Nor will the U.S. Forest Service monitor, direct or even post signage warning visitors of hazards ahead in this vast and near-vertical terrain east of the ski area, he added, even though that agency “says it’s legal to ski on both sides of the rope” that TSG strings to delineate in-bounds versus out-of-bounds skiing.
The conundrum leaves Masters holding the bag, he said, “with no authority” to manage access or egress, but with “all the responsibility” for responding to incidents like Monday’s avalanche that killed longtime Telluride resident Nate Soules. It leaves San Miguel County’s longtime sheriff standing by helplessly on a day like Monday, acclaimed by some as the best ski day in memory, but one that also came with avalanche warnings from the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.
That “high” rating was ignored by dozens of first-tracks devotees who rode the lift up into the ski area at the crack of 9 a.m., hopped off and headed straight out beyond the avalanche-controlled ski mountain into uncontrolled Bear Creek, which saw as many as 200 ski runs that day.
‘The Best, Most Dramatic Skiing in the World’
Masters last skied Bear Creek recreationally in the 1970s, quitting after he was caught “in a minor slide.
“I lost my skis,” he recalled, and was working to extract himself when he heard a rescue call coming over his police transmitter. “It dawned on me that people were going to come down and risk their lives to get me.
“It was unintended consequences,” he said, of the rescue he was able to call off. But it was enough to get him on the debit side of the Bear Creek risk-versus-reward budget sheet.
“It is some of the best, most dramatic skiing in the world – it’s a really fun, challenging spot,” Masters said Tuesday.
But with the management plan now in effect for what Masters bitterly describes as “my ski area,” skiing Bear Creek’s unstable snowpack in February, with its skimpy early season snow layers functioning as “ball bearings” for moving city-block-sized slabs of more-recent snow, is a crap shoot.
The Chamonix Comparison
“Telluride decided a long time ago to identify itself with the world’s extreme sports areas,” said longtime ski writer Peter Shelton, another former Bear Creek skier.
Take Chamonix, for example, where, Shelton estimates, “several hundred people die doing extreme sports every year.”
Masters jumps at the Telluride-Chamonix comparison.
“I think if you look at the volume of people they have there, and just about everywhere” throughout Europe’s skiable terrain, he said, “yes, there are astronomical numbers of people being killed in the different activities.
“But they also have services that are usually run by law enforcement or by the military, services provided by the government,” to serve and protect the recreating public.
“Here, it’s all done on a volunteer basis.”
But while the Feb. 13 death of Nate Soules marks the first death in Bear Creek in ten years (and coming a few weeks on the heels of the death of world-renowned ice climbing guide and author Jack Roberts on Bridal Veil Falls), point taken: Sometimes, when you play the game, you pay the piper.
Shelton steered me to a December 2011 story by climber Will Gadd in Explore magazine. “I am increasingly certain that if anyone spends enough time in the mountains,” wrote Gadd, “he or she will die there.
“I often hear friends make statistically insane comments such as, ‘You can die on the way to the mountains just as easily as you can die in the mountains,’” wrote Gadd, who often shares his list of 27 mountaineering friends killed, to date, in his frequent presentations about mountain sports.
“Not one of those friends died while driving to the mountains,” he wrote. “Not one died on a commercial airline flight. To equate the risks of mountain sports to everyday activities like driving or even the chance of death from cancer is completely idiotic. Every friend on my list drove to the mountains a lot, and some even wrecked vehicles and spent time in the hospital from those crashes. But they died doing mountain sports.”
Is there a false sense of security among today’s backcountry snowriders, who tend to head out fully equipped, with everything from the standard shovel-beacon-probe to Avalungs and Air Bag Systems, possibly over-equipped – and over-confident – on avalanche-prone terrain?
According to the Brugger avalanche survival curve, 93 percent of buried skiers are still alive after 15 minutes under the snow. But does that statistic apply here, in the rugged San Juan Mountains’ below-treeline terrain?
“None of the people that I’ve ever recovered would have been saved” by ABS or Avalungs, said Masters. Some backcountry skiers believe that an ABS deployed below treeline can actually lead to injuries, by keeping avalanche victims high up on the moving snow, and thus vulnerable to collision. As for the beacons, statistics show that just 50 percent of beacon-equipped buried skiers are pulled out alive, leading U.S. avalanche expert Bruce Tremper to argue that “avalanche beacons have probably killed more people than they have saved.”
Ten years ago, in an article titled “The Role of Training in Recreational Avalanche Accidents in the United States” published in “Proceedings of the International Snow Science Workshop,” the National Outdoor Leadership School’s Ian McCammon argued that while “avalanche education has become widely available in the United States… trained recreationists continue to comprise over a third of avalanche victims.” McCammon wrote that “victims with basic formal training exposed themselves to more hazard than any other group, including those with no awareness of avalanches.”
Thorough training and state-of-the-art survival gear could lead to what experts call risk homeostasis, whereby risk-takers educate and equip themselves then turn around and expand their risk-taking behavior commensurately.
“I think there is something to be said about the kind of psychological impact of thinking you’re protected,” Masters said Tuesday. “We see it in the police field – people who have their concealed weapon permit,” for example, deciding that “therefore I can go into this dangerous neighborhood and be protected.”
As Masters, well into his third decade of law enforcement in the Telluride region, observes, the Bear Creek problem is what you get when “the lines of authority and responsibility" don't follow one another, which is "going to lead to mismanagement,” especially in an area that some days sees “as many as 300” skiers and snowboarders.
“People still don’t get it,” an obviously frustrated Masters said Tuesday. “There are a lot of problems with the overall system” where “skiing outside of ski area boundaries is encouraged by the Forest Service, and encouraged by [the Telluride Ski and Golf Co.], but neither one of them wants to accept the responsibility for what comes after that.
“It may take some legislation to make the changes come about” so that “the people who are most competent to serve the skiing public – and especially the paying skiing public" are responsible for their well-being, as well.
Because neither the Forest Service, which manages the public land, nor Telluride Ski and Golf Co., which offers lift-served access to snowriders, will assume responsibility, Masters said, out-of-bounds skiing in Bear Creek is “unprotectable.”