Vail Pass meets increased use with new services and more staff

Several improvements this season at popular national forest winter recreation area

John LaConte
Vail Daily

EAGLE — Vail Pass was better positioned than many other public land recreation areas to meet the surge in use that accompanied the coronavirus pandemic.

Nevertheless, national forest rangers are having to make advancements to the backcountry — a seemingly contradictory concept — to meet the new demand.

Before last year, there were four to six snow rangers working Vail Pass during the winter season. This year, there are 11. Those rangers have a new warming tent to use as a base camp, from which they can be dispatched more quickly to assist backcountry users who lost a ski, are stranded on a snowmobile or, in the worst case scenario, triggered an avalanche.

Avalanche safety is the top priority in educating new users, and along with an informational display, the Vail Pass recreation area now has beacon scanning checkpoints where users can ensure their tracking beacons — crucial pieces of equipment in the backcountry — are working properly before heading out on an adventure.

The beacon checkpoint stations were a result of a private funding and outreach effort from ski/snowboard manufacturer Weston Backcountry and beacon manufacturer Backcountry Access, along with the Colorado Avalanche Information Center and the national forest.

Sean Eno with Weston said the National Forest Foundation, a fundraising arm of the U.S. Forest Service, helped create the partnership.

“We’ve been working on it the better part of two years,” Eno said.

When a beacon is in the correct mode, transmit, a green circle appears letting the user know they are in the right setting. Before, parties would have to manually check their beacon's functionality, leaving more room for error for somebody not putting theirs back into transmit mode.
Photo by Chris Dillmann / Vail Daily

Small business

Vail Pass is a 55,000-acre winter recreation area that allows motorized and nonmotorized use. It’s located on public national forest land, controlled by the Department of Agriculture through the Forest Service.

With no funding specifically appropriated to Vail Pass from the federal government, the recreation area relies on fees from day-use and seasonal permits. Fees were increased last season to $10 for a day-use pass and $65 for a season pass.

“Ninety-five percent of those fees come back directly to this area,” said Kate Demorest, the operations manager for the recreation area. “We run Vail Pass like a small business.”

The management of that small business is heavily influenced by its customers through the Vail Pass Task Force, a citizens group that weighs in on Vail Pass management decisions. The nonprofit task force was established in the 1990s and comprises half motorized, half nonmotorized users. The group helped create the use map for Vail Pass, which has areas for motorized use and areas where snowmobiles are not allowed.

“We have a cost-share agreement with the task force, so we can bring in funding and pay for special projects, like specific signage, or our credit card machine, which has increased our efficiency,” Demorest said.

White River National Forest Mountain Sports administrator Sam Massman said the partnership with the task force is integral to the upkeep of everything backcountry users require at Vail Pass.

“They oversee the grooming, plowing, our automated fee machine, they clean the restrooms, and they were tied in with the National Forest Foundation and Weston on the beacon checkpoints,” Massman said.

Kate Demorest, operations manager for the Vail Pass Winter Recreation Area, relocates an avalanche awareness sign to make room for a beacon checkpoint station on Vail Pass on Jan. 25 with the help of volunteers.
Photo by Chris Dillmann / Vail Daily

Motorized options expanding

In addition to snowmobiles, motorized use also includes the motorized snow bikes known as Timbersleds, snowcats filled with skiers, and “folks driving around in John Deer tractors with tracks on,” Massman said.

In recent years, Timbersleds have allowed motorized users to visit more hard-to-reach places of the national forest, and snowmobiles also have seen major advances in power, allowing users to navigate the deep powder fields along the trails that were once avoided.

The widening of motorized use has made the job of the ranger much more difficult in recent years, Demorest said, especially “dispatching into areas where we’ve had a lot more incursions of motorized use in nonmotorized areas.”

Demorest said rangers posted about 600 “no snowmobiling” signs on Vail Pass this year and that more are needed.

“We have our set locations where we know we need to post them, but over the years, it’s been changing because people can get into spots that we have not had to sign,” she said. “And people can rent those high-powered machines now, too, so you see a lot of mismatched skills with mismatched machines.”

Chad Hanley of Breckenridge is the first to use the beacon checkpoint minutes after it was installed Jan. 25 on Vail Pass. The two checkpoints were sponsored by Weston Backcountry, Backcountry Access and the U.S. Forest Service.
Photo by Chris Dillmann / Vail Daily

Massman said in addition to backcountry skiers who use snowmobiles to reach their zones, and the 20 permitted outfitter guides who use the area, unguided snowmobile users on rented equipment is one of the largest motorized user groups in the winter recreation zone.

The new warming tent, sustained with a furnace full of wind-downed trees, provides a much more accessible location from which rangers can be dispatched on a moment’s notice. Demorest said rangers often help novice snowmobilers who are off trail with their sled lodged in the soft snow, unable to get it out.

“It’s a choice that I give to our officers, our rangers,” Demorest said about deciding when to help. “It’s a discretion based on their abilities and willingness, but yes, we see that a lot. Same thing with gear. If people lose a ski in an area or pull out a binding, we keep a tally of assists.”

In recent years, assists are way up. Assisting with the calls is a group from Rocky Mountain Youth Corps, which partners with the Forest Service to engage young adults in work experiences within natural resources management agencies. The four youth corps interns working at Vail Pass this winter came to the Forest Service during a time when the seven regular staffers could use the help.

“They supplement our crew,” Massman said.

The beacon checkpoint sign is carried over to its installation point Jan. 25 as skiers embark on an expedition on Vail Pass.
Photo by Chris Dillmann / Vail Daily

Digital improvements

In addition to the supplemental workers, the beacon checkpoints and the warming hut, the other big addition to Vail Pass this year has been in the digital realm.

Demorest describes the White River National Forest’s newly revamped website, which went live in December, as a clearinghouse of information for those considering a trip to the Vail Pass Winter Recreation Area.

“It has information about how to plan for your trip as well as what to do at the trailhead,” Demorest said.

Physical maps of the Vail Pass Winter Recreation Area are now available, and a digital map on Avenza — which indicates what recreation uses are allowed and where — can be found by scanning a QR code on the trailhead signs.

Demorest said the recent improvements have been vast but sensible.

“We have a lot of high use here,” Demorest said. “We have a lot of new users, so I think our level of maintenance and signage is commensurate with the type of users that we see here.”

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