In the first incident, on Feb. 20, a visiting skier left the Telluride ski area “from the top of Lift 9,” following ski tracks to a cliff “with a drop of more than 100 feet,” and called 911 for rescue.
Three days later, a group of three visiting skiers who “left the area through a Forest Service gate and became lost” called 911, late in the day, “with the ski area closing for the night and temperatures predicted to drop to 13 degrees Fahrenheit.”
This time rescue came six hours later, thanks to six volunteer ski patrollers and ten Search and Rescue team members guiding the group “via cell phone, as they attempted to climb the ridge and access the ski area.”
“The tourists,” said the county press release, “were eventually able to contact a Telski Snowcat area near the Bushwhacker ski run, inside ski area boundaries,” and Search and Rescue volunteers “escorted the skiers through the darkness to safety.”
In an interview this week, San Miguel County Sheriff Bill Masters described both incidents as the latest bit of “blind-assed luck that is going to run out” when it comes to rescuing lost and injured skiers from Bear Creek. The sheriff said he finds himself worrying these days about potential nightmare scenarios that range from skiers being stranded overnight, injured and suffering, to killed or injured rescuers, to “a really bad avalanche and we’ve got 100 people buried,” with rescue troops becoming increasingly difficult to mobilize.
“I don’t have any comforting words for anyone,” Masters said, despite the successful Presidents' Week rescues from what he calls “side-country skiing.”
Masters said he first heard that phrase, which describes lift-accessed out-of-bounds skiing, from Telski CEO Dave Riley, who until recently promoted Bear Creek skiing regularly on his blog (something Riley no longer does).
Nevertheless, Riley said in an interview last week, “The reality is that, you know, there’s a super-high demand for skiing in that area, and that’s going to grow.
“I’ve said all along this Bear Creek issue is unique,” he added, in that “it’s so accessible, not only from the top” of the ski area, and from Ophir, “but from the bottom” of the drainage, as well.”
“It’s uniquely dangerous,” Masters said, “with a uniquely high avalanche danger” that has, in some years, led skiing Bear Creek to be “the number one cause of death in our county.”
The Presidentsh Week rescues were conducted by off-duty Deputy Sheriff Todd Rector and “clocked-out” Telski ski patrollers, thanks to a December 2009 contract between Telski and the sheriff’s office. That agreement “has to do,” Riley said, “with making sure that the individuals who are doing the search and rescue are underneath the direct supervision and control of the sheriff, and not the ski area.
“That’s very important, from a liability point of view.”
But it’s a contract he signed reluctantly, Masters said, and only after being told that “I didn’t have a choice.
“Dave said, ‘If you’re not going to sign this, I’m not going to help you at all” with Bear Creek rescues.
Riley maintains that the logistics of Bear Creek, with one open and two roped-off former ski area access points, and where, once down, “you can get back to the lift so easily,” leave it unmanageable.
“If the ski area were to start taking on responsibility beyond the permit area,” he asked, “where does that end?”
Side-country skiing is a hot topic these days for Colorado’s sheriffs whose counties include ski areas – not quite half of the state’s 64 counties – and a special meeting to discuss the problem is planned for June, said Masters.
“We called every single sheriff’s office before we signed the [December 2009] agreement with Telski,” he said, and asked: “ ‘Do any of you have this kind of agreement with your ski area?’ And they all said ‘no.’”
Masters went on to characterize the stance of ski areas within those other counties as being, “We are going to rescue our customers no matter what, and not just going to let them freeze to death in the dark.”
So far, no injured skier has frozen to death in the night in Bear Creek.
And, as Masters pointed out, “burial is not really an issue” for its avalanche victims, who tend to die from trauma, especially in Temptation, “where a lot of people are ducking that rope, and no-one at Telski is enforcing it, and which is the most deadly area to ski in, in our county.”
For avalanche victims in Temptation, it’s more “an issue of being wrapped around a tree” and killed on impact, he said, so that “the victim is not suffering.
But with skiing in Bear Creek at an all-time high – one gate remains open; the rest of the boundary has been closed, but with little enforcement, according to Masters – the sheriff is braced for disaster.
“It is one of those stresses in my life,” he said Tuesday, which saw heavy snow, “on a day like today, when, after we get done with the morning accidents, I wonder how many people are out there, skiing, and what time will that call come in?
“For some reason,” he added, “the call almost always comes in late, when it’s dark,” and only “blind-assed luck and the skill of the Helitrax guys, who have been incredible over the years, coming to our aid and picking people off cliffs in just the last moments, just before darkness” sets in has allowed consistently successful rescues.
“Our luck is going to run out for us,” he said, going on to anticipate a return to the days when “the number of people killed in the San Juans in our county” included an “incredible” number of rescuer deaths.
“Once again,” he said, “our luck has been really good, and there’s a limit to that.”
Historically, a give-and-take quality has characterized the relationship between Telski and rescue staff and volunteers. “For years, Telski encouraged us to be on the mountain,” skiing free and carrying radios, Masters said, leading to a steady and reliable sheriff’s department presence.
The result: If Telski “had a problem, whatever it might be, they would call a deputy or whoever might be skiing, and we would go help them.”
Now that’s changed – thanks in part, Masters allowed, to “a new state law that we have to report everything anybody gives us, so that “if someone buys us a cup of coffee, we have to report it,” but also because Riley “identified as gratuitous” the more relaxed, rescue-at-the-ready (in exchange for free skiing) scenario.
Today, instead of radio-bearing rescuers on the mountain, skiing but poised to respond to an accident, sheriff’s officers and Search and Rescue staff and volunteers arrive on foot, buy lift tickets and head up the mountain to access Bear Creek. Up at the top, ski patrollers wait for the go-ahead to clock out, and head down the mountain to volunteer as rescuers.
“I can’t just have all my ski patrollers walk off the job on a busy day,” Riley explained of the protocol.
Per the terms of the December 2009 “Agreement Concerning Search and Rescue Activities for Persons Skiing Outside the Telluride Ski Area Boundaries,” Riley added, “We have the authority to decide when we are going to release those patrollers. Once we do, they go under the supervision and control of the sheriff.”
As to the fact that Rector bought lift tickets to effect the Feb. 20 rescue, Riley said he has told Masters that “if any of his staff or Search and Rescue members need complimentary lift tickets, we’d be happy to provide those.”
But for the sake of expediency, Masters said, that’s an offer he can’t accept. “It’s a lot easier for us to just go buy a ticket than to explain ourselves to some gal selling the tickets who says, ‘Let me check to see if you’re on the list.’”
For now, he said, “we’ll buy the tickets and I’ll take it out of the sheriff’s budget.”
And so, as skiing in Bear Creek gains in popularity and regularity, despite the ropes, and despite legal stumbling blocks that may delay a rescue, Masters has this advice: “Parents, keep your children out of Bear Creek. If you’re going to prohibit one thing in your family, prohibit them from skiing in Bear Creek.”