As more skiers crave pristine, powdery snow and uncrowded slopes, the risk grows that those who venture beyond the managed slopes of a resort will be caught in an avalanche.
There’s a reason why skiers carving up the well-marked runs at area ski resorts don’t cause avalanches: It’s because they already have occurred — intentionally triggered by staff with small bombs or cannons early in the morning, before skiers arrive.
But avalanche-clearing is not done at all, or is done infrequently, in out-of-bounds areas around ski resorts. These spots sometimes are also known as “sidecountry” — the areas that lie a short hike from the top of a chairlift, away from marked runs at a resort.
And as more skiers crave pristine, powdery snow and uncrowded slopes, the risk grows that those who venture beyond the managed slopes of a resort will be caught in an avalanche.
The three skiers and one snowboarder who were killed by separate avalanches at Stevens and Snoqualmie passes Sunday all were skiing out of bounds, in areas they reached by taking a chairlift and then walking or skiing a short distance to rugged terrain outside the resorts’ groomed trails.
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Benj Wadsworth, executive director of the Friends of the Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center, said skiers at a resort usually can’t blunder out of bounds by accident. The areas typically are marked with ropes and signs.
But the rules can be confusing. Different resorts manage these areas differently, and even call them different names, using “out of bounds,” “sidecountry” and sometimes “backcountry” interchangeably.
Some resorts require skiers who pass into the sidecountry to have avalanche beacons. Others require skiers to sign a waiver form. And some merely post a sign with a strongly worded warning.
It doesn’t take much for avalanche conditions to develop in the Northwest.
They’re typical after any major winter storm, as heavy snows and rain make the snowpack unstable. Wind plays a big role, pushing snow deeper in places. Warming or rapidly increasing temperatures also can make the snow prone to sliding.
There are three necessary ingredients for an avalanche: snow, a slope and a trigger, often a human being. Any snowy slope above a 30-degree angle can generate an avalanche. Blue and green runs at most ski areas, for example, usually are less than a 30-degree slope, whereas black-diamond runs usually are in avalanche terrain.
At Stevens, the three skiers who died had to go through a fence and past a sign that warned about the hazards of skiing in the area.
“We’re on public land,” said John Gifford, Stevens’ general manager. “We’re required to keep the boundaries open.”
Stevens and Snoqualmie are both on U.S. Forest Service land.
In the aftermath of Sunday’s avalanche, Stevens fielded numerous calls from anxious parents who wanted to know the rules, Gifford said.
The King County Sheriff’s Office said the snowboarder who died at Alpental, 41-year-old Karl Milanoski, of Seattle, had a lift ticket but was out of bounds. Resort officials have not said exactly where he was when the avalanche struck.
Mount Baker Ski Area has one of the stricter policies in the area. Skiers who go outside the resort’s boundaries are required to have an avalanche transceiver, a partner, a shovel and knowledge of how to avoid avalanches, operations manager Gwyn Howat said.
“We strongly enforce that,” said Howat, who said skiers who violate the policy can lose their ski-area privileges.
The ski resort warns that skiers — or their heirs — will be charged a minimum of $500 for a rescue, if a rescue is even possible, Howat said.
The ski area also runs a mountain education center where avalanche classes are taught.
Katherine Long: 206-464-2219
On Twitter @katherinelong