This winter, those ropes and signs will be eradicated, offering legal winter backcountry access to some of the area’s worst-kept-secret stashes.
The Forest Service’s Norwood District Ranger office announced this week that three new backcountry access points will be added at the Telluride ski area for the 2009/2010 winter. One access point will be located at the top of Palmyra Peak, for entrance to Lena Basin and Alta Lakes Basin. The two other locations will provide access into Lower Bear Creek. The Regular Route access point will be located near the ski patrol headquarters between lift 9 and lift 6. The Contention access point will be located off the top of the Bushwacker ski trail.
The three new backcountry access points, or “gates,” join two already-existing gates on the Telluride Ski area, one located near the top of lift 15, and at the other at the bottom of Bald Mountain.
The Forest Service-managed Access Points allow the public to leave the developed ski area and access National Forest System Lands adjacent to the ski area permit boundary.
The decision to instate three more access points – essentially making it legal to ski backcountry areas that were illegal in the past – comes after nearly five years of research, planning and discussion on the part of the Forest Service and local stakeholders, Norwood Recreation Manager and Snow Ranger Scott Spielman said this week.
“Access to these areas has been an ongoing issue for the last 20 years,” he said, referring specifically to the popular Regular Route and Contention areas, put under federal closure following a string of avalanche deaths there and in the Upper Bear Creek basin during the mid-1980s. Over the years, it became clear that even a federal closure promising arrest and/or heavy fines if caught skiing in the area wasn’t enough to keep backcountry enthusiasts out.
“When you’re seeing moguls in Contention, you know it’s getting a lot of traffic,” Spielman said. And so, between the heavy, illegal use in the area, the difficulty the Forest Service had regulating the closures, and the obvious interest of many members of the region’s backcountry skiing community, the Forest Service reconsidered the two-decades-old federal closure.
“We felt it was time to start managing the area, thereby allowing the public to make informed decisions” about skiing the area, Spielman said, rather than just ducking a rope and hoping not to get caught.
Designated access points inform the public about the inherent risks and hazards related to backcountry travel, and act as a “decision point” for those individuals interested in leaving the developed ski area. Notifying the public about the potential dangers associated with leaving the ski area allows individuals to make an educated decision, the Forest Service press release states. Access points have standardized Forest Service signs and provide contact information for avalanche forecasts and weather conditions.
“Those wishing to leave the ski area for a backcountry experience need to be notified of the potential consequences and the severity of the decision they are about to make,” District Ranger Judy Schutza said in the press release. “The decision could potentially be life-threatening, and should not be taken lightly.”
The Wednesday announcement represented a tentative victory for some in the local backcountry skiing community. Local skier Tor Anderson is the director of the Telluride Mountain Club, a group that was formed mostly as an avalanche-education organization following the 1980s’ avalanche-related deaths but has evolved into a kind of grassroots access advocacy group in more recent times. The Telluride Mountain Club was instrumental in the 2000 instatement of the Bear Creek backcountry access point, atop the ski area near the apex of the Revelation Bowl lift.
“It’s great that they are finally providing legal access to areas that have been used for decades illegally anyway,” Anderson said, noting the mantra “freedom of the hills” as the TMC’s stance on most access issues. “The more places backcountry users have, and the more opportunities they have to use those places responsibly, the better.”
New access points into Bear Creek will, from the Forest Service’s perspective, allow more responsible use of an area that has for decades been a not-so-secret backcountry skier’s playground. But could the decision have other, more overarching outcomes? Could more access into Bear Creek from ski area bounds steer decisions about the ski area someday expanding its boundary to include all or parts of those areas?
According to the Forest Service’s Spielman and Telluride Ski Resort CEO Dave Riley, the new access points and the ongoing discussion about ski area expansion are two very different and unrelated issues.
“This is a matter that is completely independent of any discussion about potential expansion,” Spielman said.
The new access points are “purely a Forest Service decision,” on which the ski area has maintained a “neutral” stance, Riley said. “This is a decision that was really out of our hands. As a ski company, we have nothing to do with how the Forest Service manages federal lands.”
Riley has in the past expressed concern, however, that easy and visible access from ski area bounds into potentially deadly avalanche terrain could cause major legal problems for the Telluride Ski Resort.
“The Ski area is protected by state statute, but I remain concerned that even with that protection, a claim could still be brought against the Ski area,” Riley said, reiterating, in somewhat milder form, what he told The Watch last month – that he anticipated the impending opening of the Revelation Bowl lift, and its proximity to the Bear Creek Backcountry Access Point, would bring about a sharp increase in traffic in Upper Bear Creek, leading, ultimately, to more accidents that could become lawsuits against the ski area.
Riley announced late last summer that the ski company was, indeed, exploring the idea of expanding the ski area boundary to include parts of Bear Creek. Through informal meetings with the public and discussions with San Miguel County Commissioners, Riley expressed his concern about accidents in Bear Creek, and said that the ski company could at least keep the area safe (thus staving off lawsuits) if it were given permission to manage it – in other words, include its slopes within the ski area’s permit area.
This week, Riley reiterated the ski area’s stance on expansion.
“We are continuing to look into the viability of proposing management and expansion into the Upper Bear Creek area,” he said, noting the Forest Service’s extension of the Snow Safety Study permit, originally granted to the ski area last winter, allowing ski patrol to close portions of Bear Creek each morning to perform snow studies, as “pivotal” in terms of helping the ski area make a decision related to expansion.
But Riley reiterates that as far as the Forest Service’s new backcountry access points are concerned, “The ski area’s responsibility ends at the gate.”