On Jan. 30, 2013, skier Derrick Wcislak dropped into the trees off the Paradise run beyond Snowbowl's eastern boundary. Tracks in the snow revealed that he wasn't the only one to dip into the backcountry that day in search of powder. But things went wrong for Wcislak.
He overshot the route that others skiing the drainage typically take to circle back around to Snowbowl's base area. It was only his second day ever skiing Snowbowl, and Wcislak quickly found himself surrounded by the thick alder stands above Grant Creek. With daylight waning, he decided to use his climbing skins—strips of specially designed fabric that adhere to skis and allow skiers to travel uphill—to get back to the area boundary.
Mere minutes into his ascent, one of Wcislak's ski bindings broke. He called a friend, who in turn called 911. Missoula County Search and Rescue began to mobilize.
Kai Thorsgard, director of the Five Valleys Backcountry Ski Patrol, got the call early that evening. His patrol's liaison at the Missoula County Sheriff's Department told him to remain on standby, in case the situation required the kind of specialized skills in emergency medical care and mountain travel that Thorsgard and his cohorts could offer. Sometime around 3 a.m., Thorsgard recalls, it became apparent Five Valleys was needed. Well before dawn, patrollers dropped into the Grant Creek drainage from the same spot Wcislak had. They tracked him for hours. When they found him, he was still lost, but otherwise unharmed.
In the two seasons since its founding, Five Valleys has responded to two emergency calls in the backcountry. Both have been within sight of Snowbowl, making areas like the drainage off Paradise a constant concern for Thorsgard and his patrollers.
"You just land in a big patch of alder," Thorsgard says. "Something fails and they don't have a means of getting out and end up spending the night. We've been pretty lucky so far in terms of weather. It hasn't been a huge blizzard or a horribly cold night for them. The couple that we have seen have been moderately well prepared in terms of gear—having a down layer and the wherewithal to find shelter for the night and hunker down."
Wcislak was lucky. He'd ventured beyond Snowbowl's boundaries with the bevy of backcountry gear considered essential these days: Shovel, avalanche beacon, probe. His layers were warm enough to last the night without developing hypothermia, and he'd even built a crude shelter for himself. But his wasn't the only close call in local lift-accessed backcountry last season.
Two weeks before Wcislak got lost, two other skiers triggered an avalanche in Evaro Bowl, a popular backcountry spot below Point Six across Snowbowl's northern boundary. One skier was caught in the slide and buried, suffering a minor leg injury in the process. The second located and freed him within two minutes. According to a report later filed with the Western Montana Avalanche Center, the two managed to skin back to the area's boundary, where Snowbowl Ski Patrol met them and transported them to the base area via snowmobile. Five Valleys' services weren't required.
While the allure of untracked powder is nothing new, images of skiers and snowboarders shredding the backcountry are more prevalent than ever. Just search "backcountry powder" on YouTube and you'll find hundreds of videos from Alaska to Utah produced by pros and amateurs alike. Magazines trumpet backcountry skiing as the fastest growing aspect of the sport—a development, triggered in part by new technologies, that's necessitated the formation of new unpaid volunteer patrols similar to Five Valleys.
"We're seeing a definite increase in the last 10 years heading for the woods," says Kevin Johnson, Nordic program director for the National Ski Patrol. "So we're trying to plan accordingly and support the efforts of groups that do want to provide services to that recreating community."
Last season's incidents across the Snowbowl boundary reflect a related concern in the ski industry. Experts nationwide are increasingly taking issue with the concept of "sidecountry," a term used to describe backcountry terrain accessible from lift-served areas. These powder-laden spots may be easier to get to, but they aren't subject to avalanche hazard reduction or ski patrol services. Even the most prepared and experienced backcountry riders aren't free from risk in the sidecountry. In fact, the National Ski Areas Association declared late last year that sidecountry "doesn't actually exist."
Yet the proximity of this terrain to developed areas often lulls skiers and snowboarders into a false sense of security. Paul Diegel, executive director of the nonprofit Friends of the Utah Avalanche Center, wrote in The Avalanche Review earlier this year of an exchange he'd had with just such a snowboarder on a chairlift at a Utah resort. Despite hazardous avalanche advisories, Diegel said the rider was adamant that he didn't need avalanche gear or training when crossing the boundary.
