Category Archives: Ski Resorts

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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Weekly High-Five Report: Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame Inductees

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This weekend the International Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame inducted eight new members to its honor roll, and I was thrilled to attend and also be a member of the judging panel. To add to the festivities K2 joined the party in celebration of their 50th Anniversary. In attendance at the event were K2 athletes Wayne Wong and the Mahre brothers. On display were decades of K2 skis and photos that reminded me how far skiing has come, but also making me a little nostalgic for the “good old days” of ISKI sunglasses and headbands. But at least the bota bag is making a comeback.

The 2012 Ski Hall of Fame Inductees:

Bravo to all the new inductees.

Also, Thursday April 19th is National High Five Day, so get out there and high-five someone.

Scenes from the Alps

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Caution lumberjacks

You have to love Swiss skiing. While on-piste, the ski patrollers ensure

A pretty typical Swiss scene

that each skier is fully safe. Even trees in the middle of the pistes are padded. Each run is lined on either side with painted poles. Once off the piste, however, the signs disappear. You wouldn’t want to wander too far off the piste in a white out.

4 Wheel Drive may be required

You might fall off a cliff, or you could end up in a mogul field with twenty-foot troughs or, even worse, you could even encounter a lumberjack.

And the dangers don’t end once back in the parking lot. The roads around here are windy and the drivers are aggressive. Sometimes they might even be a tad bit over-confident.

But I wouldn’t be surprised if John and I simply never leave. This place is just a little too good to be true.

Avalanche Destroys Chairlift

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Spring avalanches are slow but destructive. Check out these videos of a recent climax avalanche in France (notice that the entire snowpack slid down to dirt). This is the kind of avalanche cycle we saw last year at Crystal, when the snowpack reacted to warming rather than new storm deposits. These types of avalanches can be deceptive, and deserve our attention as we move towards warm spring days this month.

The first video shows the bottom of the lift. You can hear the towers breaking like toothpicks. The second video was taken by someone riding the lift. You can hear him cheering, which isn’t as strange as you might think. He must have been thrilled by the sheer, grinding force of the slow-moving beast and also heartened that he was above it and not in it.


Leftover Stashes and Playing to My Strengths

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Roses for us, PBR for them

You might think that I haven’t posted anything in the last few days because I have been too busy skiing powder at Crystal. According to Facebook it’s been off the hook up here. And that’s probably true. But I wouldn’t know.

Instead, I’ve been sharing my story with various groups across the state. That’s right. I’m becoming a Motivational Speaker, which is kind of an oxymoron (more about that next time).

I did sneak in a day of skiing at Stevens Pass on Tuesday with a dear friend of mine that I haven’t seen in ages. We visited the new memorial site for Jim, Johnny and Chris, the recent avalanche victims. The frozen roses were beautiful and tragic.

Afterwards I spoke to a group of High School Journalists all with bright futures ahead of them, and I’m pretty sure I convinced at least one of them to scrap her plans for college and instead become a ski bum (sorry Mom).

Then later I drove over three mountain passes in a single day. Needless to say, it’s been a bit of a world-wind. Now I’m back at Crystal, hoping to find some leftover stashes today (if I ever find myself at a job interview, I’m afraid I will claim this ability to find powder turns two days after a storm as my BIGGEST STRENGTH).

The forecast looks pretty settled for the weekend, with another cold front arriving Monday. Perhaps March will live up to the hype. Fingers crossed.

Weekly High Five Report: Kate Middleton, future ski patroller

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Ski patroller vs. General Manager

Kate Middleton tearing it up at Big Sky

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of getting to know Kate Middleton, Big Sky local and ripping skier. Kate is 12 years old and she already knows what she wants to do for a living. She wants to be a ski patroller. When I had dinner with Kate and her dad Taylor Middleton, the GM at Big Sky, we played my favorite game: Ski Patrol vs. General Manager.

Kate patiently explained to her father all the ways in which ski patrolling was better than being a general manager. To Kate and me the advantages are obvious. But Taylor toyed the line for his job. So we played “the game” with him. He got to say one reason why he loved his job; then Kate and I got to respond with one reason that patrolling was better.

Of course Kate and I won. No matter how good the job of G.M. might seem, Taylor could never beat out our final response: “On patrol you get to save people’s lives.”

Even Taylor had to bow his head to that one.

Future Ski Patroller

Fortunately I had the chance to interview Kate. I wanted to know how a girl so young could be so jazzed about a mostly-male job. I see myself in Kate. I started patrolling when I was only a few years older than her. I also want to protect her a little–tell her which guys to steer clear of, which kinds of accidents to avoid, where to find the best powder and how to stay safe. But I have a feeling about Kate. She’s going to be fine. In fact, she will be better than fine. She rips, she knows what she wants, and she’s confident. She may share a name with a princess, but this Kate Middleton is a ripper chic; and the only kind of royalty she aligns with is of the Dirt Bag persuasion.

I admire this Kate Middleton, and you should too. Bravo Kate. Thanks for answering my questions. I especially like your answer to question #5 below. You kind of hit that nail on the head:

In her words

1) What interests you about ski patrolling?

Everything. I think everything a patroller does is amazing.

2) Do you have a role model in patrolling or something that first sparked your interest in the job?

I really want to train my puppy to be a ski patrol dog.  Then my dad said Bob Dixon (the head ski patroller) wanted to ski with me.

3) Can you tell me more about the day you spent with Bob Dixon and the other patrollers? You mentioned that you dug a pit. Did you find anything interested in the snow that day? Were there any scary layers you found?

We dug a snow pit and the snow conditions were good. Then we went and threw a bomb witch was super scary, ran an accident and finally swept CJ (Calamity Jane)

4) What did you think when Bob threw a bomb on the slope? Where was that? Did the snow slide due to the bomb? Did the noise surprise you?

I was scared when he threw it. On Crons the snow slid a little, but not too much. I was also scared when I heard it go off.

5) What do you think about patrollers? Are they interesting? Heroic? Exciting? Smelly? Weird?

Patrollers are exciting and interesting. When they aren’t working, they are really crazy. But when they are working they are serious.

6) What interests you most about the job? What scares you? What do you think would be the best part of the job? What would be the hardest part?

I think the hardest part would be helping the people that are wounded. I think the scariest part would be skiing lots of hard stuff to see if it is safe so you can get it open. I think the best part of the job would be doing your job, making sure people are safe and helping them when they are hurt.

7) Do you have any advice for other girls that might want to be ski patrollers or ski area employees someday? Why choose ski patrolling instead of some other job?

Patrollers get money to ski and have fun and at the same time save people. I think that makes it the coolest job in Big Sky.

8) Can you tell me a little bit about yourself that you would like to share? For example, how long have you lived at Big Sky? Do you like living at a resort? What are the pluses and minuses of it?

I’m 12 years old. I go to Ophir School. I’ve lived in Big Sky all my life. I love living at a resort because you can ski every single weekend and on Fridays with my school. There are no minuses.

She’s right. There really are no minuses. Bravo Kate. High five!