Beyond the boundary 

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

Page 4 of 4

"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.

click to enlarge Travis Craft of the Montana Snowbowl Pro Patrol skis down the slide path of an avalanche that caught one skier near Snowbowl’s north boundary last January. - PHOTO COURTESY OF STEVE KARKANEN
  • photo courtesy of Steve Karkanen
  • Travis Craft of the Montana Snowbowl Pro Patrol skis down the slide path of an avalanche that caught one skier near Snowbowl’s north boundary last January.

"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."

click to enlarge Point Six, a popular backcountry destination just over Snowbowl’s north boundary, is just one example of what users are calling “sidecountry.” - PHOTO COURTESY OF STEVE KARKANEN
  • photo courtesy of Steve Karkanen
  • Point Six, a popular backcountry destination just over Snowbowl’s north boundary, is just one example of what users are calling “sidecountry.”

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."

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