Columns, First Tracks // April 6, 2009 // By


Where to now?

From politics to powder, George Koch and I often end a discussion by agreeing to disagree. But his diatribe that starts on page 22 this issue on the frustrations of both skiers and resorts over the opening of off-piste terrain, certainly hit a chord around here. I agree with George when he said simply, “…terrain is one of three things: open, closed or outside the ski area boundary/ski at your own risk.”

Unfortunately, with the mainstream and indeed some ski media applying the ambiguous term “out of bounds” to everything from named tree-runs my kids have skied in a group lesson to permanently closed avalanche terrain adjacent to a ski resort, all skiing that goes beyond a groomed run has left many skiers, and non-skiers, confused, scared—and full of opinion.

My first runs at Red Mountain 15 years ago were memorable, but definitely confusing. Buddy Steve and I skied lap after wonderful lap in perfectly spaced trees, in powder so deep it was sometimes up to my waist. After each trip back up through the massive whiteout, we’d follow our tracks under the rope to access Red’s spectacular backside. There were no signs saying “Ski Area Boundary” or “Closed”—or “Open” for that matter—just a yellow rope along a ridge signifying that we were leaving a groomed run.

What’s significant to the story, however, is at the beginning of the day, we’d found an elusive patrol who assured us that the terrain beyond this particular rope was actually on the trail map. It was safe and “open.” We explained that it took us a while to mentally place “You are here” on the map, to which he chuckled and said something to the effect, “We purposely leave it a little confusing to discourage the tourists.”

Signage, education and simply interest in skiing off the groomed has increased exponentially in western Canada for some time, with far more terrain, and potentially more dangerous terrain, opening up to resort skiers who are looking for a challenge and don’t mind hiking. But both skiers and resorts have lots to learn and respect before everyone involved is satisfied.

Regular readers know Ski Canada is dead against skiing temporarily or permanently “closed runs.” We’re also keen on readers becoming more educated in the difference between skiing off-piste in designated terrain that the patrol has deemed safe, and properly preparing themselves before heading off into parts of the backcountry that may or may not be bombed regularly by resort patrol. We’ve always encouraged avalanche education, and owning and knowing how to use appropriate safety gear. As well, we’ve always strongly promoted skiing off-piste with a guide or at the minimum a responsible, knowledgeable local.

The access gate is open; know the risks before reaching for the rewards.