Longform

The Big Steep

Page 6 of 6

Of course, the new ownership has not tried to expand.
Yet.
The existing master plan on file with the Forest Service would allow the ski area to develop 76 more acres of trails and install two more lifts, more than will probably be done. Within the next two to five years, after the existing debt is retired, Eric Borowsky's managers intend to build a new lift up to the northernmost boundary to open up intermediate skiing through the trees there.

Testing the Limits
Ropes mark the edges of the ski-area boundaries just beyond the top of the chair lift, like buoy lines just offshore from the beach marking the limits of safe swimming.

Ski patroller B.J. Boyle ducks beneath the rope, just to show how easy it is to slip out of the safety of civilized skiing and into the backcountry.

"My whole reason for learning to ski was to get access to the backcountry," says Boyle.

But not today. The National Weather Service has just issued a severe avalanche warning. Two years ago, on a beautiful day just like this one, two snowboarders ventured out of bounds from this very spot, traversed a mile or so at treeline and then dropped into perfect untracked snow in one avalanche chute, sucked like insects into a Venus'-flytrap. For all its apparent calm, the snowpack was hanging tenuously, waiting for the slice of their boards to let go tons of snow. One of the shredders was swept to his death.

In the ski-patrol shack atop the Agassiz chair lift is a photograph of the fatal avalanche: snow boulders, 20-inch diameter trees snapped off and piled 20 feet high.

Out-of-bounds avalanche casualties are not uncommon in the Rockies and in Europe, but this was the first avalanche death in Snowbowl's 60-year history, and though it occurred well beyond the ski-area boundaries, the sheriff's office requested help from the Snowbowl ski patrols in the attempted rescue.

The new generation of out-of-bounders, weaned on designer ski areas, knows little about snow conditions. Many of them are snowboarders (who follow an anti-authoritarian god) and since snowboards are much easier to handle than skis in the crust and crud of ungroomed snow, they allow more inexperienced people out into the great beyond.

Ten years ago, as Snowbowl general manager J.R. Murray points out, fewer people ventured into the backcountry, "and they asked better questions."

Steve Jenner, a Forest Service snow ranger, adds, "Now we're getting 1,000 people in a season who know nothing about skiing in the backcountry."

They don't know well enough to bring food and water and matches and avalanche transceivers. Mountains, like the sea, make their own weather, roiling up from apparent calm, and like the sea, have to be dealt with cautiously and patiently.

Though today is sunny and clear, for example, yesterday's winds blew at 65 miles per hour whipping spindrift snow into white whirlwinds.

Both the Forest Service and the Snowbowl management have discussed whether they'll need to close backcountry access from the ski area by putting up hard boundaries or requiring the out-of-bounders to buy permits just to protect the foolish.

The allure of the snow is that great, especially for those who climb over the top to ski 4,000 vertical feet down the inner bowl.

"It's unbelievable," says the writer Peter Shelton, who lives outside Telluride and has skied all over the world.

"That mountain has everything that any mountain in the inner-mountain West has as far as skiing and snow and steepness and terrain," says former owner Norm Johnson. "You can go up to the top of the Agassiz lift and take your skis off on Highway 89 with cars whizzing by on the dry pavement."

If that terrain had been developed, along with the peaks to the north of the existing trails, Snowbowl would have become a major destination resort.

For better or worse, that will never happen.

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Michael Kiefer