Sidecountry vs Backcountry: The New Rules of Engagement

Posted on February 26th, 2014 by | 1 Comment

by Bruce Edgerly

“I don’t like the way things are going in the states with ski resorts all regulated by lawyers and insurance companies. It’s not fair to real skiers able to ski radical things totally within our abilities. People suing ski areas should be shot.”

This classic quote from Scot Schmidt in the Greg Stump film, “The Blizzard of Aaahs,” was right on when it was released in 1988. But times have changed in America. In fact, you could argue that nowadays ski area boundaries in the U.S. are going in just the opposite direction from where they were when Schmidt, Plake, and Hattrup exposed North American skiers to Chamonix in this defining ski film classic. Instead of U.S. resorts closing their boundaries for liability reasons, they’re installing access gates to the backcountry and letting customers shred out-of-bounds as they wish. The evidence is everywhere, with labyrinths of ski and snowboard tracks leading out of bounds at Jackson Hole, East Vail, Breckenridge, Alta/Snowbird, Mt. Baker, and now even Squaw Valley.

BCA Beacon Check at Jackson Hole Backcountry

A backcountry access gate in Jackson Hole, featuring a BCA beacon checker.

Do all these tracks mean it’s safer to ride O.B.? Not at all. In fact, there’s a movement afoot in the resort world to dispel this very misperception: to ban the word “sidecountry” because it implies something between “resort” and “backcountry,” where it’s wilder than skiing inside the resort, but purportedly safer than skiing in the truly uncontrolled backcountry. There’s even an idea being floated by the National Ski Areas Association to call these points “exit gates” instead of “access gates,” to reinforce the idea that you’re clearly leaving the safety of the ski resort when you cross that line.

Misperceptions about out-of-bounds skier traffic (“hey, there are tracks, so it must be safe”) are similar to the misperceptions about tree skiing (“hey, it must be safe over here in these nice aspens.”). Lots of tracks–and lots of trees–often give riders a false sense of security that the terrain is less likely to slide. In reality, however, if the skiing is sweet, then it’s probably too good to be true. Generally speaking, trees are only safer if they’re too tight to ski. Likewise, skier traffic only reduces the avalanche hazard if the snow has been beaten down to hardpack. Heck, even hardpack can slide under the right conditions (usually spring “wet slab” conditions).

Why is it that resorts are opening their boundaries even though it’s not any safer out there? Because the laws have changed. The Colorado Ski Safety Act, enacted in 1979, clearly defines the responsibilities of both the skier and the resort. The resort is only responsible for avalanche control inside the ski area boundary. Once you pass through that boundary, you’re on your own. This law has been tested and upheld, most notably at Arapahoe Basin, a where federal judge summarily dismissed a lawsuit nearly 20 years ago involving a fatality in a well-known O.B. zone called the Beavers. Many other states have followed suit with their own versions of the law.

As anticipated, while boundary policies have loosened up, the O.B. fatality rate has also gone up. Recent examples include avalanche deaths in well-known O.B. stashes at East Vail, Stevens Pass, Jackson Hole’s Pucker Face, and Telluride.

Slide in East Vail

The recent slide in East Vail, an area easily accessed from the resort.

Unfortunately, at least for backcountry riders, as more of this terrain gets skied and more fatalities happen, there’s more pressure for the ski areas to expand into this terrain and control it. Telluride and Breck have expanded into formerly heavily skied O.B. terrain. Mt. Rose opened its exciting Chutes back in 2004. A-Basin will be expanding into the Beavers in 2016. So that’s another reason not to get in an out-of-bounds avalanche: it might lead to that becoming part of the ski area.

This brings up a final question: OK, you know you’re on your own when you ski out of bounds. But how safe are you when you’re skiing in-bounds? In the past 5-10 years, we’ve seen avalanche fatalities in-bounds at a rate unheard of in the previous decade, with fatalities at Snowbird, Jackson, Squaw, A-Basin, and even Winter Park. With the explosion of fat, rockered skis, hybrid alpine/AT boots, and beefy AT bindings like the Marker Duke and Solomon Guardian, backcountry aggros and wannabees alike are itching to ski powder the minute the resort is open for business. And more and more, resorts have been accused of opening terrain before it’s stabilized and ready for the public. Avalanche pros acknowledge that snow science is inexact and the risk is never zero. They’re increasingly encouraging resort riders to pack their avalanche rescue equipment when skiing in-bounds, mainly on steep, ungroomed terrain on powder days. Is this necessary?

Times have truly changed since Schmidt, Plake, and Hattrup packed their bags (and their one-piece suits) and left Squaw to ski the unregulated off-piste couloirs in Cham. So here’s a quick primer on the new rules of engagement.

Within ski area boundary

• Open runs: generally avalanche controlled; however, there is no guarantee that avalanches won’t occur, especially in “avalanche prone” terrain. Wear an avalanche beacon in steep, ungroomed terrain on powder days. Better yet, bring avalanche probes and shovels so you’re not relying on others to save you if something lets loose. Avalanche airbags are optional, but a damn good idea.

Extreme inbounds terrain can avalanche

• Closed runs: may or may not be avalanche controlled; illegal to access, punishable by fines and loss of pass; not worth the risk, especially if you don’t want “core shots” on your new fatties.

Ski trail closed, probably not avalanche controlled.

Outside ski area boundary

• Anything outside the resort boundary should be considered “backcountry.” It is uncontrolled and rescue is not guaranteed.

• Avalanche safety education and equipment are mandatory, including avalanche transceiver, shovel, probe, and avalanche airbag.

• Public land: can usually be accessed through a U.S. Forest Service gate placed by the ski area in a relatively safe entry point. But the terrain and conditions beyond the gate are completely uncontrolled.

usfs boundary sign• Private land: usually not open to the public; you risk trespassing if caught. Only cross through if explicit permission is given.

Private property sign

• Don’t be fooled by terms such as “sidecountry” and “slackcountry.” While these hip monikers are good at capturing the geographic proximity of the terrain to the resort boundary, when it comes to avalanches, they are not artificially controlled. Therefore, they are “backcountry.”