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SPECIAL ISSUE: SNOW PREVIEW | OUTDOORS INSTITUTE

Out of bounds, but still in control

More resorts are offering advanced skiers some limited access to the backcountry.

November 01, 2005|Julie Sheer | Time Staff Writer

SOME skiers and boarders just can't be fenced in. For them, life out of bounds, beyond the ropes, beckons.

Groomed runs are a yawn for the OB wannabe and even double-black diamonds don't cut it.

So what's the appeal of leaving the groomers behind? It's miles of untouched powder, no lift lines and views that make the eyes ache. The downside? If you don't know what you're doing, you can get in a lot of serious trouble.

For advanced skiers and snowboarders, there are an increasing number of out-of-bounds opportunities -- accessible by lifts -- opening in the West. At Telluride in southwestern Colorado, skiers can pay $75 to take runs with the ski patrol on some of the resort's ungroomed runs, an experience one resort representative calls "backcountry light." At the other end of the spectrum, skiers can enroll in the multiday Backcountry Camp outside the lines at Jackson Hole, allowing powder-hungry skiers into its backcountry.

Poaching pristine powder may be easier than ever these days but is not worth the risk of becoming a search-and-rescue statistic. Venturing outside the comfort zone of a ski resort requires knowledge about the special challenges of backcountry travel. Once you pop under those ropes, there are no trail signs, ski patrollers, avalanche control or comfortable day lodges to duck into to warm your frozen digits.

The first consideration is a ski area's boundary policy. Most resorts in California are on U.S. Forest Service land, meaning open to backcountry skiing. One notable exception is Squaw Valley, which is surrounded by private land and is "very strict about having closed boundaries," says resort spokesman Derek Moore, who points out that Squaw has plenty of in-bounds extreme terrain to satisfy. Going out of bounds can lead to a fine or even having a lift pass revoked for life, says Moore.

Just because a resort's backcountry is accessible doesn't mean it's always a good idea or legal. For example, Lake Tahoe's Alpine Meadows has a liberal open boundaries policy. But in bad weather the resort typically closes its boundaries, says resort spokeswoman Rachel Woods. Crossing the ropes during these times is illegal, she says.

Other California resorts with open boundaries tend to follow similar policies. Entering an area marked "closed" is always illegal in California. The penalty for going into a closed area varies by ski resort but can mean a fine from local law enforcement or a resort ban.

Southern California resorts, such as Mountain High and at Big Bear, strongly discourage skiing out of bounds, even though the resorts are on U.S. Forest Service land.

Ski areas put up strongly worded signs for a reason. "Some people drop from a ski area into a wilderness that has no exit route, so there are only two outcomes at that point: They're going to die or pay for a rescue -- unless they're extraordinarily well-equipped," says Matt Mathes, a spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service's Pacific Southwest region.

A good example is skiers and boarders who drop off the backside of Mammoth Mountain, miss the exit route and can't find their way back. "Inevitably, people who accidentally ski off the back of the mountain do so off the Chair 14 area," says Craig Albright, Mammoth Mountain's ski school director. Next stop: Devil's Postpile/Reds Meadow. (There are information boards posted now in Mammoth's Devil's Postpile/Reds Meadow area advising lost skiers what to do, and displaying a map to pay phones.)

That said, there are legal and fun ways to go out of bounds at ski resorts. It's possible to use ski lifts to access the backcountry, then "slingshot" or "yo-yo" back to the lift, says Albright.

One way to do that at Mammoth, Albright says, is to ski off the back of black-diamond Dave's Run to "Hole in the Wall" -- an out-of-bounds expert trail. That leads to the Mammoth Lakes basin, ending at Tamarack Lodge, where skiers can take a shuttle bus back to the Village at Mammoth, and ride the gondola back up the mountain to Canyon Lodge.

Albright advises those going out of bounds to ski much more conservatively than they would in-bounds. "If you bust a tibia, it's going to be awhile before help arrives," he notes. "There are no groomed runs to traverse to if you get in over your head. You must be able to handle a wide variety of ungroomed snow conditions."

Another backcountry option is a ski/car shuttle run. At Lake Tahoe's Sugar Bowl, skiers can leave a car at Donner Lake, get a one-way $15 lift ticket to the top of Mt. Judah, then take "Lake Run" -- a bootleg "locals' route" covering 2,000 feet of vertical in a "beautiful three miles," says resort spokeswoman Kristin York, ending at the lake.

For competent skiers who want to acquire some backcountry smarts, including navigation and avalanche science, there are clinics, courses and camps.

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