Heavenly’s backcountry requires common sense, not cell phones
January 16, 2006
Near the top of Olympic Chair at Heavenly Mountain Resort is what used to be one of the best-kept secrets in Lake Tahoe.
To the north, on the backside of a ridge, a dreamy vantage point evolves into an uninterrupted 2,500-foot fall line that remains one of the best tree runs in the country. It is not horribly steep and Lake Tahoe – in all its splendid glory – stares at you the entire way. It’s a great way for a group of locals to share a powder day together.
In 1992, when Tom Bork bought his house at the end of Easy Street, he and his buddies did just that. Over and over again, they sampled this fall line. In those days, the only tracks they crossed were their own.
Times have changed.
“When I first moved to my house, there was nobody out there,” Bork said. “We could ski there for three days after a powder storm. It was great because the run ended right at my house. Now we pretty much get one day and that’s it.”
After a storm last weekend covered South Shore with as much as 24 inches of snow, this once best-kept secret was in prime condition on Sunday. There were fresh tracks to be had, but seclusion wasn’t the theme of the day.
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There were so many tracks in this area, one could guess there were some tracks created by people who shouldn’t have been there. (I saw one female skier with her significant other snow plowing around trees.) And that turned out to be the case.
Two skiers and a snowboarder had to be rescued last weekend after skiing out of bounds. Even though technology such as cell phones and a family-talk radio allowed search and rescue teams to locate the victims, their first mistake was venturing out of bounds solo.
Up until the 2004-05 season, the only things on the ridge near Olympic Chair were red signs and an orange rope marking the ski area boundary. Before last season, anyone who entered this area was engaged in an illegal activity, which implies it’s a dangerous endeavor.
But it’s safe for someone who is competent and experienced. Prior to the 2004-05 season, Heavenly installed three backcountry gates. One of the gates is called “Fire Break,” located near the top of Olympic Chair and, like the others, is prefaced with a collection of warnings. Fire Break, though, is the gate that accesses Bork’s playground and is the most popular because its terrain terminates – ideally – near the Heavenly Gondola.
The problem is Bork’s house is nowhere near the gondola. In fact, it’s located several miles up Kingsbury Grade, closer to Daggett Summit than Heavenly Village. Between Bork’s house and the gondola are plenty of hazards, including streams, canyons and trees.
It’s a deceptively vast area, bordered to the west by the gondola and to the east by the western perimeter of Heavenly’s boundary in Nevada. For people who know the area, there are basically two main avenues for descent.
The first avenue is known as “Palisades,” which ends near the bottom of Kingsbury Grade. A variation of Palisades ends at Bork’s home so he labeled it “Tom’s Run.”
The second avenue is more popular and involves traversing higher on East Peak, where skiers and snowboarders can ride the actual Fire Break, a vertical cut in the trees that didn’t live up to its name during the Gondola Fire in 2002.
This variation ends at Lake Parkway behind Forest Inn Suites, near the gondola. In the 1960s, local ski bums Austin Angell and Jim Palmer were among the first people to frequent this area. However, they adopted safe practices.
Before the Nevada side of Heavenly had even opened, they traversed from California and marked the Fire Break with brightly-colored streamers. That way, during a storm, they would know their exact location and could descend safely. They would also ski in groups of four.
“But that’s not the only thing we did,” Angell said. “We’d always check in with the patrolmen and let them know what we were doing. Then when we got back, we’d call and let them know we made it. We were being safe. The problem is we knew what we’re doing. There’s a lot of people now who think they know what they’re doing but they don’t.”
The silver lining in all of this?
For starters, don’t go alone through Fire Break or any other backcountry gate.
Heavenly was generous enough to provide access to these areas. Although the resort attracts an amazing amount of inexperienced skiers, its assumption was people would take the proper precautions before passing through the backcountry gates.
So go with a minimum of three people and make sure someone in the group knows the area. That way if someone gets injured, one person can stay with the injured person while the other person seeks help.
Not only will this method help save your own life, it also won’t endanger the people responsible for finding you. Cell phones don’t transform you into a good skier. And they certainly aren’t a substitute for common sense.
– Jeremy Evans is a sports writer for the Tahoe Daily Tribune. He can be reached at (530) 542-8008 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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