Beyond the boundary 

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

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.

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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.

click to enlarge CHAD HARDER
  • Chad Harder

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."

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