Fatal risks, sublime rewards
ARAPAHOE BASIN – The victim was typical.Friends described him as an expert, even an “extreme” skier. He was relatively young – 30 – and had often used the Arapahoe Basin lifts to gain access to the backcountry.From the backcountry gates, he and his friends traversed the contours of Porcupine Gulch to an area called the Rock Garden.Tilted 35 to 40 degrees, it’s at high risk of avalanches when the snow is unstable. The snowpack there, said one backcountry skier familiar with the area, is unstable more often than it is stable.On this particular day, soon after a storm last March that was furious enough to block Interstate 70 for several days, the danger was rated “high/extreme.” Avalanches were thundering everywhere.Aware of the danger, the four men descended the slope in two-minute intervals. The second skier was partway down when the snow fractured 4 to 6 feet deep.Quickly shimmying up a tree, he survived.Kenneth Carl “K.C.” Ratcliff was not so lucky. The snow flung him down the hill, battering him against trees. Although not buried, he was badly injured. Help arrived within an hour, but he died soon after being taken to a medical clinic.Fatalities adjacent to ski areas in Colorado are common enough to be predictable. This was the seventh fatality near Arapahoe Basin since 1982.The victims were what avalanche and ski area personnel call “out-of-area” skiers, those who use lifts to gain access to backcountry terrain.From A-Basin to Vail to Telluride, these out-of-area fatalities pose occasionally difficult choices for both ski area managers and the U.S. Forest Service.The Forest Service, which administers nearly all land on which ski areas are located in Colorado, feels bound to provide access to the backcountry.The trick for the Forest Service is to steer people away from areas that are avalanche prone, but without precluding access in a way that will be ignored.Ski area operators have no authority as to where backcountry access is provided, but they do have a stake in the outcome. In several places, they are likely to be the first called upon to lend assistance when trouble does occur.They also have sometimes felt ripples when people have confused the out-of-bounds avalanches with dangers within the ski areas.The appealThe numbers of those using ski area lifts to gain backcountry access continues to grow.Ken Kowynia, a Forest Service snow ranger who has worked in Summit County, Telluride and several other resort areas, believes the attraction of the backcountry is caused partly by the reduction of powder inside ski areas.”I just think that people are looking for untracked snow,” he said. “Powder days are becoming shorter and shorter, and the window at a ski area is only open for a short time.”A notorious winterThis issue of out-of-area or “yo-yo” skiing first flared in the winter of 1986-87. The death of three skiers at Telluride was quickly followed by four fatalities at Breckenridge.Responding to those Breckenridge deaths, then-Summit County Sheriff Delbert Ewoldt insisted upon a stricter closure. The Forest Service agreed.Later, however, the Forest Service put Peak 7 into Breckenridge’s permit area, making the ski area responsible for managing the avalanche risk. It has worked at Breckenridge – there has not been an avalanche death there since. It remains the favored strategy of the Forest Service elsewhere, too, but it is an imperfect one.At Beaver Creek, for example, one skier was killed in 1992 in an avalanche in a canyon lateral to the top of the ski area.The Forest Service has put that area into Beaver Creek’s permit area, in hopes that the ski area will expand into the canyon and hence manage the avalanche risk. So far, Beaver Creek has shown no interest.At Vail, the most dangerous adjacent area is called the East Vail Chutes. In 1988, when China and Siberia bowls opened, the chutes became an easy, 15-minute hike from a Poma lift and through a backcountry gate.Four people died in avalanches there during the 1990s, and more recently, a skier suffocated in a tree well.Pulling passesProbably the most effective way to discourage rope-ducking is to remove all skiing privileges for two years, which is the Telluride Ski & Golf Co.’s policy.”If you live in Telluride and you don’t get to ski for two years, that’s not good,” said Ed Ryberg, regional director of ski area operations for the Forest Service.How about more warnings at backcountry gates? A sign at the A-Basin gate warns of extreme danger. How much stronger can advice be? Given what has happened before, it’s safe to expect more grisly fatalities adjacent to A-Basin and other ski resorts in the future.Still, federal officials are comfortable with what they’ve done. Their position is legally buttressed by a decision rendered in 1996 by U.S. District Court Judge Daniel Spar.In that case, the family of a woman who had died in an avalanche after leaving Arapahoe Basin sued the ski area and the Forest Service. Both had been negligent, family members said, because they had not done enough to deter her from her choices.The judge rejected the argument. The avalanche, he said, occurred outside of A-Basin’s well-defined boundaries, and the Forest Service had followed its policy.
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