"He explained patiently and confidently, as if to children," Diegel wrote, "that there was no danger because the slope was close to the resort, had tracks on it already, and exited onto a marked run."
As the longstanding gap between on-area skiing and rigorous alpine tours continues to narrow, some have questioned whether the word "sidecountry" should be banned entirely from the skiing lexicon. Others, like Diegel, believe it will take much more to address the issue.
Roughly one year before Wcislak's chilly night on Grant Creek, 13 skiers headed into the backcountry just off Stevens Pass Ski Area in Washington state. Nearly two feet of snow had fallen the day before, and as four skiers navigated a line above Tunnel Creek Canyon, a fifth skier triggered a 200-yard-wide avalanche. All four were carried roughly 2,000 feet. Three of them—Stevens Pass Marketing Director Chris Rudolph, World Freeskiing Tour head judge Jim Jack and a skier named John Brenan—were killed. The fourth, pro skier Elyse Saugstad, survived.
According to a subsequent online feature in The New York Times, others from the group frantically called the cellphones of those caught in the slide. Several members of the Stevens Pass Ski Patrol quickly assembled a squad of first responders. Rudolph and Brenan were found near where Saugstad had come to rest after deploying her avalanche air bag. Jack was found near the base of the avalanche's debris field.
The Stevens Pass incident made national news in winter 2012, along with three other avalanche-related deaths in Colorado a week later. Outside magazine responded with several articles, one stressing the importance of skier familiarity with snow science even on slopes so tantalizingly close to established resorts.
January 2013 offered another reminder for Stevens Pass and the ski industry as a whole that risk exists everywhere. That month, two former ski guides were caught in a slide near Stevens Pass. King County Search and Rescue attempted to extract the skiers, but high winds turned the agency's helicopter around. The duty fell in part to the Cascade Backcountry Ski Patrol, a 37-year-old group with 20 members who work in tandem with local officials and the U.S. Forest Service to provide assistance to those in trouble beyond ski area boundaries.
Cascade is among the oldest Nordic patrols in the NSP, having initially formed to aid cross-country skiers primarily around Snoqualmie Pass. Also among the oldest—and outdating Cascade by one year—is the Flathead Nordic Backcountry Patrol. Founded in 1975 as the Essex Nordic Ski Patrol, the northwest Montana group's mission has evolved dramatically over the decades in response to changes in recreational use.
"It's been a challenge over the years to turn it into what it is today," says Steve Burglund, who joined Flathead Nordic in 1978 and, along with fellow patroller Mark Johnson, who died in May 2012, helped expand the patrol's focus into broader backcountry pursuits. "This year, we'll probably end up with 50 registered members. Virtually all will have the basic outdoor emergency care training, along with at least [avalanche] one training and basic winter survival stuff. ... It's multi-generational at this point."
Flathead Nordic's work over the years has covered much of northwest Montana, from the Swan Range to areas just off Whitefish Mountain Resort. The patrol relies on the Flathead County Sheriff's Department to alert and activate members when accidents occur in the backcountry, and it maintains equipment caches near Essex, at Whitefish Mountain Resort and near the city of Whitefish. Several members proved central in the formation of the Northern Rockies Avalanche Safety Workshop in 2011, an educational opportunity open to the public that Burglund describes as "almost an off-shoot" of Flathead Nordic itself. Beyond responding to incidents in the backcountry, the patrol has long emphasized public outreach and education as another core aspect of its mission.
In January 2008, Flathead Nordic was called out on a search and rescue effort near the backside of Whitefish. A midday avalanche on a popular section of what would classify as "sidecountry" had caught an undetermined number of skiers. The search, which involved nearly 100 personnel from various organizations, continued well into the next day. Two skiers were eventually found dead.
Burglund hopes such incidents can be avoided in the future. Last season, Flathead Nordic partnered with the Flathead National Forest and the Big Mountain Ski Patrol to install three beacon-check stations on the resort's perimeter. The stations warn skiers and snowboarders traveling into the backcountry of the dangers they face, and an electronic device attached to each flashes green if a passing recreationist's beacon is functioning properly.
