Beyond the boundary 

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

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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.

click to enlarge Jerry Lundgren of the Flathead Nordic Backcountry Patrol installs a beacon-check station at a backcountry access point on Whitefish Mountain Resort. - PHOTO COURTESY OF AMY MOORE
  • photo courtesy of Amy Moore
  • Jerry Lundgren of the Flathead Nordic Backcountry Patrol installs a beacon-check station at a backcountry access point on Whitefish Mountain Resort.

"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.

click to enlarge Amy Moore, right, a dispatcher and field trainer with Flathead Nordic Backcountry Patrol, gives probe line directions to a group of backcountry users during a free Flathead National Forest avalanche awareness class at Whitefish Mountain Resort. - PHOTO COURTESY OF CRAIG MOORE
  • photo courtesy of Craig Moore
  • Amy Moore, right, a dispatcher and field trainer with Flathead Nordic Backcountry Patrol, gives probe line directions to a group of backcountry users during a free Flathead National Forest avalanche awareness class at Whitefish Mountain Resort.

"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.

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