Ski Safely in the Sidecountry this Spring

Submitted by Kiira Walsh on Wed, 04/04/2018 - 03:05
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A skier travels into sidecountry to find fresh powder at Loveland Ski Area. Photo by Casey Day. 

Have you ever accessed sidecountry terrain from the resort? When you did, were you fully prepared for backcountry conditions? You can probably answer ‘yes’ to the first question, but you may be uncertain about the second.

Sidecountry access points provide skiers and snowboarders an alternative way to experience extreme terrain off-piste. Although sidecountry is accessible within resort boundaries, the risk of avalanche, variable conditions and dangerous landscape remains monumental—even to those who think they can take on the hazardous terrain.

Patrollers manage in-bounds terrain by using ropes, signs, trail rating systems, marking, ski cutting, explosives and more to mitigate any hazards that may exist. Meanwhile, sidecountry terrain is uncontrolled and doesn’t have any hazards mitigated. Zach Moore, director of ski patrol at Monarch Mountain, suggests that while sidecountry terrain may be easy to reach, its accessibility should not be a reflection of how safe it is. The danger of an avalanche occurring in the sidecountry is just as unpredictable as it is deep in the backcountry. Sidecountry is backcountry. 

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Monarch Mountain ski patrol and avalanche dog. Photo by Scott D.W. Smith. 

Monarch Mountain, located 20 miles south of Salida, offers three sidecountry access gates on their boundary. Mirkwood Basin is Monarch’s hike-to-ski sidecountry terrain that offers 130-acres of double-black diamond extreme skiing. While some of the best snow can be found in Mirkwood Basin, avalanche risk is ever present in this ungroomed terrain.

The Monarch ski patrol provides extensive information about safety in their sidecountry terrain on their website, and expects skiers who access this terrain to take the appropriate measures before entering terrain beyond the access gates. While not required, Monarch ski patrol encourages skiers to wear a beacon and carry avalanche gear. “We have a beacon check station at the Mirkwood gate to help illustrate the recommendation of carrying a beacon. We also encourage people to ski with a partner and ask questions if they’ve never been up there before,” says Moore.

As we ski into spring, out-of-bounds snow conditions can bring hazards not found in the colder, snowier parts of winter. While spring skiing can be full of sunshine and goggle tans, the seriousness of deceptive snow conditions and hazards in the backcountry magnifies during the late-season. As temperatures climb above freezing for a prolonged amount of time, avalanche danger increases. Wind conditions and the structure of the snowpack can also increase the likelihood of an avalanche occurring. If you plan on skiing safely in the sidecountry or backcountry this spring, pay attention to changing snowpack and weather conditions.

Although there is risk in skiing out-of-bounds, there are ways to ski safely in the sidecountry if the skier carries the appropriate gear and takes the appropriate steps to educate themselves about the hazards and safety protocol. Taking an avalanche training course should be a priority and will provide a foundation for safer sidecountry skiing. An essential component of remaining safe in the sidecountry is knowing how and when to use your avalanche gear, as well. Several Colorado ski areas, including Monarch Mountain, have installed beacon training parks for skiers to practice using their beacon prior to entering uncontrolled terrain. Checking the snow report, taking the appropriate steps to educate yourself, having the proper safety equipment and knowing how to use it, and skiing with a buddy increase your security in the sidecountry - even if just on the other side of the access gate.

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