Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Skiers fight for ‘sidecountry’ powder

Use of out-of-bounds area on Baldy up for debate


By KATHERINE WUTZ
Express Staff Writer

Hailey resident and avid skier Bill Gehrke protests a joint proposal from outfitters to run “sidecountry” ski tours on Bald Mountain. Gehrke argued during a public hearing Monday night in Ketchum that all skiers are fighting for powder, and sending more users into the sidecountry would limit the amount of fresh snow available. Photo by Willy Cook

Protests against a proposal to allow skiing outfitters to run tours on Bald Mountain's "sidecountry" came down to one thing during a public hearing on Monday night: a fight for fresh powder.

Sun Valley Heli Ski Guides, Sun Valley Trekking and Sawtooth Mountain Guides applied last month for a U.S. Forest Service permit to conduct ski tours in out-of-bounds areas on Baldy, which are seeing increasing use by skiers and snowboarders.

Joe St. Onge, co-owner of Sun Valley Trekking, said the application is a response to a demand the outfitters have seen from clients who want guided touring out of bounds.

"We see it as an adjunct to our current operations," he said. "It's not like we're going to be advertising sidecountry touring as a primary focus. We haven't advertised this, we haven't asked people about this. They came to us."

The application is for permission to ski in much of Baldy's sidecountry, including the Bassett Gulch area on the north side of Baldy, the Lime Kiln area on the southwest side into Greenhorn Gulch, and on the out-of-bounds Warm Springs "run" popularly known as Scorpion.

St. Onge said guides and clients would ride Sun Valley lifts up the mountain and ski a few warm-up runs to evaluate client ability before ducking the rope, conducting basic avalanche training and beginning out-of-bounds runs.

Several areas considered "high-use" areas, such as much of the area burned by the 2007 Castle Rock Fire near Warm Springs, have been removed from the application. St. Onge said that area, popularly known as The Burn, was simply too risky to use for guided ski touring.

"That's a very high-use area, and we know that, but it's tough to manage from a guiding aspect," he said, adding that this exclusion saves an area of "awesome" ski terrain for non-guided sidecountry skiers.

Turkey Bowl, southeast of Seattle Ridge, and an area of Greenhorn Gulch frequented by snowmobile users have also been removed from the permit application.

The standing-room-only crowd of more than 65 skiers worried that that wasn't enough, however, and expressed concern about the limited amount of powder on Baldy that might be "tracked up" by guided tours.

"This is Sun Valley," said Hailey resident Bill Gehrke. "This is not a powder place. We farm it, we take care of it, and to give it up to you guys—I don't want to stop going out there because of a few guides who want to ski off Baldy."

Gehrke said he and fellow skiers have been taking advantage of sidecountry areas north of Greenhorn for years, avoiding The Burn because of the increased use.

Erik Leidecker, operations manager for Sun Valley Heli Ski Guides and co-owner of Sawtooth Mountain Guides, said the guides are trying to consider a skier's yen for powder in their application.

"We get it," he said. "We're skiers. Everyone wants to ski powder."

Leidecker said the application only asks for 66 skier-days per outfitter, far below the 200 suggested by the U.S. Forest Service. Mark Baumgardner, spokesman for Sun Valley Heli Ski Guides, said it was unlikely the outfitters would nab first tracks, as so much evaluation must take place before heading out of bounds.

"We're not going to be out there first," he said. "Frankly, we can't handle that risk."

A few skiers said they weren't worried that the guides would frequent the same areas they did—and even if they did, the skiers said they would likely find powder elsewhere.

"Personally, I don't give a [damn about the proposal]," said Ketchum resident and competitive skier Joel Mallet. "I get my powder. If I can't find it, I go farther. I push myself."

Concern was also expressed about inbounds guide use, as some worried the guides would compete with Sun Valley Co. and the Sun Valley Ski School by providing instruction.

St. Onge said the concern should not be a major one, as ski instruction is not the guides' main focus.

"Our intention is not to teach skiing on Baldy, and especially not to compete with Sun Valley Ski School," he said.

Baumgardner and Leidecker agreed, saying they had no compunctions regarding turning an inexperienced skier over to the ski school if necessary. They said they would also develop an agreement with Sun Valley Co. that would limit operations inbounds.

No one from Sun Valley Co. spoke at the meeting. However, Ketchum District Ranger Kurt Nelson said a company representative had reviewed the proposal and suggested the agreement with the outfitters.

Nelson said he would review all public comments—including those emailed to the district—and decide whether to grant the outfitters a one-year temporary use permit. The permit can be revoked after one year if problems develop, he said.

Public comment on the outfitters' proposal should be submitted by the end of December to the Ketchum Ranger District, Attn: Joe Miczulski, 206 Sun Valley Road, Ketchum, ID 83340, or by email to comments-intermtn-sawtooth-ketchum@fs.fed.us.

Nelson said he hopes to make his decision by the end of January.

"We won't be stewing on this all winter long," he said

Katherine Wutz: kwutz@mtexpress.com




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