Roger Romani: Backcountry safety
The North East Bowl of Castle Peak is one of the most treasured pieces of backcountry ski terrain in North Lake Tahoe. Generations of skiers have used the area to play on the steep terrain, learn skills in avalanche classes, and to take in the smells and sights of nature.
Snowmobilers have also long come to the same area, seeking some of the same things that skiers do. For many years, skiers and snowmobilers have generally enjoyed this area with minimal conflict. However, increased use, combined with suboptimal land management on particularly problematic terrain features, have pushed this relationship to a potentially deadly boiling point.
From the skier perspective, snowmobiles are extremely heavy, powerful machines, zipping by fragile humans at high speeds in complex and steep avalanche terrain. In the North East bowl of Castle peak, I’ve personally experienced snowmobiles breaking a cornice above me, causing an avalanche that could have buried me and my partner were we not in a safe zone. I’ve also seen snowmobilers “highmarking” around skiers, driving quickly up steep slopes where they run the risk of rolling their 500-pound sleds over on others around them. Just recently, I watched a snowmobiler roll his sled while zipping up the traditional skier uptrack, almost crushing two skiers who had no way to escape the out-of-control machine. Unfortunately, while this was one of the most egregious situations I’ve encountered, it’s far from atypical.
After speaking to friends who snowmobile around Tahoe, I heard stories of skiers who were less than kind to snowmobilers legally and responsibly using their National Forests. To any snowmobilers who’ve felt verbally attacked by skiers, let me apologize. I hope you understand that people who mouth off at snowmobilers are a minority who don’t speak for the whole, just as those endangering the lives of skiers aren’t representative of the vast majority of snowmobilers.
To be clear, there is acrimony on both sides, but skiers are unfortunately the ones who will pay for accidents with their lives if the situation is allowed to continue. We need change.
To that end, I have concrete suggestions:
To skiers: understand that snowmobilers love the forest and have a right to safely use the zones they can legally access, just as you do. Greet sledders with a smile and a wave, and if you feel the need to comment on illegal or dangerous behavior, do so kindly.
To snowmobilers: you drive powerful machines, which can either be insanely fun or deadly weapons depending on your skill and terrain choices. Don’t highmark or drive your sleds on slopes that skiers are on, or need to skin out on, no matter how enticing. Respect both written laws and unwritten customs when deciding which terrain you’ll use.
To the Forest Service: Narrowly tailored closures are needed to keep potentially deadly accidents from happening on Castle Peak. Winter use conflict is centered on a very small area. A snowmobile closure in the north facing chutes of the North East bowl of Castle Peak would protect skiers’ lives, while continuing to allow snowmobiles to access the top of the bowl. These closures should be well signed (in collaboration with non-profit partners), and follow terrain features so that both skiers and snowmobilers can easily understand and respect them.
With the cooperation of skiers, snowmobilers, and land managers, the potential for accidents as well as conflicts can be dramatically reduced. Then, we can all get back to what we came to Tahoe for: the magic of snow.
Roger Romani is a backcountry skier and lives in Tahoe.
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