Updated: Loveland the latest ski area to close uphill access after social media images show large gatherings
DILLON — As Jon Miller drove Interstate 70 westbound Saturday to recreate in the northern Colorado backcountry, he experienced a surreal scene. For Miller, the founder of Backcountry United, the highway was wide open despite the presence of fresh snow on the ground.
“It was almost surreal,” Miller said. “You could definitely sense there was a different energy in the air.”
The lack of traffic on I-70 made it all that more surprising to Miller when he saw videos of mobs of skiers and snowboarders along U.S. Highway 6 near Loveland Ski Area. There, and at other locations such as Vail and Berthoud passes, crowds of people arrived to ski, snowboard and enjoy the outdoors.
To Miller and other experienced backcountry recreationists, the social media posts were evidence that the state’s backcountry community was faced with a dangerous scenario. Not only were people recreating in close proximity, defying calls for social distancing and potentially aiding the spread of the virus, but they also were venturing into avalanche terrain potentially unprepared. If an accident happened, emergency services would be stressed amid the pandemic.
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“It’s a recipe for disaster up there,” Miller said. “You’ve also got people driving on roads in avalanche areas. The video from Loveland Ski Area, there are cars on the side of the road underneath the Sisters — known slide paths. So this all goes beyond avalanche awareness. It’s about social responsibility.”
Luckily for the Summit County Rescue Group, there were no calls over the weekend, according to spokesman Charles Pitman.
“We feel we’ve been fortunate in that regard,” Pitman said.
In response to the viral videos of cars along U.S. 6 and up at Loveland Pass, Loveland Ski Area announced Tuesday morning that uphill access to U.S. Forest Service land within Loveland’s ski area boundary would close effective Wednesday.
It was the latest development in a week when ski areas in and around Summit County took the unprecedented step of reaching out to the Forest Service to close access to public lands at the resorts. Last week, Breckenridge Ski Resort, Keystone Resort, Copper Mountain Resort and Arapahoe Basin Ski Area all closed uphill access to White River National Forest land due to a surge in uphill interest after Gov. Jared Polis’ executive order mandating the closure of ski area operations statewide.
“This is uncharted territory for us,” White River National Forest Mountain Sports Program Manager Roger Poirier said.
In his position for the Forest Service, Poirier oversees the administration of the 11 ski areas on the White River National Forest, four of which are in Summit County. Poirier and Don Dressler, the Forest Service’s Mountain Resort Program manager for the Rocky Mountain region, explained Tuesday how the closures went into effect.
Poirier said the White River National Forest and the Forest Service’s regional office had ski area representatives asking for the Forest Service to to amend their operating plans, which the Forest Service authorized.
In Loveland Ski Area’s case, ski area spokesman John Sellers explained how Loveland asked the Forest Service to assess the situation similar to when the ski area installed its Chet’s Dream lift a couple of years back. In that case, the Forest Service deemed it unsafe for the public to access Loveland terrain during construction, hence a closure to uphill access.
Sellers said the ski area will keep uphill closed as long as Polis’ executive order mandating the closure of ski area operations is in effect.
As for backcountry access to Forest Service land outside of ski area boundaries, Poirier and Dressler said there are no changes or closures. That said, Poirier implored the public to listen to local governmental guidance specific to the backcountry.
On Tuesday, Summit County government shared on its social media a post from the White River National Forest saying “high-risk activities such as backcountry skiing that increase your chance of injury should be avoided right now.”
“We understand why people live in the mountains, and we appreciate that,” Pitman said. “But keep in mind things are different right now.”
Taylor Sienkiewicz contributed to this report.
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