What really happens beyond the ski area boundary

It can be difficult to resist leaving the ski area boundary. Think of a powder day: The hill is tracked out and crowded. You’re cruising around with your buddies when you see, beyond those ski area boundary signs, vast fields of untracked snow.

Sometimes the question that pops into your head is one of wonder: “Why is no one skiing back there?” Or maybe there are people heading beyond the signs, in which case the question morphs to, “If they’re going, then why can’t I?”

Looking beyond is always tempting. Photo - Mike Watling
Looking beyond is always tempting. Photo: Courtesy of Mike Watling

At ski resorts in Canada, we have the luxury of an open ski area boundary policy. This means that you’re free to access the backcountry straight from the resort.

For the most part, having an open boundary policy is a good thing. People should be able to go skiing wherever the snow is. The difference lies in where you access the backcountry.

What we are all searching for. Just remember to be prepared or hire a guide to take you there. Photo - Dave Silver
What we are all searching for. Just remember to be prepared or to hire a guide to take you there. Photo: Courtesy of Dave Silver

When you pull over on the side of a logging road and strap your skins on, there’s no confusion about what you’re doing or where you’re going. You are totally on your own.

On the ski hill, people are lulled into a false sense of security. When I started ski touring, the dangers of being in the backcountry were completely unknown to me. I thought, like many people, that it was the same as the ski hill.

As we all know, that is simply not the case. Going beyond those signs, usually displayed on orange plastic that reads Ski Area Boundary, Not Patrolled, is a big decision. There is no infrastructure behind that line.

While this is fun, indeed, the MOST fun thing in the world, don't let it come at too high a price. Photo - Dave Silver
While this is fun — indeed, the most fun thing in the world — don’t let it come at too high a price. Photo: Courtesy of Dave Silver

At a ski resort, much of the risk for people is mitigated. There is signage explaining the level of difficulty and hazards of the terrain. Cliffs, drops, steep lines, lift towers, sinkholes and bare patches are all marked by ski patrol. Most major resorts have cell coverage and restaurants and a huge infrastructure dedicated to providing a safety net for their customers.

If you get hurt, patrol will come, free of charge, and rescue you. If you get cliffed out, lost inbounds somewhere, break a binding or need a lift down because you’re tired, hungry, thirsty or have to make a wee-wee, you have a safety net.

Avalanches, while not completely mitigated, are rarely a major hazard because every time it snows, patrol goes out and does control work.

Yum. Photo - Reuben Krabbe
Yum. Photo: Courtesy of Reuben Krabbe

Beyond those little orange signs, the safety net disappears. There are no chairlifts to whisk you back up the hill and no patrollers to rescue you. No restaurants, cell-phone coverage, lift attendants, instructors or mountain hosts to point you in the right direction.

When you go out of bounds, there is just you and whomever you’re skiing with. There may be a local volunteer search and rescue group that could help you in a bind, or maybe you’re close enough to the boundary that patrol could come assist, but none of those things is 100 percent reliable.

If things go sideways — and believe me, they can and do — you are on your own.

A sign in the Alps explaining exactly what's up. Be prepared and remember that you are not just putting yourself at risk. Photo - Tony Sittlinger
A sign in the Alps explaining exactly what’s up. Be prepared and remember that you are not putting just yourself at risk. Photo: Courtesy of Tony Sittlinger Jumping Rocks Photography

Let me give you an example: You and your partner leave the boundary at your local hill, skinning up to drop down the other side of a ridge, where you know there’s some great skiing. You finish the climb, strap your skis on and shred your way down a thousand vertical feet to the base of an alpine bowl.

It’s knee deep on the way down and life is good, but just as you are about to come to a stop, your buddy hits a hidden rock and goes for a tumble, breaking his ankle. Now you’re on the other side of a ridge where skiing back into the resort can be done only if you first climb back up the way you came — a thousand feet in deep snow — with someone who can’t bear weight on one of his legs.

In rescue slang, we’d call this a “code epic.” This actually happened to someone I know. Without the injury, the climb up and back into the ski area would have been about 40 minutes. With a broken ankle and only one person helping, it took almost seven hours, at which point it was dark, the mountain was closed and they had to wait another four hours for a ski patrol team to get back up the hill in the middle of the night to come rescue them.

Brutal.

If you really want to get out there into the vast wilderness of the mountains, come heliskiing with us. We handle the most of the risk. Photo - Dave Silver
If you really want to get out into the wilderness, come heli skiing with us. We handle most of the risk. Photo: Courtesy of Dave Silver

Everything turned out OK, but the rescue eventually involved over 15 people, took 11 hours and put several patrollers and search and rescue personnel at risk by them having to ski and snowmobile around in the dark all night.

And that’s the problem. Those little orange signs are there to be heeded. Beyond the ski area boundary, there’s nothing but you and the unmitigated risk of the mountains.

It’s Tiger Country out there, and in the mountains, the tiger is always hungry.

I don’t say this to dissuade you from going backcountry skiing; I say it only because people need to understand that those signs are there for a reason.

Leaving the boundary is a big decision. Take some time to understand what’s at stake and what you need to know before you go.

Be safe, ski hard and don’t let the teeth of the tiger get you.

— D’Arcy Mcleish

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