The gate from the top of the 9990 chairlift at Park City Mountain Resort that accesses backcountry skiing on U.S. Forest Service land will remain closed. Resort officials say the decision wasn’t made lightly.
Park City Mountain Chief Operating Officer Mike Goar says after many conversations with stakeholders, partners and the Forest Service, the 9990 exit gate will be closed permanently.
“Unfortunately, over the years, we've had a number of fatalities and other serious injuries from skiers and snowboarders exiting from the 9990 gate. Coming out of the terribly unfortunate fatalities of last winter, we again engaged in these conversations, and just felt that 9990 provided access that was so simple for people to utilize from the 9990 lift. Many of them ill equipped, and it was something that we needed to take a different tact on.
Goar says it became very clear that the resort could continue to provide that access via the Peak 5 chairlift.
While both gates access the same area, the Peak 5 exit requires more hiking, and determination to reach the terrain. The 9990 exit provided lift-served backcountry terrain that was accessible with minimal effort. Even with extensive signage warning of backcountry dangers, the close proximity of the powder-filled slopes lured increasing numbers of skiers and riders, some of them unprepared.
“The back country skiers that I talked to - that's not an obstacle for them. And, you know, I think it's a safe assumption that’s largely the users that would access via Peak 5. They’re going to have the equipment, they're going to be more informed and have some of the skills for back country travel, and I think that's going to make a big difference. It certainly doesn't guarantee that we won't have accidents happen in the back country but it, it certainly will change the demographic and just the volume of people accessing that terrain.”
As to an alleged agreement that the 9990 gate must remain open, Goar says he doesn’t believe one exists.
I don't want to speak for the Forest Service, but I think that I can properly state that our conversations with them again, there is not a requirement nor agreement for access to be provided. They certainly would like access and I'm saying that's just somewhat globally, that they want to see access to the public lands, as we all do. And so, I think they would be. I know they are supportive of us working through this trying to find a solution that we could address the issues we've had it 9990 yet continue to provide access.”
For those who purchased a season pass with the expectation that they would have access to the backcountry from the 9990 chairlift, Goar says no refunds are available. He says the gate has been closed since last February and if someone decided to buy a pass on the basis of that access, they should have known better.
Jake Hutchinson, a former ski patrol member, is disappointed by the decision, but says it’s what he was expecting. He believes the resort has created a boundary management challenge for ski patrol and enforcement will be difficult.
While Goar might not be aware of an agreement that would keep the gate open, Hutchinson says one did exist when American Skiing Company owned the Canyons resort.
“I was disappointed to hear Mike say he wasn’t aware of the agreement. I do know that Blaise Carrig did sign that agreement and I was part of those negotiations with Save Our Canyons and CARG and some other interested parties. I don't believe the Forest Service was ever part that agreement, but it was with Save Our Canyons and CARG [Citizens Allied for Responsible Growth]. [Former Park City Mayor] