What skiers and riders should know about backcountry access
February 15, 2013
If you’re thinking about ducking a rope for that untouched powder, think again. You’re risking more than just a ski pass. The rules and ordinances that regulate backcountry use in Tahoe’s South Shore aren’t as clear cut as the ropes that designate a ski area’s boundary. Since consequences vary depending on which side of Stateline you’re on, it’s important to know the terrain, current conditions and county ordinances. Fact number oneThe ski company can and will pull your pass if you’re caught cutting a rope into the backcountry. “If we see someone duck a rope, we’re definitely going to have a conversation … There’s a reason we have backcountry gates. They’re set up based on demand and an agreement between the Forest Service and the resort,” Heavenly Mountain Resort General Manager Pete Sonntag said Friday. The ski resorts operate on U.S. Forest Service land. Irate taxpayers might contend that the resort can’t limit access to public property, but it’s not an argument that holds water, according to El Dorado County Search and Rescue Lead Coordinator Greg Almos. Forest Service concessionaires set their own regulations and can prohibit people from ducking a rope to go out of bounds, he said. Heavenly employees have already pulled two passes for the season, suspended 98 more and given 578 warnings. Sonntag cited crossing into closed terrain and reckless behavior on the slopes as the main reasons why skiers and riders lose their privileges. People can access the backcountry through designated gates placed around the resort that funnel recreationists to safe locations. What the gates don’t do is provide current information or avalanche conditions, Douglas County Search & Rescue Senior Operations Leader Shaun Thomas said. “People who are participating in backcountry should always go with someone and they should always have a plan,” Thomas said. Fact number twoWhile El Dorado County does not currently have an ordinance that penalizes ducking a rope, law enforcement could pursue negligence charges depending on the situation. Almos said county officials discussed passing an ordinance that would have prohibited skiers and riders from cutting a rope to access the backcountry with a ski lift. Another option would have pulled the ski resort boundary in by 10 feet, enabling law enforcement to penalize people for entering that 10-foot closed area — not the backcountry. Both ordinances have stalled partly because of recent low-snow years, Almos said. “It’s very political. We don’t want to put fear into people so they don’t call. We’re not trying to come in and say you can’t take advantage of those opportunities. If you know how to recreate safely in the backcountry, we want to encourage that,” he said. It is a misdemeanor in the California penal code to cut a rope to access a closed ski area trail. If Heavenly closes Gunbarrel, El Dorado County law enforcement can issue a citation to anyone who ducks that rope, Almos said. Fact number threeIt is against county ordinance to cut a rope to access the backcountry on the Nevada side of Stateline. “If you go under a barrier outside the designated ski area, you’re violating the law,” Douglas County Sheriff’s Office Capt. Joe Duffy said. Skiers and riders who are caught in violation of that ordinance can be fined $110 and cited for a misdemeanor, Duffy said. And if they’re caught on the backside of Kingsbury —where private property abuts the ski area boundary — they could face trespassing charges, SAR leader Thomas said. The county typically hands out about six citations per year to people who disobey closures to access the backcountry. The search-and-rescue team will conduct up to 30 rescues per season for people who cut ropes and end up stranded in a canyon or floundering in deep snow, Thomas said. “I think having a citation is to show people to follow the rules and be prepared. But we definitely don’t want people not calling. Skiers and riders get stranded, they sit down, give up and they could die,” he said.