The Ski Industry: Caught between inbounds and out-of-bounds

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The Holy Grail

Crystal’s Hike to the King

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?

Uphill transportation is the name of the ski industry game

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.

Off-Piste, On-Piste

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:

Crystal’s Holy Grail

  1. 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?
  2. 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?
  3. 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.

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22 responses »

  1. Great conversation piece! I think it becomes side country when you can use the lifts to gain elevation before starting your descent in uncontrolled terrain. I’d call it back country when you are all human powered for the ascent.

    • Jamie,
      That certainly defines the current nomenclature. However, I’m hearing whispers of eradicating the term “sidecountry” from the conversation and replacing it with something more clear.

  2. I could speak on this for great lengths but I will try to keep it short.
    Must people forget that skiing is about pushing ones self to the limit, how far you can take it, most skiers practice up skills inbounds and than move out of bounds and eventually to the even more dangerous terrain such as the wilderness areas and national parks.
    Your statement “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?” is the wrong way to think about it.
    As times change you must change with them. Embrace your roll in skiing and don’t over extend to far to make things worse. Sometimes ski resorts need to remember that skiing is bigger than the resort, climbing a mountain always feels better at the top when you climb it, than when you ride a chairlift.
    The problem is with most people they don’t have the time or energy to climb a mountain every time when they want to ski, that is when you have your place.
    I use a ski resort like a gym for training, So instead of being mad to see people ski stuff out of bounds or feel that your ski resort is going to go under because of people skiing more back country or the worst close gates because you feel like the boot pack is over used is going make it worse and make your ski resort worth less than what it is, instead use what you have to the fullest, inform people before going out they need to be strong and use good judgement that can come from experience skiing at your resort or your resorts out of bounds area.

    • Thanks for your thoughtful comment Andy. I agree that ski area operators need to change with the sport. Most areas are opening lift-served backcountry via gates along their boundaries. This definitely adds to the skiing experience and anyone in their right mind would open as much of this kind of terrain as possible. I believe in transparency and so left in my comment about ski areas as businesses because after all it has to work for the bottom line or a ski area will quickly have to close their doors. My real question isn’t whether or not gate accessed backcountry will continue, but rather how to keep it open. First, I think we need to be more clear about how we manage terrain. The gates at Jackson are clear: you are leaving the ski area and if rescue is possible you or your heirs will be charged. But some areas are not as clear. Mt. Baker has a duck-the-rope policy that allows skiers and riders to access some pretty gnarly avalanche terrain and return to the bottom of a lift without any hiking whatsoever. Up until recently there was very little, if any, signage warning of potential hazards or terrain management changes. So the ski industry is atwitter about what do to, and I’m chumming the waters to start a healthy discussion about where and how this should go. No one is threatening closing boundaries. If anything, we are headed toward more open boundaries rather than fewer.

  3. I would agree with Jamie. Keep it simple stupid (KISS), control, sign and maintain what is in your boundry. Anything outside the boundry is sidecountry, slackcountry etc.. Often you pass through a gate that says you are leaving the control ski area boundry when you access side/slackcountry. Jackson and others even have a transeiver set to recieve that beeps when you go by the gate, letting you know that yours works and is on and further punctuating the fact that you are leaving the patroled area. Backcountry does not include chairlifts.

    • I agree Joel on the definition of backcountry. But up until recently, we always used the terms inbound and out of bounds. Now the terms sidecountry and slackcountry have blurred the lines a bit. This is a problem for ski area operators because for liability reasons we need to very clearly define how we manage our terrain. Having said that, we also want skiers and riders to access as much as possible and have a good time at our ski areas. So perhaps its as simple as returning to inbounds vs out of bounds as our terminology. But “out of bounds” use to mean off limits, but that’s no longer always the case.

  4. Keep doing what you’ve been doing all these years to maintain a balance of safety and the backcountry experience. No complaints here. I never leave the mountain feeling I’ve been cheated out of something.

  5. For me personally, I define in-bounds, side-country (aka slack-country) and back-country as classifieds by the number of skiiers that traffic the area. In-bounds see’s the highest number of skiiers. Side-country see’s a number of skiiers between the in-bounds and true back-country which only will see a few tracks per season on a whole slope. I would view alot of the popular back-country areas as displaying more of a side-country snow pack vs a traditional in-bounds or back-country layering. For me what side-country means is “skier compaction” which helps to change avalanche danger. The same mentality must be taken on side-country and back-country in regards to the avalanche hazard, where in-bounds you are paying for” ignorance is bliss”. I just like the euro system a “in-bounds” or “out-bounds” mentality would work best. Because its either the ski resorts liability or its not. In-bounds it is and out of bounds its not, simple and easy.

    • Michael,
      You bring up an excellent point. At Crystal we stopped using the term “backcountry” for our Southback avalanche-controlled area several years ago because we wanted skier compaction. Obviously, the more the better from an avalanche hazard perspective. As a skier or snowboarder, skier compaction should be at the forefront of your decision making process. However, only locals or those who’d skied quite a bit in any given season would really be able to judge skier compaction. And of course, skier compaction can make a big difference when it comes to direct action avalanche cycles but not so much when it comes to deep-slab instability that gets weaker over time. Either way, I agree that the Euros have it figured pretty well. And yet, they don’t always benefit from as much skier compaction off-piste (this varies widely ski area to ski area).

  6. Rather than finding a nifty label for all the different permutations out there, which is just asking for confusion, the ski industry could label Expert terrain based on three yes/no criteria. Does the terrain have:

    1. Avalanche control?
    2. Patrol sweep?
    3. Obstacles clearly marked?

    Obviously, the extremes are Backcountry = No, No, No; Groomed/frontside terrain is Yes, Yes, Yes. As you explain, different areas at Crystal would fall somewhere in between. Northway (Y, Y, Some – use caution), Southback (Y, Y, N). If you’re an experienced enough skier/boarder to enter Expert terrain, it’s reasonable to learn the implications of a “No” to any of those questions.

    If many resorts adopted this kind of consistent (and easy to read) signage, I think this problem would be solved. It’s easier to understand than terms like “in bounds,” “sidecountry,” etc. Locals get what’s up at their home mountain; it’s when you travel that things can sometimes get confusing… i.e. what’s Schlasman’s at Bridger Bowl? Headwall & Crags at Jackson?

    • Erik,
      I like it. You’re right about local knowledge. A consistent system would be nice. Perhaps the conversation could head in that direction. The linchpin will be to get ski area people to agree on it.

  7. no matter what you callit , remember not only to you put yourself at risk , but if something goes bad you also put others at risk . this is something i take into account everytime i skin up or use a gate .its ok to turn back folks. we loss far to many people this year . all do to not want to give those sweets turns.for me if its to risky its not worth putting myself and others in harms way. live to ski another day

  8. It seems the biggest issue is liability. It would be nice if people took responsibility for their actions instead of expecting an institution to take care of them.

  9. Why is this really an issue? I ask because, living in Europe, there are almost no signs, and never have been. Neither pistes nor off-piste is explicitly marked, although differentiating is not usually a problem.
    I hear liability, liability etc etc. I get that, but has anyone actually totaled up the loss of life and done some kind of cost analysis on out of bounds skiing? I recognize how cold this sounds, and certainly, to someone directly affected, this kind of analysis is meaningless, but in the arguments for and against out of bounds skiing, I hear so much emotional hyperbole. It is impossible to make any kind of sensible judgement without removing that element.
    Over here – you can do what you like, pretty much, but you will pay if you require rescue. Dying is tragic – but it is your fault, no one else’s. (with some rather disturbing exceptions in the last few years….) Despite this – I don’t perceive tremendous loss of life or “cost” to society. I know how callous this sounds, but frankly, more lives could be saved by putting our energy into education and infrastructure for better crosswalks than bc or “sidecountry” skiing.
    As to resort liability? Can’t this be solved? Is it even really a problem? How many real cases have there been of people knowingly leaving the controlled areas of a resort, getting hurt and then (successfully) suing for damages? I feel confident that Core riders and their families would refrain from these kinds of frivolous lawsuits – is there ANYBODY out there who wouldn’t?
    As to Europe: I’m not even sure if liability is legally defined. Is it? In any case, this doesnt seem to pose a huge problem here. Costs for rescue are sometimes an issue, but these are more than offset by the additional tax revenue associated with winter tourism and in some cases have been passed on to those needing rescue. In any case, I am not aware of resorts, or communities “going under” due to these costs. They are a sideline issue.
    Is the US making a mountain out of a molehill?

    • Interesting perspective Wookie. Thanks for your comment. You’d be surprised. Perhaps because of the cost of health care in North America, injured people do sue for money to cover their costs. I wish people would just take responsibility for themselves, and most people do. As a ski patroller, I also feel its our duty to mark hazards. Skiers and riders have come to expect a certain amount of marking. Having said that, I love the European system and wish we could employ the same standards in the States.

  10. I don’t think it matters what ya call the area. Backcountry side whatever. I can from your tone ( and I may perceive It wrong) tell and also with my conversation with a few ski patrol ladies. That you do not care for people with at setup. I skinned up sun morning to Campbell basin and was stopped. Two ladies, one asked me not to hike above closed areas. She said she did not want slides coming down on paying customers. Makes sense. I told her I always pay attention to your signs. So I guess she assumed I was riff raff. So if you skin up you just assume I’m not paying. I have a season pass I just want more exercise. I will always buy a season pass. But when I get a unfriendly ski patrol makes me wonder. I bought my skis at crystal and I spend more money on food and beer at Crystal than a season pass. People will always need a lift uphill. I don’t think business will change for you.

    • Greg,
      Actually I work on an AT setup as do most patrollers. I’m surprised that you’ve encountered other “ski patrol ladies” with that attitude. I say more power to you. In fact the point of my post is to ask the question how to keep the access open.

  11. Pingback: So You Think You Can Avoid Avalanches « Kim Kircher

    • The issue with the terms sidecountry and slackcountry is that those venturing into these zones might consider them “backcountry light”, when in reality the same hazards exist in BC zones near a ski area as in those further afield. I suppose the nomenclature is about education, more than anything else. That, plus a bit of navel gazing, I suppose.

      • Exactly! At the risk of stating the obvious that we here understand; all out of bounds locations are by definition more dangerous than prepared in-bound trail locations. That’s why I like the binary nomenclature so much better. It automatically indicates you’re in greater danger if you’re “out of bounds”, “hors-piste”, “off-piste”, etc. I

        I like how you mentioned that terming out-of-bounds as side and slack country may make it sound ‘fluffier’ to the uninitiated, and people who ski out of bounds in resorts usually feel pretty safe, regardless of the inherent dangers. I’ve kissed a couple of trees that way.

        • I know what you mean. Although of course I try to remind people that plenty of risks exist inside the boundaries too. My job is to mitigate those risks, but they’re still there. Bottom line is that we all need to take responsibility for our own actions.

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