Going Beyond the Ski Area Boundary
It can be difficult to resist leaving the ski area boundary. Think of a powder day. The hill is tracked out, crowded and you’re cruising around with your buddies when you see, beyond those ski area boundary signs, vast fields of untracked snow. Sometimes the question that pops into your head is one of wonder. Why is no one skiing back there? Or maybe there are people heading beyond the signs, in which case the question morphs to: If they are going, then why can’t I go?
Indeed. Why can’t you go? At ski resorts in Canada we have the luxury of what is called an open ski area boundary policy. This means that you are free to cross the ski area boundary and access the backcoutry from the ski resort. For the most part, having an open boundary policy is a good thing. People should be able to go skiing wherever the snow is. The difference lies in where you access the backcountry.
When you pull over on the side of a logging road and strap your skins on, there’s no confusion about what you’re doing or where you’re going. You are totally on your own. On the ski hill, people are lulled into a false sense of security. When I started ski touring, the dangers of being in the backcountry were completely unknown to me. I thought, like many people, that it was the same as the ski hill. As we all know, that is simply not the case. Going beyond those signs, usually displayed on orange plastic that reads: Ski Are Boundary, Not Patrolled, is a big decision. There is no infrastructure behind that line.
At a ski resort, much of the risk for people is mitigated. There is signage explaining the level of difficulty and hazards of the terrain. Hazards like cliffs, drops, steep lines, lift towers, sink holes and bare patches are all marked by the ski patrol. Most of the major resorts have cell coverage and restaurants and a huge infrastructure dedicated to providing a safety net for the folks who ski at those resorts. If you get hurt, the ski patrol will come, free of charge, and rescue you. If you get cliffed out, lost inbounds somewhere, break a binding, need a lift down because you’re tired, hungry, thirsty or have to make a weewee, there is a safety net to help you. Avalanches, while not completely mitigated, are for the most part never a major hazard because every time it snows, the ski patrol goes out and does avalanche control. So at a ski resort, everything is taken care of.
But beyond those little orange signs, the safety net disappears. There are no chairlifts to whisk you back up the hill for one more lap and no ski patrollers to take you down the hill or rescue you when you need help. No restaurants, cellphone coverage, lift attendants, instructors or mountain hosts to point you in the right direction. When you go out of bounds, there is just you and whoever you are skiing with. So if something happens, you are on your own. There may be a local, volunteer Search and Rescue Group that could help you in a bind or maybe you’re close enough to the ski area boundary that the ski patrol might come help you out, but none of those things are 100% reliable if something goes wrong. So if things go sideways, and believe me, they can and do, you are on your own.
Let me give you an example. You leave the boundary at your local hill, skinning higher up to a col to drop down the other side of a ridge where you know there’s some great skiing to be had. You finish the climb, and you and your partner strap your skis on and shred your way down a thousand vertical feet to the base of an alpine bowl. It’s knee deep on the way down and life is good, but just as you are about to come to a stop, your buddy hits a hidden rock and goes for a tumble, breaking his ankle. Now you’re on the other side of a ridge where skiing back into the boundary can only be done if you first climb back up the way you came, a thousand feet in deep snow with someone who can’t bear weight on one of their legs. In rescue slang, we’d call this a code epic. This actually happened to someone I know. Without the injury, the climb up to the ridge and back into the ski area boundary would have been about 40min. With a broken ankle and only one person helping them, it took almost 7 hours for them to get back to the ski hill, at which point it was dark, the mountain was shut and they had to wait another four hours for a ski patrol team to get back up the hill in the middle of the night to come rescue them. Brutal.
Everything turned out ok, but the rescue eventually involved over fifteen people, took 11 hours and put several ski patrollers and search and rescue personnel at risk by them having to ski and snowmobile around in the dark all night. And that is the problem. Those little orange signs are there to be heeded. Beyond the ski area boundary there is nothing but you and the unmitigated risk of the mountains. Everything beyond the boundary is different from the ski hill. The snowpack, for instance, is totally different. Beyond the boundary, there is no skier compaction, avalanche control or a large, professional organization doing their utmost to reduce the risk of avalanches to near zero on a daily basis. Hazards aren’t marked with fencing and signs, and if something happens, you better be equipped for self rescue or you’ll be screwed. It’s Tiger Country out there and in the mountains, the Tiger is always hungry.
I don’t say all this to dissuade you from going backcountry skiing, I only say it because people need to understand that those signs are there for a reason. Leaving the boundary is a big decision. When you’re with your buddies on a powder day and you see all that untracked snow and folks heading out with packs and gear to ski it, consider what you need with you to follow them safely. (Hint: it’s more than your new fat skis and a day ticket) You need to understand what’s involved with a quick lap out of bounds. Accessing the backcountry from the ski hill can get you into big, dangerous terrain very quickly. Every time someone goes out there, especially if they are unprepared and ignorant of the dangers, they are putting not just themselves at risk, but countless others who will be put in harm’s way to come and rescue them. So take some time to understand what’s at stake and what you need to know before you go.
Be safe, ski hard and don’t let the teeth of the tiger get you.