TELLURIDE – In just a few weeks, snow conditions around Telluride have transformed from mediocre to marvelous. But with the nearly four feet of snow that has blanketed the slopes since late January has also come an upsurge in ski area boundary violations, from riders chomping at the bit to cut fresh lines.
Since snow began to fall in earnest the last week of January, the Telluride Ski Area has reported a number of incidents of boundary violations, from skiers ducking internal boundary ropes to get first tracks in closed ski area terrain to those leaving the boundary illegally to ski the closed Upper Bear Creek backcountry.
Early this week, the Telluride Ski Patrol reported numerous “poacher” tracks into Upper Bear Creek, which has been closed by the Forest Service partly because of a property rights dispute with mining claim owner and land developer Tom Chapman. Though no avalanches have been reported in the historically avalanche-prone Bear Creek backcountry, TSG Snow Safety Director Craig Sterbenz says that deep slab instabilities persist throughout the area, and human-triggered releases remain possible to probable on steep slopes that have not yet seen avalanche activity. “These pockets may be harder to trigger, but the consequences of a release could be significant,” the Telluride Ski Resort’s avalanche and weather report stated on Tuesday.
As of Wednesday, the Colorado Avalanche Information Center ranked the avalanche danger for the Northern San Juan zone as considerable (Level 3) on all aspects and elevations except for below treeline on southwest, south, and southeast facing slopes. On these slopes the danger was rated moderate (Level 2.)
Telluride saw a significant upsurge in avalanche activity earlier this month. The prolonged dry spell in January led to what Sterbenz called one of the weakest snowpack structures he has seen in his 38 years on the mountain. The subsequent rapid loading of new snow on top of this weak snowpack lead to widespread avalanching within the ski area, in which seven ski patrollers were caught and carried in in-bounds avalanches. During that period, a ski area guest was also caught in a large avalanche in an “off piste” area on the south side of Chongo’s ski run, while another illegally exited the ski area boundary, triggered a slide, and was swept 1700 vertical feet down Temptation Gully.
February has historically been a lethal month for backcountry avalanche accidents in Telluride. Last February 13, longtime local Nate Soules died in an avalanche after he legally exited the ski area boundary at the Contention backcountry access point.
The accident occurred almost 23 years to the day of the tragic 1989 Valentine’s Day avalanche in Temptation Chute that killed two local men and injured another, precipitating the federally mandated closure of the terrain located to the east of the ski area boundary from the top of Needle Rock Chute to top of Palmyra Peak – effectively closing all of Upper Bear Creek to skiing.
A string of avalanche fatalities in Bear Creek during the winter of 1987-88 caused the area to be closed, but access to parts of Upper Bear Creek reopened in 1988-89. That opening didn’t last for long, however, with the 1989 Temptation accident prompting another federal closure again in 1990.
Ten years passed before the U.S. Forest Service Backcountry Access Point was installed at the top of what is now Revelation Bowl. This gave backcountry riders access to Upper Bear Creek, but the lower Bear Creek terrain remained closed by the USFS.
Backcountry Access Points were installed at the Telluride Ski Area’s eastern boundary, above the frequently traveled Contention and Reggae terrain, in 2009, per orders from the USFS. Soon thereafter, a land dispute erupted between the USFS, TSG and controversial “developer” Tom Chapman, leading to closure of the Upper Bear Creek “Gold Hill” Backcountry Access Point once again in 2010.
Currently, backcountry access points exist on the ski area boundary, just below the top of lift 9, accessing the lower Bear Creek terrain; at the Alta Lakes saddle, at the base of the Bald Mountain hike-to terrain; and at the top of Palmyra Peak, which opened for the first time this season on Monday. There is no access point on the upper Gold Hill ridge, which also opened for skiing this week, with Chutes 7 and 8 opening Monday.
According to the Forest Service’s Scott Spielman, “It doesn’t look like anything will change this winter” in regards to reinstating access to upper Bear Creek.
According to TSG Director of Planning and Sustainability Jeff Proteau, riders who exit the ski area boundary “are on their own,” and violations of federal closures become a USFS and San Miguel County issue, because they are a violation of the Colorado Skier Safety Act. However, those caught violating the ski area’s external boundaries face up to two years loss of skiing privileges at the Telluride Ski Resort, as was the case with the man who was caught in the Temptation Chute avalanche earlier this month, because those boundaries are also considered internal operating boundaries since the area beyond the eastern ropeline is still within the ski area’s permit boundary.
Stiff penalties also exist for in-area boundary violations, especially those that incur reckless endangerment of others.
Temporary terrain closures in areas such as the Gold Hill Fans (skier’s left boundary of the Andy’s Gold run) are frequently due to avalanche control work being performed nearby. Controlled avalanches have the potential to cover large areas, creating a significant safety concern for anyone skiing closed terrain. Areas may also be temporarily closed or on delay because of dangerous unexploded devices (DUDS) that may detonate up to an hour after being deployed, or may simply detonate if disturbed.
There are different levels of closures on the Telluride Ski Resort, and thus different degrees of penalties exist for each level violation. Skiing in temporarily closed terrain could be considered a Level 2 or Level 3 violation, depending on if “Reckless Endangerment” occurred. Any situation in which a boundary violation puts others at risk is considered a more serious infraction and thus carries heavier penalties. Penalties for skiing in temporarily closed terrain range from 30 days to two years loss of skiing privileges at Telluride Ski Resort, depending on the severity of the situation.