To understand the name of the event – and the event itself – it’s necessary to understand a little bit about the history of Bear Creek, and of Telluride Mountain Club.
While you’re at it, check out the Dec. 5 post from Outside Magazine online, titled, "Backcountry Monopoly").
Policy in regards to Bear Creek access from the eastern boundary of the Telluride Ski Area has changed regularly over the past two decades, but one thing has remained constant: People have continued to ski Bear Creek, something many skiers were doing well before there were official gates or mountain access.
Because of the steep terrain, cliff bands and varied San Juan snowpack, Bear Creek is as dangerous as it is alluring. On-mountain lift expansion has also made Bear Creek, an area that was originally hard to access, easier to access for more people.
According to extensive research compiled by Watch writer Martinique Davis, the openings and closings of access to Bear Creek from the ski area have gone like this: After a string of deaths, the area was closed in 1986-87. Bear Creek access was reestablished in 1988-89, and, after another fatality, closed again in 1990.
In 2000, a backcountry access point was opened from the top of Gold Hill to some, but not all, of Bear Creek.
From 2000 to 2010, with the implementation of more access points, skiing Bear Creek was pretty much perfect for backcountry skiers. During this time, skiers could legally ski, at their own risk, out one of the ski area’s backcountry gates, and descend the 2850 feet into the town of Telluride, or use the gate access to tour to Ophir, Lena Basin, Bridal Veil Basin, Alta Lakes, and anywhere else their hearts desired.
Telluride’s “side country,” which literally opened up new possibilities for avid couloir and serious backcountry skiers, was called the best in North America by locals and journalists alike.
In 2010, Paonia realtor Tom Chapman’s firm, Gold Hill Partners, Inc., bought a series of mining claims above and around Bear Creek Falls that made most of the traditional Bear Creek runs impossible to exit without crossing his private land.
This history, and specifically this last event, brings our story back to The Telluride Mountain Club and to Thursday’s soiree.
The Telluride Mountain Club
TMC, founded in 1987 as an avalanche-education organization, quickly evolved to include access advocacy and the promotion of responsible, safe backcountry travel and recreation. It became directly involved with “freeing Bear Creek” in the mid- and late-1990s.
In the spring of 1998, when access from the ski area into Bear Creek was closed (but trespassing across the currently contentious mining claims was not the issue), two backcountry skiers, respecting the closure from Telluride Mountain, accessed Bear Creek from Ophir, on what it is considered a classic ski tour.
Upon coming down Bear Creek Road to town, the two were confronted by a Forest Service Ranger; one was maced, and both were cuffed and taken to jail. The Mountain Club rallied around the skiers to pay for legal fees and eventually, according to TMC Board President Tor Anderson, the case was dismissed.
But the first Free Bear Creek event had been born.
Since the recent 2010 Bear Creek access closures, the TMC has been diligently advocating for access through attempted collaboration with the U.S. Forest Service, the community at large and the ski company. In addition to their direct advocacy work, TMC held an event last winter, featuring slides and libations, to raise money for and awareness of general access issues regarding the mountain’s backcountry gate closures.
One journalist dubbed the event Free Bear Creek – The Redux.
Now, in 2011, with the gates still closed, TMC is hosting Free Bear Creek… Again.
Gold Hill Gates Remain Closed
As was the case last ski season, the backcountry gates along the Gold Hill Ridge will be closed this season, although a gate off Palmyra Peak will be open (thanks in large part to TMC advocacy), but can only be accessed when the ski area route to the peak is open.
For Anderson and other members of TMC, the Bear Creek issue is about more than Bear Creek. At stake is the much larger issue of private landholders sabotaging the public’s precedence and historical access to trails and high country mountain areas that otherwise consist of USFS land.
According to Anderson, TMC has been vital in preserving public access for Telluride’s community to a plethora of beloved spots.
In addition to meeting with officials from San Miguel County and from the Telluride Ski and Golf Co., to make sure public access was included in Telski's 2002 Prospect Basin ski area expansion, and to meeting several times with the USFS about opening the Palmyra Peak backcountry access gate and preserving the east end of the valley’s Via Ferrata climbing route, TMC has worked with the Trust for the Public Land on both restoring access to Wilson Peak and with the Access Fund to maintain climbing access at Society Turn.
Although Bear Creek access is a hot-button topic today, Anderson promises the event, like the issue, is about far more than just the Bear Creek drainage.
Anderson explained that as Telluride grows and becomes more expensive, it can be difficult to maintain the cohesion that binds mountain recreaters together.
“It’s an opportunity to bring our mountain community together, to keep it alive,” he said of the battle for the soul of Bear Creek.
To celebrate the San Juan Mountainss, and the unique culture that living and playing in these majestic mountains fosters, Thursday’s event will feature a screening of the movie Cold, recipient of Mountainfilm’s 2011 Charlie Fowler Award, as well as a custom edit of Deeper from Teton Gravity Research.
Local photographers Brett Schreckengost and Whit Richardson will show their images of Bear Creek and the backcountry, joined by new talent Dustin Hinde, who has found a niche making short adrenaline-rushing, boarder-perspective clips while descending narrow couloirs.
“We want to bring people together to raise awareness on these issues, have a good time, and preserve the mountain culture,” Anderson said.
Tickets cost $8; the event is free to TMC members. TMC memberships and T-shirts will be available, as will Colorado Search and Rescue hiking certificates. There will be door prizes and other gear giveaways throughout the event. Films start at 7:30 p.m., and the Opera House's Vaudeville Bar will be open.
Martinique Davis contributed to this article through her extensive research and reporting on the developments associated with Bear Creek over the last five years.