Open versus closed
A backcountry adventure turned drastically wrong last week when two teenage girls made a wrong turn that took them to the edge of an icy cliff on the north face of Donner Peak.
After snowboarding at Sugar Bowl Ski Resort on Wednesday, March 5, Megan Gallagher, 18, of Roseville and Samantha Lumley, 19, of Soda Springs crossed the ski resort’s boundary line to ride down to Donner Lake, according to a press release issued by the Placer County Sheriff department.
Instead of continuing east to the lake, they veered west and found themselves trapped on a cliff, said Russ Viehmann, president of the Tahoe Nordic Search and Rescue Team.
“It was a cold night,” Viehmann said. “All the snow was firmed up to very firm conditions and steep exposure. There were rocks above and below.”
One of the girls fell 100 feet below the cliff, according to the statement, but she was not injured.
In the dark and cold early-morning hours on Thursday, Search and rescue personnel and the Sugar Bowl Ski Patrol set up a rigging system to lower themselves 400 feet to rescue the two snowboarders, who were bruised up but didn’t need any medical attention, said Placer County Sheriffs Deputy Dave Hunt.
While the riders said they made a bad judgment call, according to Hunt, and lost their sense of direction, their out-of-bounds venture was within the parameters of Sugar Bowl Ski Resort’s open-boundary policy.
Maintaining a similar policy as Alpine Meadows Ski Resort, Sugar Bowl ticket holders can access a vast realm of backcountry terrain from the resort’s network of lifts ” as long as conditions permit and the ski resort does not close access to the boundaries with signs and ropes.
“[Skiing out of bounds] is kind of a purist issue,” said Evan Sharbrough, an avid skier who has been riding at Alpine Meadows for years. “Just being in the mountains and in the snow. And the snow’s usually better, frankly.”
Five days after a solid storm, nothing beats hiking underneath a bluebird sky to the far edge of Alpine Meadow’s High Traverse ” beyond the boundary line ” on a quest for fresh tracks, he said.
“People there are stoked about Alpine having open boundaries,” Sharbrough said. “Because there’s so much good snow.”
Whether a ski resort maintains an open boundary policy or prohibits ticket holders from crossing boundary lines is up to the individual ski resort.
And the matter often comes down to whether a resort lies on private or public property.
Whereas Northstar and Squaw Valley own the land they operate on, and can therefore dictate the use of their property, Sugar Bowl and Alpine Meadows lease land from the U.S. Forest Service.
The national forests are public property, said District Ranger Joanne Robique, from the Truckee Ranger District, and the U.S. Forest Service permit directs ski resorts to promote public access to the rest of their land ” encouraging an open boundary policy.
“We require that [permit holders] allow people to use the area and not restrict their use just to their facilities,” Robique said. “And that’s because the national forests belong to the public.”
Where a Forest Service permit for a ski area differs from that of a campground, however, are the precautions for safety, Robique said. Ski resorts and the U.S. Forest Service work closely together to determine when and where people can cross boundaries. Intense weather conditions, terrain and whether the property on the other side is private often governs access beyond boundaries.
“That’s a biggie,” said Hank Hennessey, snow ranger for the Tahoe National Forest. “We can have open boundaries everywhere. But if they have a closed sign, going through the closed sign is a big no-no.”
Sugar Bowl leases 680 acres of property from the U.S. Forest Service, said Steve Beatie, resort services director. And since the permit requires them to open their boundaries on Forest Service property, the ski resort’s liability for out-of-bounds incidents is “relatively minimal,” he said. The resort ensures that there are proper signs on all access points, and a disclaimer is printed on every ticket.
“We do have areas where we have closed our boundaries, due to issues of safety beyond that particular boundary,” Beatie said. “But we are supportive of people getting into the backcountry in a safe and responsible manner.”
Robique said that the ski resorts are required to assist in an out-of-bounds search that originates in their boundaries ” something that puts stress on the resort’s resources, Beatie said.
“[Search and rescue operations] put a tremendous burden on ski patrol,” Beatie said. Five Sugar Bowl personnel were out all night assisting last week’s rescue, he said, and it affected staffing levels the next day.
Northstar and Squaw Valley maintain closed boundary policies and they both lie on private property.
“When [skiers] purchase a lift ticket, they’re getting permission from us to use that land ” the private land to ski and snowboard on,” said Jessica Van Pernis, spokesperson for Northstar.
Northstar does open two gates to access the backcountry when weather and conditions permit, Van Pernis said.
Squaw, however, stays firm on their closed boundary policy, which is primarily implemented to keep skiers safe from avalanche hazards, said Savannah Cowley, spokesperson for Squaw Valley.
“A huge thing is that we don’t do avalanche work outside the boundaries,” Cowley said, noting “the most recent and worst incident” occurred just beyond Squaw’s boundaries in 2001, when two local ski racers died in an avalanche after skiing off the backside of Squaw into an out-of-bounds area in between the resort and it’s neighbor, Alpine Meadows.
“If we’re not going about our safety measures and protocol, that’s a huge risk to have people outside the boundaries,” Cowley said.
Tragic incidents do occur beyond the boundary lines. And officials from ski resorts, search and rescue teams and the U.S. Forest Service all stress that heavy responsibility lies in individual decisions and judgment.
“There’s not some certain threshold you have to reach,” Sharbrough said, on the experience required to cross boundary lines. “You just have to be comfortable in the mountains. And the even bigger thing, is give mountains the respect. Because you’re not going to win that battle.”
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