Burglund had first heard of such stations being used in Colorado and Utah a few years ago. When he approached the Forest Service with the idea, he found that the agency had already decided to install several for snowmobilers at motorized access points on the Flathead National Forest.
"That kind of finalized, in my eyes, that we should probably join that program with them and offer beacon checkers at non-motorized access points," Burglund says. "The beacon checkers were something new up here. It was something we could offer and maybe people that are leaving for the backcountry without units on will think twice. They're going to stop and read the sign and go, 'Wow, maybe I should buy one.'"
When Flathead Nordic conducted its initial installations last winter, Burglund says they had enough patrol members present to conduct an informal survey of those venturing beyond Whitefish's boundary. They watched the stations to see if the lights went off and approached individual skiers and snowboarders to ask what gear they had. "It was amazing how many people were leaving the resort without a transceiver on," Burglund says. "It was kind of overwhelming, actually."
Riley Polumbus, Whitefish Mountain Resort's public relations manager, says the stations were a welcome addition to the area. The resort itself doesn't track the amount of traffic accessing the backcountry from its borders. But it is a major proponent of skier education, Polumbus says, and the stations could be an asset in building awareness of the risks of backcountry skiing. "It may not stop everybody, but it at least helps you to stop and think."
Flathead Nordic has been called to incidents across the Whitefish boundary off and on over the years. Patroller Jerry Lundgren says most are simply skiers or snowboarders who get turned around and lost. Areas like Flower Point, just across the canyon from Whitefish's backside chairlift, draw numerous recreationists every season. Some are prepared and experienced, others aren't. It's enough to generate local concern over the misleading nature of "sidecountry."
"You leave the boundary, you're in the backcountry," Lundgren says. "'Sidecountry' gives that illusion of, 'Oh, we're just stepping out for a bit and coming right back.' ... It gets you into thinking that we're not in the backcountry."
An opinion piece penned by John Clary Davies in Powder Magazine earlier this year proclaimed the word "sidecountry" dead. Davies specifically cited Flower Point near Whitefish, writing that during a single run there he saw roughly 15 other skiers in the canyon below. "All but a couple skied without backpacks, and thus, backcountry safety equipment."
Polumbus condemns the word too. The boundaries are there to mark not only the extent of Whitefish's permit area, but the end of terrain controlled and serviced by its Big Mountain Ski Patrol. The false perception of some gray area between resort and backcountry is dangerous, and needs to disappear.
"You're either in-bounds or you're in the backcountry," Polumbus says. "You're in-bounds or you're out-of-bounds, and if you're out-of-bounds you're on your own. Certainly there's a lot of people here who know what they're getting into when they're leaving and are prepared. But there's a lot of folks who might just follow somebody."
Flathead Nordic's experience with sidecountry mishaps goes beyond the powdery steeps off Whitefish Mountain Resort. Lundgren recalls an incident several years back involving a skier at Blacktail Mountain who attempted to ski back to his car from the area boundary. The sheriff's office texted the patrol that night after the skier became lost. Lundgren and others followed his tracks all night, eventually crossing the Lake County line.
"We found him just as the sun was coming up," Lundgren says. "He wasn't injured, but he was in not-good shape. Wrong clothes, no water. His intent was to ski back to his car, just parked on the road on the way up to Blacktail. Took the wrong turn. He had no food, no water, nothing. Out all night in the cold."
When they finally got the skier out, patrollers found themselves near the town of Proctor, well south of the resort. "We couldn't believe where we were," Lundgren says.
This fall, after two seasons of patrolling in the Missoula area, Five Valleys Backcountry Ski Patrol decided to terminate its National Ski Patrol affiliation. The group is now folded into the greater framework of Missoula County Search and Rescue, and under the official and legal authority of the sheriff's department. Patrol director Thorsgard says Five Valleys simply had too much difficulty getting its candidates—many of whom are already certified first responders versed in mountain travel and backcountry rescue—to meet the specific certification requirements of the national organization.
