New Ski Area Legislation

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Governor Chris Gregoire signed a bill last week making it a misdemeanor to ski into a closed area at a ski resort in Washington State. Jim Kastama D-Puyallup, sponsored the bill. Kastama is a volunteer ski patroller at Crystal with me, and I share many of his concerns.  Now, those found on the wrong side of the rope will face a criminal trespassing charge and a fine of up to $1000.

This law only applies to areas closed by a ski area. It does not apply to the backcountry. At Crystal, it is still okay to ski into the National Park. Nothing really has changed, except the punishment. This is an important point, and one I want to make sure all readers understand. This law does not alter your access. Your skiing rights have not changed. Your access to the backcountry remains the same. It only increases the punishment for skiing into a closed area.

Last year a few patrollers stood at the top of Niagras at Crystal, just inside the rope. The area was closed; they had just started their avalanche route. One patroller had just thrown an explosive onto the slope, and as they plugged their ears to wait for the concussion, two skiers ducked the rope just below them and nearly skied over the lit charge.

The  patrollers yelled at the poachers, hollering “fire in the hole” and perhaps a few other phrases to get their attention. The two skiers were locals looking for a little more pow. Perhaps thinking they could “outsmart” the patrol, maybe even convinced they knew enough to get away with it, they ducked the rope. After all, what was the worst that could happen?

I heard the call come over the radio that morning, “we just placed a shot on Upper Niagras, and we have poachers below us.” I could also hear the other patroller in the background yelling at the skiers to get out of the way. They couldn’t do anything until that bomb exploded. The entire patrol held their breath.

When the shot went off, I heard it echo faintly from my own route nearby. I waited a few more minutes, anxious to hear of the fate of the poachers. The radio was silent for a long time.

Finally the names of the poachers were called in. I recognized the names, clenched my teeth and said a little prayer of thanks.

Luckily for those two the shot went off and did not start an avalanche. The patrollers above them stopped their explosive control, went after the violators and took their passes. Unfortunately the entire mission was stalled that day, and two skiers came very close to getting killed. And two patrollers came very close to watching it.

The Kastama bill would have allowed us to bring in reinforcements. Since patrollers are not law enforcement, the poachers would have been handed over to the Forest Service and would have learned a valuable lesson; they’d have a criminal record and be out a thousand bucks. But I’d like to think that now that this bill has become a law, next time, with one hand under the rope and the ski tips poking into the untracked snow on the other side, they’d think again.

At Crystal, like most ski areas, our closures are there for a reason. A persistent myth circulates throughout ski-bum counterculture that ski patrol keeps certain areas closed for themselves. Oh how I wish that were true. I can’t speak for other ski areas, but that’s not how it works at Crystal. Most days, while on our avalanche routes, Dispatch keeps tabs on the time, reminding teams that we are getting close to opening. Usually we open the lifts early, even on powder mornings, in order to dissipate the crowds from the base area. On those days, my greatest joy is watching others ski the powder that I just worked hard to open.

With Northway and Southback, our avalanche control plan has had to take poachers into consideration. This slows down our progress considerably. While doing control on Niagras now, we often post several guards along the ropeline to make sure no one makes a bad choice. This takes more personnel and slows down the whole process, which is unfortunate. We want to open the slopes as soon as possible. Not only because paying customers deserve to ski powder, but also because skiers stabilize the slope. The faster the snow gets skied, the safer it is.

Closure violators are jeopardizing not only their own safety, but the lives of the patrollers who must go after them. The two patrollers at the top of Niagras had to follow those poachers into uncontrolled slopes in order to catch them and keep them from killing themselves.

This new legislation will only affect those that end up on the wrong side of the rope. So, here’s a tip: don’t go into a closed area. It’s just not worth it. And now, it’s gotten a whole lot more expensive.

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7 responses »

  1. I think that $1000 is a bit steep, and I think that we will end up with power-trip patrollers who give out fines like bored traffic cops. However, I understand safety is paramount.

    I have a question though, are there different types of rope closure? I totally understand roping off niagaras or rock face, but sometimes there are areas lower on the mountain that are roped too. One example that springs to mind is the trees by K2 face. Some great tree runs in there yet there is always a rope and sometimes and open gate? Would that rope be subject to the new law as well? I see people duck that all the time, and in my uneducated past I had followed them. Not complaining, just trying to understand.

    • Jon,
      Great question. The only rope that is okay to duck at Crystal is the boundary ropeline into the National Park. However, we keep that roped in order to prevent unwitting skiers from ending up down there, since it requires either skinning back up or a long trek down to and out the closed highway. All other ropes at Crystal are meant as closures. In the example of K2 face, that ropeline extends around Bear Pits and has gates as access points. We used to have a gate at the top of K2 face, but since it has such a nasty fall line, we took that out. Now, if you want to ski it, you can access it at the upper Bear Pits gate, stay on the skier’s left side of the rope and enter through the trees. Alternately, you can enter further down at the Frisco gate. The reason for the gates is so that we can open and close the terrain when doing avalanche control. The gates also allow us to post warnings about the conditions.

      Sometimes we put up ropes as caution lines or merge lines. We have tried to use the orange flagging rope for these so that skiers can differentiate between a closure and a caution line. Over the years we have tried to get away from this confusion. In a nutshell, a ropeline should never be ducked. Go through the gates or around the ropes and you will be fine.

      As far as power-tripping patrollers, I don’t think that’s going to happen. Instead, with the fine so steep, I’m hoping rope ducking will no longer be an issue.

      • Thanks – very informative answer. When you say the upper bear pits gate, do you mean the one accessible from high campbell?

        • Jon,
          It’s the lowest official Bear Pits gate on the Campbell side. We call it Gate 1 (back when Avalanche Control crews had to hike the ridge; it was the first one they came to). It is accessible from High Campbell or by traversing from the Campbell Basin Lodge.

  2. I disagree with the legislation on a number of grounds despite sharing the frustration about rope ducking, self absorbed prima donnas.
    First, the state budget is already overconstrained. The tax dollars spent on administering the law could well be spent elsewhere such as fixing the holes on SR 410 or schools or controlling violent crime.
    Second, the law inappropriately extends the function of the state into supporting a business. The control of the area should be enforced within the confines of the business; folks caught in closed areas should be permanently disbarred from skiing @ Crystal. Stealing or violent behavior are a completely different categories.
    Third there is the issue of power corrupting. I understand that Patrol and Management have to define boundaries assuming the most stupid customers, but I for one am sad I can no longer ski the “edge” trees without threat of arrest. I do not duck ropes, but I have on more than one occasion been falsely and aggressively accused of doing so. In addiotin of concerns is skinning into Silver Basin when it’s closed, yet I have a pass.

  3. Pingback: How to Beg Forgiveness from a Ski Patroller « Kim Kircher

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