goal, Lundy said, is just to keep skiers safe.

"That's all we're trying to do, help people have fun in winter," he said. "But we're trying to avoid a potential train wreck."

Katherine Wutz:

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