By Tom Boyd
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January 28, 2008 — Despite two recent avalanche deaths and its growing popularity with backcountry skiers, don’t look for access to the East Vail Chutes to be shut down by the Forest Service or for Vail Resorts to annex the area any time soon.
The heavily trafficked area just east of Vail ski area is not part of the ski company’s permit area and is accessed by a backcountry gate at the top of Vail Mountain where Forest Service officials try to warn snow riders about the potential risks of skiing the uncontrolled area.
But closing the Chutes and trying to enforce that closure would be difficult says Don Dressler, snow ranger for the Holy Cross Ranger District of the White River National Forest, which administers the publicly owned lands in and around Vail Mountain.
“I don’t think anyone wants to have a kneejerk reaction and start closing areas based on accidents, but we definitely want to consider all of our options,” Dressler said. “At the end of the day, though, the responsibility lies with the user, and I have to take a hard look at whether we’re doing all we can to educate the user before they take that risk.”
According to John Snook of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, an unidentified skier triggered a shallow, soft-slab slide at 11,700 feet in an area known as Abraham’s Chute, sweeping them over a cliff but leaving them uninjured and able to ski away.
The slide was only six inches to a foot deep, consisting of recent snowfall, but ran 150 feet wide and 300 feet deep. The small slide (rated only a one on the destruction scale) came in the wake of two fatal avalanches Jan. 4 and Jan. 12 in the popular backcountry area just east of Vail Mountain.
“Even a small slide can ruin your day, so beware of your consequences,” Snook said, adding snow and high winds will increase the probability of human-triggered slides in the backcountry around Vail Monday into Tuesday.
For forecasts and general information, go to http://avalanche.state.co.us or for a detailed and intense account of a near-fatal Dec. 18 avalanche in the East Vail Chutes, go to http://avalanche.state.co.us/Accidents/Colorado/By+Season/2007-08+Season/20071218.htm.
In both recent avalanche deaths in the area - Matthew Gustafson, 33, on Jan. 12 and Jesse Brigham, 27, on Jan. 4 - the victims were skiing with essential rescue equipment such as shovels, beacons and probes but chose to ski steep, exposed routes when avalanche danger was listed as “considerable.”
Backcountry skiing has skyrocketed in popularity in recent years, with snow safety classes jammed to capacity and rescue gear flying off the shelves of sporting goods stores. But the force of the two recent slides in East Vail made rescue beacons a moot point.
In Europe, backcountry skiing is just as much of a ski-at-your-own-risk proposition, but paid private guide services are far more common. In the United States, ski resorts defer to the Forest Service when it comes to backcountry access.
“They are the ones who put the backcountry gate up, so they are the ones who have to authorize a closure,” said Vail spokeswoman Jen Brown. “It comes down to individual responsibility, and the reality is there is no guided service and if you go, you’re on your own and need to be able to make the decision on whether to ski something or turn around.”
Historically, the East Vail Chutes, which officials say sees 150 snow riders on a busy day, have been fairly safe given the relatively high traffic. The last avalanche death before this season was in 1996, and the last fatality in the area – a snowboarder who went off a cliff band – was in 2001.
“It’s been several years since we’ve had high-profile accidents out there, and there’s a new generation of users who haven’t really experienced that,” Dressler said, “but just because you’ve skied it before doesn’t mean it’s safe.”
But the recent deaths have raised questions of access and jurisdiction. The Eagle County Sheriff’s Department, working with the Forest Service, is responsible for rescues and recoveries in the backcountry, but leans heavily on assistance from Vail Ski Patrol and volunteer groups such as Vail Mountain Rescue.
“Every time we have an accident, the issue will come up as to whether the ski area should manage lands like this, but it would take a forest plan amendment and an Environmental Impact Statement and snow safety analysis, and it would be several years of planning to accomplish anything like that,” Dressler said.
In the 1990s, Vail officials looked closely at the East Vail Chutes as a possible venue for a downhill ski racing run before deciding to build the Birds of Prey course at Beaver Creek. Other factors making incorporation into the ski area difficult include impacts to the residential neighborhood at the base and the cost of a new lift and parking area. Still, there is precedent.
“Beaver Creek and the Stone Creek Chutes (a backcountry area added to that resort a few years ago) are a good example, because it was an area where people were ducking the ropes and it was only a matter of time before something was going to happen there,” Dressler said, “but that was already in the permit area, so it was much easier to accomplish.”
Most ski areas operate on leased federal land through a special use permit. Chris Jarnot, Vail’s newly appointed chief operating officer, said adding the East Vail Chutes is not something on his immediate radar screen.
“It’s not part of this master plan that we’ve proposed, but after the two deaths in the last 10 days we’re more focused on how we work with the Forest Service and the sheriff’s department in helping people who get in trouble out there.”
Jarnot says it’s not Vail Ski Patrol’s responsibility, but the resort will always try to help out because it often has the most qualified personnel in the best position to lend a hand. Still, there is also the problem of putting his staff in harm’s way in difficult rescue conditions with more slides possible.
“It’s a difficult and touchy situation as we interface with those other agencies,” Jarnot said. “As far as should that lead to us opening (the East Vail Chutes as part of the resort), I think that’s way down the road.”
Jarnot adds much can be learned from the European model of backcountry skiing.
“In Europe they have professional guides who manage that, too, but the majority of who are out there are with professionals and people who know exactly what they’re doing, and you get charged your home and life savings if you go out there alone and get in trouble back there,” he said.
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