(Host) When extreme skiers and snowboarders push their sport outside of designated trails, they sometimes clash with search and rescue organizations. After several high profile searches this winter, Vermont officials and ski industry organizations hope to make those who act recklessly accountable for their actions.
Alexei Rubenstein reports:
(Rubenstein) Just below the summit of Mount Mansfield, where the gondola unloads a stream of weekend skiers, a bright yellow sign marks the boundary of the Stowe Ski Area. Those that follow the well-worn trail beyond the sign are warned that they take matters into their own hands.
On a foggy, frigid afternoon back in January, 48 year-old David Kraus, out for an afternoon ski by himself, hiked past the sign towards the top of the mountain. He didn’t come out until the next morning.
Bill Schaaf, Director of the Stowe ski patrol, points to a vast wooded area known to extreme skiers as “Planet X”
(Schaaf) “In that kind of weather, you don’t want to go up there. It’s very easy to get turned around up there. If you can’t see anything, you lose your sense of direction late in the day. If you can’t hear the lift, or see the lights from town or see some other mountain area, it’s very easy to get turned around and you could go in almost any direction.”
(Rubenstein) While Kraus, who considers himself an experienced skier, and was able to limp out of the woods by himself, his disappearance and a call by a concerned co-worker triggered a major nighttime search of the mountain.
(Kraus) “When you’re out there it happens. It’s part of being outdoors. It’s part of being in the back country. You are going to get lost. If you’re going to go up the chin and those places, part of the whole adventure is you might die. In any given day it might be your best run or your last run.”
(Rubenstein) Kraus says while he is grateful and overwhelmed by those who risked their lives to look for him, he says he never asked to be rescued.
Another nighttime rescue in January took place at Bolton Valley. A cross country skier traveled off of established trails, got into trouble and called for help on a cell phone. Bolton operations manager Mike Gallas was awakened to help coordinate the search.
Looking out at the slope, he says the way people are skiing has changed in the 30 years he’s been in the business.
(Gallas) “There are as many reasons why people go out of bounds as you see trees out here. I think if you pick up any of the skiing publications most of the pictures that you will see in those magazines will be pictures of extreme skiing, back country skiing, skiing out west, jumping off cliffs, I think if you took a look at the demographics of the skiers that get lost they are in the same high risk group that you will see in any other sport – the 15 – 25 year-old male.”
(Rubenstein) Bolton’s giant half pipe is popular with this age group. A half dozen Williamstown high school students on snowboards take turns careening off the slope. Gathered in a group at the bottom, all of them say they have no reservation about ducking under the ropes.
“Not really, not at all. Looks like nice terrain, untouched. We just try not to go out of bounds too late in the afternoon, that way we can always find our way back in time. I mean it’s only common sense to come back on the trail. You do get stuck you walk back up where you come from. If you don’t know the mountain, you shouldn’t go off the trails. If you know what your doing, it’s all right. I’ve always been with someone that’s done it before. Never go alone.”
(Rubenstein) Although some ski areas, including Bolton and Stowe, already bill skiers for the cost of their rescues, the state has been inconsistent. That may soon change. Captain James Baker is with the Vermont
(Baker) “The law we have right now focuses on downhill skiers and I believe that this problem is not just downhill skiers it’s also cross country skiers, snowshoers, hikers, snowmobilers. There should be an emphasis on everyone who recreates that they’re responsible.”
(Rubenstein) Baker says a new effort underway to make backcountry users more accountable may be modeled on New Hampshire’s reckless hiker law. There, Fish and Game determines recklessness and then refers some cases to the attorney general for billing.
For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Alexei Rubenstein in Stowe.