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.