Beyond the boundary 

Backcountry ski patrols grapple with the growing myth of "sidecountry"

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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."

click to enlarge Greg Fortin performs an extended column test to get a better understanding of the snow pack during an outing with the Flathead Nordic Backcountry Patrol. - PHOTO COURTESY OF CRAIG MOORE
  • photo courtesy of Craig Moore
  • Greg Fortin performs an extended column test to get a better understanding of the snow pack during an outing with the Flathead Nordic Backcountry Patrol.

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.

click to enlarge Ted Steiner surveys an avalanche scene from a helicopter in the Jewel Basin area of the Swan Range near Bigfork. - PHOTO COURTESY OF CRAIG MOORE
  • photo courtesy of Craig Moore
  • Ted Steiner surveys an avalanche scene from a helicopter in the Jewel Basin area of the Swan Range near Bigfork.

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."

click to enlarge Avalanche specialist Tim Laroche stands next to the tree where a skier was buried after a slide near Montana Snowbowl. - PHOTO COURTESY OF STEVE KARKANEN
  • photo courtesy of Steve Karkanen
  • Avalanche specialist Tim Laroche stands next to the tree where a skier was buried after a slide near Montana Snowbowl.

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.

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