Nellie. E-Ticket. Delta Bowl. The Wedding Chutes. Reggae. Safe and Sound.
You won’t find them on a map, but the names of these ski runs are highly familiar to those who venture into the expansive, beautiful and potentially dangerous backcountry area known as Bear Creek. The popular sidecountry, which is easily accessed from the Telluride Ski Resort, has seen an increase in skiers over the past few years, due in part to the U.S. Forest Service’s reopening of access to it in 2014. Three years later, local organizations are dealing with challenges that have come with the increased use of these places. At the same time, they’re rejoicing that some initial concerns have failed to materialize.
For years, skiers in search of fresh tracks and a bit more adventure have headed into Bear Creek with relatively little effort, thanks to chairlifts at the ski resort. In 2010, the forest service closed the backcountry access points into Bear Creek from Gold Hill Ridge in response to complaints from local property owners, who claimed skiers entering the sprawling basin from these places were trespassing on their land. While the closure deterred some would-be skiers reluctant to break the rules, it didn’t stop everyone. The forest service reopened the access-points in 2014, saying the closure did not have its intended effect and did not do enough to change skier behavior, as people simply ducked boundary ropes and continued skiing into Bear Creek.
The reopening was a victory for the Telluride Mountain Club, which advocates for access to public lands and had made “freeing” Bear Creek one of its main objectives from 2010 to 2014. Today, the TMC is heading up a series of measures to increase skier safety in Bear Creek in response to the surge of backcountry users.
There are five access points to the backcountry from the ski area. One is at the top of Lift 9. Two are on Gold Hill Ridge (reached by the Revelation Bowl lift); one is across from Gold Hill Chutes 2-3 and another is across from Gold Hill Chutes 6-7. There also is an access point at the top of Palmyra Peak, and one at the Bald Mountain saddle. The first three spots are the most popular for access to Lower and Upper Bear Creek.
There is no way to officially count the number of people skiing into Bear Creek from the ski resort, but anecdotal evidence suggests, and many skiers would agree, that the area has become busier in recent years. Telluride Mountain Club President Josh Borof says the area is indeed seeing more skier traffic.
“You can tell by the speed at which it gets tracked out, the amount of groups that are moving around you, the overall activity and chatter about it,” Borof said. “In particular, you can tell when the gate gets bottlenecked.”
On March 1, a 26-year-old backcountry skier was caught in a Bear Creek avalanche and buried neck deep on E-Ticket, a run near the Nellie Mine. Fortunately, his group was well prepared. The skier was wearing an airbag, and his party was able to self-rescue with no serious injuries. According to a report from the San Miguel County Sheriff’s Office, the group said there were about 60 people who left the resort through the access gate ahead of them. Borof estimates it was closer to 30 — still a substantial number of backcountry skiers.
According to Borof, a bottleneck was created that morning when Telluride Ski Patrol closed Gold Hill Ridge in the course of doing avalanche control work. When access to the access points was finally opened, everyone raced out the gate at the same time, creating a potentially unsafe situation.
“Ski patrol cannot have people on the ridge when they are throwing charges up there and sometimes that’s going to conflict with a prime moment to get out the gate,” Borof said. “With increased activity… otherwise thoughtful skiers became frenzied because their plan was thwarted.”
As a result, the mountain club and the ski resort are working together to let skiers know when access to the backcountry will be restricted or delayed. Better communication will help backcountry skiers better plan their tours or allow them to select a different route if the one they were planning on is not going to be possible.
“The night before we anticipate having access restricted on Gold Hill Ridge due to avalanche work, we push that (information) out on our social media channels,” said Jon Tukman, snow safety supervisor for Telluride Ski Patrol. “And the mountain club shares it with their followers. So people making plans for the next day will know they are going to have a delay getting through those access points. It gives them the opportunity to adjust their plans accordingly.”
Neither Telluride Ski Resort nor the ski patrol has control over the location of the access points and whether they are open or closed. They can control access to the backcountry through closures on the resort, but the access points themselves are under the domain of the U.S. Forest Service (forest service representatives did not return phone calls as of press time).
In recent years, the Telluride Mountain Club has also promoted the use of radios in backcountry terrain, which allows skiers to communicate within their group. More importantly, it also allows skiers to communicate with groups above and below them. Dropping into an area without being able to see the location of skiers below could be dangerous for everyone involved. (Lower Bear Creek is Channel A and Upper Bear Creek is Channel B on Back Country Access radio’s preset channels.)
