Our view: 500 new reasons to think twice | SteamboatToday.com

Our view: 500 new reasons to think twice

At issue:

Steamboat Ski Area has installed a minimum fine of $500 per person for backcountry rescues.

Our view:

We understand the ski area’s move, and we hope the threat of a hefty fine will deter inexperienced skiers from venturing out of bounds.

It goes without saying that no student pilot would ever hop into to cockpit of a Boeing 747 loaded with passengers and attempt to take off, nor would a first-semester driver’s education pupil give the Indy 500 a whirl.

Our view:

We understand the ski area’s move, and we hope the threat of a hefty fine will deter inexperienced skiers from venturing out of bounds.

Yet, year after year, inexperienced skiers by the hundreds venture through the out-of-bounds access gates at Steamboat Ski Area with visions of untouched powder and majestic landscapes dancing in their heads; unfortunately, what they often find instead is a world of frozen trouble and no way to get back out.

Due to the increasing popularity of backcountry skiing and a rise in the number of times Ski Patrol is called out to rescue trapped or lost skiers, Steamboat Ski Area has instituted a new policy that levies a minimum fine of $500 per person for backcountry rescues.

At a glance, the new policy might seem a bit harsh. After all, no one sets out to become lost in miles of waist-deep snow, and we feel sure most backcountry rescues are born of over-exuberance and inexperience rather than a perverse desire to break the rules.

But, much as the novice pilot at the helm of a 747 or the first-time driver flying around the racetrack at 150 mph, when an inexperienced skier ventures into areas he or she is not ready for, disaster can strike, and when it does, intentions become irrelevant.

Backcountry rescues — particularly those that continue into the overnight hours and force rescuers to make their way into treacherous terrain under hypothermic conditions — are dangerous endeavors. So when skiers wind up having to be rescued — regardless of how innocent their intentions — they endanger not only their own safety but also the safety of the ski patrollers and search and rescue volunteers charged with saving the day.

According to Ski Patrol Director John Kohnke, patrollers are called to perform two to three rescues per week during the height of the season, and some involve multiple personnel and hours of risky work.

The ski area’s new rescue fine policy has garnered the support of several local agencies and officials, including the U.S. Forest Service, Routt County Search and Rescue and Routt County Sheriff Garrett Wiggins. And it has earned our endorsement as well.

Kohnke said the $500 fine was put in place “as a deterrent,” and we’re sure the ski area would prefer never having to collect a dime of it. We also don’t think the new fine will have an impact on experienced backcountry adventurers, who understand the inherent dangers of the sport and also know the terrain.

And it should be noted, this fine does not apply to all backcountry skiers; just those who choose, after reading a posted warning, to leave the ski area boundary through a marked “control gate” to ski in the national forest on their own. The gates were established in accordance with federal requirements that ski areas provide access to recreation on the National Forest.

The ski area assumes no responsibility for the safety and welfare of skiers who go out of bounds, but ski patrol still assists in rescues of lost or stranded backcountry skiers because it’s the right thing to do.

In the final analysis, the ski area’s new policy isn’t about money; it’s about doing all that can be done to ensure the safety of residents and guests. While the value of a human life can never be reckoned in terms of dollars and cents, we hope the ski area’s fine will make people think twice before they put their own lives — and the lives of others — at risk.

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