"The NSP had a certain amount of structure that we could rely on for legalities, which do come up," Thorsgard says. "But ultimately the county, in the form of Missoula search and rescue and the sheriff's office, are who we're turning to for that and who we ultimately answered to all along."
The first couple years have been tough for Five Valleys, as is often the case with new backcountry ski patrols. Thorsgard says qualified candidates are fairly easy to come by. But the relatively low accident rates in backcountry skiing—an average of 25 avalanche deaths a year nationwide—can undermine the public's awareness of both backcountry safety and the need for backcountry patrols. That means community support and exposure become a main focus for the patrol groups. Flathead Nordic has built a solid reputation over the years partly through hosting the annual Banff Mountain Film Festival.
Kettlehouse Brewing has hosted several pint nights for Five Valleys since the patrol's inception. Five Valleys even set up a booth at the SOS Fair, an annual ski-swap fundraiser for the Snowbowl Ski Patrol, in 2011 and 2012. Despite the challenges of building recognition, Thorsgard remains committed to pushing Five Valleys as Missoula's go-to team for backcountry aid.
"I like the idea that it's there for people, because tragedies happen, people make mistakes, and I'm certainly not immune to that," Thorsgard says. "I'm far from our most highly trained person ... I'm not an Olympic athlete, nothing like that. So the idea that it's there for people like me is appealing."
Thorsgard says he got into backcountry skiing about six years ago, drawn by the idea of never crossing another skier's tracks. Why go to Alaska or Colorado, he asks, "when it's all right here." It's a familiar enough story these days as backcountry gear continues to enter the mainstream. Touring technology has become lighter, the gear cheaper. Rockered skis—skis that feature a reverse camber and increase buoyancy in deep snow—are increasingly common among skiers at all skill levels. Popular companies like Tecnica and Rossignol are even blending the elements of alpine and touring boots to maximize comfort and stiffness while enabling backcountry travel. Outside recently wrote that "this new hybrid equipment blurs where you are supposed to ski and how."
These breakthroughs give a wider swath of the ski community the tools to pursue backcountry powder with considerably more comfort and ease. They don't, however, ensure that the skiers complement their new equipment with training in avalanche safety.
Thorsgard believes it's "just a matter of time" before we see more fatalities. He sees education and community engagement as the keys to avoiding another local cautionary tale. They're also the toughest aspects of the patrol group's work.
"I think the biggest challenge there is, because there's such a diversity of people coming to do these things, you just never know who's going to decide to go out of bounds anymore," Thorsgard says. "It's not some targeted club where I can show up and make a presentation. It's people from out of state, out of county, been on skis all their lives, never been on skis before. It's gotten to the point where it's just like hiking, so there's no one group that can just be educated. There's no slideshow. You can't herd the populace."
Education remains the National Ski Patrol's focus going forward too, not just for the public but also for the next wave of patrollers responding to emergency calls. Kevin Johnson recently appointed the organization's first eight Nordic Masters, and is helping facilitate the creation of a memorandum of understanding for backcountry patrols interested in aligning themselves with the National Park Service.
"We are making advancements in not only backcountry awareness and structuring backcountry patrols but also interfacing with peripheral agencies that are dealing with organized search and rescue," Johnson says. "The NSP's Nordic program is moving forward. We've probably made more progress in the last three years than we have in the last 15."
Up at Whitefish, Burglund intends to start gathering some hard data on the number of skiers and snowboarders venturing beyond the resort's boundaries. Flathead Nordic, which is now having to alter its by-laws to allow for more than 45 patrol members, plans to expand on the beacon check stations this season by installing counters to record when those with transceivers pass by. That data could help first responders better understand the user dynamics at play in the backcountry—whether it's the Swan Range's Jewel Basin or a spot just out of sight of a chairlift.
"It's an educational thing that's ongoing, and it's generational," Burglund says. "We're seeing a lot younger skiers now, in their teens, high school kids, their parents are buying them gear or they're interested in it because it's such a big push to get to that powder. It's always going to be a challenge to reach and educate a certain group of people that hear about it and read it and want to go there. I don't know what the answer is completely. The patrol's been involved in those education efforts for three decades, and it's still a challenge."