A couple weeks ago, I stepped out of my skis, flipped my boots to walk mode, and hiked ten minutes to the top of Flower Point, near Whitefish Mountain Resort in Montana. Between when my party got to the top and when we skied to the Canyon Creek drainage below, we saw about 15 skiers. All but a couple skied without backpacks, and thus, backcountry safety equipment.
This isn’t unique. Go to Rock Springs at Jackson Hole, Rocky Point near Alta, or any backcountry run you can see from the lifts, and you’ll see skiers venturing beyond the controlled area of the ski resort without proper safety equipment (a good indicator they lack proper education, too). About ten years ago, I did the exact same thing at Flower Point. Ignorantly, I even skied the area by myself. I was so close to the ski area. What could go wrong?
Whether you are prepared or not, we tend to downplay the danger of lift-accessed backcountry. You can see it from the lifts. If something does go wrong, help is so close. It feels safer. Perhaps the skier just intends to duck the rope for a couple of turns. Or maybe, like me a decade ago, they just don’t know any better.
But backcountry skiing close to the resort is just as dangerous as backcountry skiing anywhere else, which is why we need to kill the word sidecountry. The word perpetuates the myth that it’s not as dangerous as a place you had to skin to, and no, it won’t keep unprepared skiers from ducking ropes, but emphasizing the seriousness of that action might help. So strike it from your vocabulary. Call it lift-accessed backcountry. Call it backcountry. Add the fact that in the sidecountry, you’re more likely to have inexperienced skiers without proper gear skiing on top of you, like at Canyon Creek, and the lift-accessed backcountry is actually probably more dangerous.
Though ski patrol may be close, they are often ill-equipped for backcountry rescue, and not obligated to respond to an incident outside of their boundaries. Elyse Saugstad, who survived the Tunnel Creek avalanche near Stevens Pass last winter, said somebody within their party called 911 within minutes of the avalanche, and Stevens Pass Ski Patrol didn’t arrive until one hour later. While it ultimately did not make a difference, she says they were lucky to have help arrive that quickly.
Ski brands, ski areas, and ski magazines like POWDER, are culpable for promoting the sidecountry, and more specifically, the easy access to fresh white just beyond the rope boundaries. But it’s time to move on. The word sidecountry is dead. Instead of perpetuating the myth that because a zone is lift-accessed it’s safer, or any different, than the backcountry, we should change the language and messages we use in an effort to educate those seeking to travel beyond the ropes.
“As we as an industry keep promoting the untouched fluffy stuff, we need to try harder at making the point that there is a responsibility that comes with searching for the untracked goods,” says Saugstad. “We don’t want to be like a TV show, glamorizing the fact that we are indicating how easy it truly is to access backcountry terrain by glossing over the fact that it comes with the behind the scenes price of getting the proper education and gear if you really want to do it.”