The Holy Grail
It’s no secret. Untracked stashes are the Holy Grail of skiing and riding. People want their own private powder, dawn patrol sessions and access to the soon-to-be-shunned term “sidecountry” (see below). The ski industry is changing—AT gear is hot, split board sales are on the rise and “freeing the heel” is going mainstream. Seems everyone has a transceiver and skins these days.
Whether skinning up the ski area in the morning or using chairlifts to access terrain outside of the ski area boundary, those taking up this new trend in the sport are forcing the hand of ski area operators.
As a skier, I say this is great. I love to ski uncrowded and untracked slopes as much as the next gal. As a ski patroller, I wonder a little if some might venture out when they probably shouldn’t. At Crystal, I’ll be the one to go out with a headlamp after hours to look for them. As a ski area owner, I wonder what it means for the industry.
The ski industry has historically been about uphill transportation. From ropetows to Funitels, one way or another ski areas are in business to get you to the top of the mountain. Say what you will about the present state of the industry—if it weren’t for a need for people to get to the top of the mountain, we wouldn’t be where we are now.
What’s in a Name?
With more people venturing out of bounds, the ski industry (namely NSAA) is taking note and asking questions. Number one, they want to know what to call it. What’s been increasingly referred to as “sidecountry” can be misleading. Does that mean controlled backcountry? Gate-accessed true backcountry? Unmarked, explosive-controlled terrain? Hike to? Chairlift accessed?
Soon the term “sidecountry” will need to be more fully defined. We probably won’t even use the term anymore, returning to the more clear inbounds vs. out of bounds nomenclature. And yet, ski area marketing people love this term because it’s catchy, it’s cool and it’s embodies the zeitgeist of today’s ski consumer.
Number two, the industry wants to know how to let skiers and riders access this Holy Grail of terrain without either ruining the experience or breaking the bank. More chairlifts would obviously ruin the backcountry feel. But purchasing land or adding into a ski area’s current boundary permit might be impossible at worst or very expensive at best. Questions of public land use and wilderness designation also come into play in much of the West. In Telluride a local land owner/real estate developer, Tom Chapman, has forced the ski area to close it’s backcountry access gates into Bear Creek because skiers must cross Chapman’s 30-acre strip at the bottom of the run. Obviously this didn’t sit well with local skiers.
Europe manages terrain much differently. It starts with land use in the Alps, where the land is owned individually or cooperatively by farmers and ranchers. In the Swiss Alps, for example, cow owners are Kings. The ski company owns the lifts, the grooming machines and many of the restaurants. Some ski areas, such as Val Thorens in France, are actually run by two separate companies—one that runs the lifts and another that runs the ski patrol and grooming. This system lends itself to their On-Piste/Off-Piste terrain management. The named pistes are inbounds. Everything else—including the moguled edges of the pistes—are all “off-piste”. If you get hurt “off-piste” you pay extra for rescue.
Patrol marks everything on the pistes—even putting large pads around the trunks of trees that lie between the piste-markers. Everything else—whether a 1,000-foot drop off at Crans-Montana or gaping crevasse in Argentiere—is unmarked. I guess they figure if you’re stupid enough to go off-piste and kill yourself, then it’s your own damn fault.
In North America, we manage terrain very specifically. Named runs are marked, avalanche hazard is mitigated through explosives and ski-cutting, and expert terrain is signed and often gated. Chances are if you find yourself atop an expert run, you passed by several signs letting you know where you were headed. We mark major hazards, put ropes around big drop offs, use signs and pigtails and reflective tape to make sure skiers and riders don’t accidentally go over a big drop. We pad every tower, whether on a named trail or on a double-black diamond run.
Crystal’s Terrain Management
At Crystal we have compartments of terrain (I wish I could think of a better term than “compartments” which seems like a selling feature of luggage, not a ski area, so I’m open to suggestions). We have our main area—including everything that isn’t accessed through a gate. Then we have Bear Pits, which is surrounded by a rope. The warning signs are all the entrance to the gate, and once you enter, you won’t see any further signage. In Northway we also post signs at the entrance gates, however you will also encounter Cliff signs and Caution signs. Southback is managed differently, with very little “improvement”. We don’t mark much out there other than a few key spots. But we do use avalanche mitigation and we also sweep it at the end of the day. So it isn’t true backcountry, nor does it fall under the suddenly ubiquitous “sidecountry” term either. It is inbounds terrain. But it feels like out-of-bounds, which is increasingly rare these days.
More and more ski areas are offering gate-accessed backcountry, such as Jackson Hole and Brighton. Once you leave the ski area boundary through a gate, you are on your own. Crystal’s “Far North” gates, marked A, B, C and D are signed and managed this way.
Where Do We Go From Here?
These questions remain:
- What to call the terrain. Do we call inbounds, gated, expert terrain such as Bear Pits the same term as Southback? How does the industry keep the caché of the “sidecountry” terminology and lose the liability?
- How do we as an industry embrace this evolution in our sport while still keeping in mind that this is a business and needs to turn some kind of a profit to continue? In other words, if we’re in the business to provide uphill transportation and people don’t want that anymore, what the hell are we doing here plowing our parking lots and roads and paying employees?
- What can skiers and riders do to ensure their Holy Grail of terrain remains open and accessible?
What do you think? Is this just navel-gazing from an industry insider or questions that apply to everyone? I’d welcome comments, suggestions and discussion.