Out-of-bounds skiers lose passes
Dozens of red signs dangle from miles of rope marking Heavenly Ski Resort’s boundary. The black rope is supposed to work as a deterrent to powder-hungry skiers. But, for some, the temptation to get first tracks is too great.
Heavenly ski patrollers claim that an unusually high number of skiers and snowboarders have left their tracks just outside the area’s perimeter this season.
Some are traveling far beyond the rope while others are making turns on closed slopes inside the resort.
Assistant Patrol Director Joe Blanchard said the latter presents the most dangerous situation because the slopes are often closed for avalanche control work, which involves the use of explosives.
“We’ve had poachers come in during avalanche work,” Blanchard said. “The (dynamite) charges are lit and on the ground when someone skis up on us – that is totally unacceptable.”
Blanchard said that was the scenario Wednesday when avalanche workers pulled 13 passes – seven season passes and six day tickets – as powder seekers whizzed by them during routine avalanche control work in the area’s expert-only terrain, Killebrew Canyon.
“We’re not trying to take terrain away from people – we’re doing this for their safety and for our safety,” Blanchard said. “There’s a big difference between skiing inside of the ropes and out.”
Crossing the line to permanently closed slopes could mean exposure to high avalanche risk, according to Blanchard.
“The snow inside the boundary has been skier compacted, the snow outside hasn’t and, in my mind, that is the most important component in reducing avalanche danger,” he said. “Another factor is getting lost. If you don’t know where you’re going and you follow tracks outside the boundary you could be in for a big excursion.”
Despite the late start to the season, search and rescues on the Nevada side of the mountain have increased, said Sgt. Al Baumruck, of the Douglas County Sheriff’s office.
“There have already been between seven and 10 searches this year,” Baumruck said. “And we haven’t gotten to the heaviest part of the season. I don’t know if it’s because the equipment is so much better now or because the backcountry is getting more popular.”
On average, Douglas County Sheriff’s Search and Rescue performs about six searches per winter season. Sometimes the rescuers are too late.
“Occasionally, they die,” Baumruck said. “Over the years we’ve had several fatalities.”
Beside being a physical threat, traveling out of bounds is illegal in California – a misdemeanor punishable by three months in jail and/or a $500 fine.
El Dorado County Sheriff’s Sgt. Doug Pullen said out-of-bounds skiers who spark rescue efforts are typically cited when they are found.
“It creates a problem for us when we have to go look for them,” he said. “If it’s their fault and they deliberately skied out of bounds, they will be cited.”
In order for the law to be upheld, the closed area must be clearly marked by the ski area and the skiers must have entered the closure from the resort. The law doesn’t apply to backcountry travelers who have entered the area on their own.
Additionally, lost skiers and snowboarders can be billed for their rescue by both the ski area and the county search-and-rescue teams.
Sgt. Jim Watson, of the El Dorado County Sheriff’s Department, said some searches have cost more than $10,000.
“It depends on what’s involved,” he said. “If they’re running a helicopter all night, that can get costly.”
In Nevada, skiing out of bounds is an at-your-own-risk endeavor for getting hurt and losing lift privileges.
In both states, ski areas can revoke day or season passes without refund.
Blanchard said his patrol has been forced to use the tactic and are on the edge of getting the sheriff involved.
“If we have to take a few passes, the word will get around that we’re taking these closures very seriously,” Blanchard said. “We want everyone else to take them seriously, too.”
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