“(Avalanche forecaster) Matt Steen started the (radio) program about four years ago. It was a direct response to ever-increasing traffic in Upper Bear Creek,” Borof said. “There are more and more parties moving at once in avalanche terrain that is interconnected. Having radios increases communication between parties.”
For example, during the March 1 incident, the group involved in the avalanche was immediately able to relay that this was not a life-threatening situation, and that they did not need a rescue. Using radios, different groups also can inform others in the area about dangers, such as an unstable snowpack, and where to use extra caution.
The BCA radios can be purchased at Telluride outdoor gear shops Jagged Edge and BootDoctors; Telluride Mountain Club members receive a 30 percent discount. A program made possible by the Peter Inglis Avalanche Education Fund enables backcountry skiers to borrow six radios for free from Jagged Edge. In February, the PI Fund also sponsored an Advanced Backcountry Companion Rescue Course, aimed at experienced backcountry skiers who wanted to refine and practice rescue techniques and scenarios.
Despite the increased skier traffic in Bear Creek, there has not been a corresponding increase in incidents that require rescues, said San Miguel County Sheriff Bill Masters. According to Masters, there were three Bear Creek rescues in 2016 and two so far in 2017, numbers that are consistent with previous years.
Masters often is frustrated that search and rescue is the responsibility of his office, yet he has no authority over how the huge swath of public land is managed. The sheriff’s office cannot put up warning signs, rope off dangerous cliffs or otherwise manage the area, the majority of which is U.S. Forest Service land. He worries about having to make the difficult decision not to send his teams into Bear Creek for a rescue because of the danger to the rescuers and, as a result of that choice, being forced to leave a victim out in the elements all night. But Masters admits the 2014 reopening of the access points has been working well so far, especially considering that he estimates the Creek sees 300 skier runs on certain days.
“Has (use) increased? I would say absolutely,” Masters said. “The gates make it seem okay. It’s legal, but that doesn’t mean it’s safe. There’s no avalanche control, no grooming, no warning signs. Considering how difficult the terrain is and the huge number of people accessing it, I’m shocked there are not accidents every day, given all the things that could go bad. It’s surprising to me that we don’t have a lot more calls.”
The increase in Bear Creek skiers could also, potentially, create conflicts on the Bear Creek Trail, which is the egress and way back to town for skiers, as well as a popular route from town for snowshoers, dog walkers, hikers and riders of “fat” bikes. The trail also offers access to ice climbing. Most of the 2.4-mile trail is on the Bear Creek Preserve, owned and maintained by the Town of Telluride.
In the past, the town has put up signs requesting trail users to stay to the right or left and reminding people of good trail etiquette, such as the fact that uphill traffic always has the right of way. But people didn’t like the signs and often removed them, said Town of Telluride Program Manager Lance McDonald. Now the goal is to keep signage to a minimum. The town also has intermittently issued public service announcements asking skiers coming out of Bear Creek to slow down and be considerate of other users.
Currently, the town does not do anything to regulate use of the Bear Creek Trail. McDonald said the town plans to install a trail counter, which will allow it to chart the user groups and possibly make adjustments to the way the trail is managed, if necessary.
“Bear Creek was not intended to be a mechanically groomed experience,” McDonald said. “It’s a multi-use trail.”
In reality, the management of backcountry access points is ever evolving, and throughout the 40-year history of the ski resort, there have been intermittent closures. Changing rules and regulations can have an undesirable effect on skier behavior; in Telluride, for example, rope closures don’t always get the respect they deserve.
“It’s created a feeling that skiers in Telluride take matters of closure into their own hands,” Borof said. “And it’s detrimental to skier safety.”
McDonald, who also is an avid backcountry skier and has been skiing Bear Creek for years, agrees. Even though leaving the gates open exposes certain skiers to hazards they may not be prepared to cope with, ultimately most recreationists may be better off. During the period when the access points were closed, for example, from 2010-14, McDonald said skiers would quickly duck ropes in potentially unsafe areas to avoid being seen, getting caught and maybe having their passes pulled.
“There were more unsafe decisions back when the gates were closed,” he said. “It was like cops and robbers.”