Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Outfitters propose ‘sidecountry’ touring

Proposal could bring untracked snow closer to skiers

Express Staff Writer

Sun Valley Co. Snow Safety Director Rich Bingham, left, and Sawtooth National Forest Avalanche Center Director Chris Lundy stand just inside a boundary line near the top of Bald Mountain. Though skiers often duck the rope in search of powder, outfitters say there are benefits to offering sidecountry ski touring on the mountain. Photo by Willy Cook

Skiers who want to get a taste of the backcountry but are used to Baldy's groomed runs could get that chance if a proposal for guided "sidecountry" ski touring is approved by the U.S. Forest Service.

Sun Valley Heli-Ski, Sawtooth Mountain Guides and Sun Valley Trekking have petitioned the Forest Service to allow outfitters to take clients into the "out-of-bounds" skiing areas on the flanks of Bald Mountain. According to the Forest Service, the final proposal is the result of a joint effort among the outfitters, the service and Sun Valley Resort.

Sidecountry skiing, or ducking the rope of the ski area, is similar to backcountry skiing in terrain and lack of support services such as ski patrol, but with the added allure of easy access via chairlifts.

Erik Leidecker, operations manager at Sun Valley Heli-Ski and co-owner of Sawtooth Mountain Guides, said the outfitters will offer three options for skiers wanting to go out of bounds.

Some clients will ride chairlifts up, then "ski laps," he said, using skins and touring skis to climb back up the slopes before taking a final run down groomed runs. Others will opt for more hiking and less chair-riding, he said, or a combination of both.

"It's hard to envision exactly how things will play out," he said, adding that the type of tours the companies do most will be based on demand.

Sun Valley Ski Patrol and the Sawtooth National Forest Avalanche Center noted an increase in sidecountry popularity last year, which prompted concerns that unprepared skiers might duck the rope without a sense of the risks involved.

Ketchum District Ranger Kurt Nelson said the proposal comes as a result of the increased sidecountry use.

"Sidecountry is becoming kind of a new handle in the world of ski areas," he said. "Both the guided and non-guided publics are spending some of their time outside of the ski area boundary lines."

The allure of the sidecountry is the pristine snow, Leidecker said.

"In the case of Baldy, part of the appeal is that there is lift access [to untracked powder]," he said.

He added that the ski world media has drawn attention to Baldy's sidecountry by promoting the uniqueness of skiing through "The Burn," the region hit by the Castle Rock Fire in 2007 that provides an unusual tree skiing experience.

But while more skiers might enjoy sidecountry skiing, Nelson said, there is likely to be opposition to the guides' proposal.

"When you ski out of bounds, there is a certain expectation that you'll find untracked snow," he said. "That's one issue, that it will put more people into areas that are already being used."

Leidecker said that while he had heard the concern, he didn't believe guides would be taking clients into the same areas the general public would use. Most sidecountry users are using ordinary downhill skiing equipment, he said, while he would take clients into more rugged terrain.

"Ninety-five percent of the general public is not utilizing ski touring equipment," he said. "We'll go somewhere, ski laps and use our skins."

In addition, Leidecker said guides are more likely to call off a trip if the weather or avalanche conditions are risky.

Rather than jumping straight into the sidecountry after a storm, Leidecker said he won't take clients out until the snowpack is settled—and when he does, he often sees the tracks from other, less risk-averse skiers.

"We make responsible terrain choices," he said. "We're a commercial operation. We have to have our Ts crossed and our Is dotted."

Leidecker said that offering guided sidecountry tours could make Sun Valley more competitive with Jackson Hole and Aspen, which already offer such tours. In addition, the safety of skiing out of bounds on Baldy might go up with the increase in guided skiing. Chris Lundy, director of the Sawtooth National Forest Avalanche Center, said so many skiers go out unprepared because they do not have another good option for a semi-backcountry experience.

"Maybe those people will hire a guide and do it safely," he said.

Lundy said the outfitters would also submit avalanche risk observations to the center, which will allow it to compile a more accurate avalanche advisory, Lundy said.

Public comment on the outfitters' proposal should be submitted by Dec. 16, and can be submitted to the Ketchum Ranger District, 206 Sun Valley Road, Ketchum ID 83340 attn: Joe Miczulski or by email to

If approved, Leidecker said the sidecountry tours would begin as soon as conditions—and the outfitters' temporary use permits—will allow. But the public scoping process could take months, and Leidecker said he wasn't sure when tours would begin.

"I think there's a possibility we could start this season, but that's up to the process," he said.

Katherine Wutz:

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