The skiers killed by an avalanche at Stevens Pass on Sunday were part of an exploding trend in skiing — skiing on backcountry slopes adjacent to ski resorts. The growing number of out-of-bounds skiers worries avalanche experts.

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They were an exceptional band of outdoor aficionados: pro skiers, ski-magazine writers, editors and photographers, a ski-marketing whiz, a former avalanche-control expert who judged international skiing competitions.

But the untrammeled mountain slopes this handful of elite powder junkies sought just outside the boundaries of Stevens Pass ski resort Sunday no longer are the rarefied terrain of even just a few years ago.

By the time a massive avalanche swept through and whipped four of these skiers down slope, killing three, the once-small world of skiers who chase snow in the backcountry near big resorts had become the biggest national phenomenon in skiing.

“It’s trending like crazy right now,” said John Stifter, the senior editor at Powder magazine, who was part of the group involved in Sunday’s tragic slide. “It’s the thing everyone is doing and talking about.”

But this rising popularity comes with certain risks, and managing that risk demands a particular discipline.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if we see more and more accidents” in such terrain, said Benj Wadsworth, director of Friends of the Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center. “That’s what every ski movie’s about these days. That’s what everyone wants to do. It sure looks fun, and it is fun. But there’s a danger to it.”

It’s not just that slipping past warning signs or under gates to carve turns out of bounds is, in many places, no longer even frowned upon.

It’s that so-called “sidecountry skiing” or “lift-assisted backcountry skiing” — because participants buy resort passes and ride chairlifts and then hike or cross-country ski to slopes outside area boundaries — is the fastest-growing segment of skiing.

It’s “growing by hundreds of percentage points a year,” said Drew Simmons, former editor of a Seattle-based backcountry-skiing journal who now runs a public-relations agency that represents backcountry ski-gear companies. “All the big alpine companies have now gone all-in on backcountry.”

Sales of specialty ski gear made for backcountry skiing doubled between 2010 and 2011, according to data prepared for SnowSports Industries America, a ski-industry resort and retailers group.

The reasons are many. Ski gear has become lighter. Outdoor culture, in recent decades, has celebrated the extreme.

“There are skiers and snowboarders who have gotten so good that they’ve excelled past what the resorts have to offer,” said Sam Petri, Web-content producer for Teton Gravity Research, a popular Wyoming-based ski-film company that helped lend backcountry free-skiing its current cache.

And many skiers — like kayakers, mountain climbers, surfers or hikers — seek total reliance on their skill and wits. They want to escape crowds, carve tracks in virgin terrain, find steeper cliffs and narrower chutes.

Sidecountry skiing allows them to access such terrain faster. But the sport now is so popular the temptation is great to be the first to grab fresh powder, regardless of consequences.

Controlling that temptation is part of what avalanche-awareness training focuses on, said Scott Schell, education coordinator for the Friends of the Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center. He has been a teacher and a student of avalanche training since the mid-1990s and has seen an evolution in the discipline as more skiers hit the backcountry.

“The first avalanche class I ever took, I remember getting so frustrated because all I wanted to know was ‘Can I safely ski this slope or not?’ ” he recalled. “Ten or 15 years ago we’d spend all this time focusing on the mechanics of avalanches — what are the weak snow layers, why do they fail, what about vapor transport — the basic physics.”

His classes and seminars now center on human traits involved in making safe, smart decisions — on group dynamics, and social pressures and other things that lead skiers to mistakes.

Few understand the draw or the potential consequences quite as well as those who were caught at Stevens Pass on Sunday.

Stifter was among the group of eight friends, expert skiers all, who rode the Seventh Heaven chair and then hiked to an out-of-bounds area in the Tunnel Creek drainage, hoping for a chance to carve tracks after a heavy dump.

They had followed backcountry protocol — they partnered up, skied one at a time, huddling together only in treed areas they deemed safe. They also went knowing that avalanche danger was considerable, but put faith in their skills and in the knowledge of their leaders, local skiers who had traversed this particular slope hundreds of times.

“Who better to trust than someone who has an intimate relationship with the terrain?” Stifter said.

But less than an hour into their day, one of the most experienced in their group, 46-year-old Jim Jack, triggered the massive slide.

While Stifter and others watched from above, the slide swept in Jack, Chris Rudolph, John Brenan and Elyse Saugstad, and knocked them through trees for 2,000 feet until they came to rest buried in snow below. Only Saugstad survived.

“It was an absolute horror story,” Stifter said.

Sunday’s deaths brought to 17 the recreational avalanche fatalities this year in the U.S., but six of those have occurred in as many days. A snowboarder and an off-duty snow patroller were killed in two separate incidents in Colorado’s backcountry last week.

Yet it’s the kind of risk sidecountry skiers have faced from the beginning, back when going out of bounds was considered poaching.

At the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort in Wyoming, an underground band of skiers in the 1980s took to calling themselves the Jackson Hole Air Force. They fled ski patrollers and ducked past ski-area boundaries to jump off cliffs and ski fresh tracks. The group kept their stash of powder runs secret from outsiders.

But in the late 1990s, years of confrontations between these poachers and ski patrollers led to a watershed ski-industry moment. Skiers complained loudly that these out-of-bounds areas were, technically, on public land — forested slopes owned by the National Park Service or the Forest Service.

In October 1999, the ski area capitulated, opening six gates and allowing skiers to go anywhere they wanted — regardless of avalanche conditions. Skiers were entirely on their own. Any search-and-rescue efforts would be performed by the county — not ski-area employees.

“It was one of the driving forces behind ski areas around the country opening their borders to out-of-bounds skiers,” Petri said.

The story of the Jackson Hole Air Force was told in a popular documentary a few years ago. Those sidecountry runs now are some of Jackson Hole’s most cherished — “and they’re still just as dangerous and awesome and scary and wonderful as they ever were,” Petri said.

Craig Welch: 206-464-2093


On Twitter @craigawelch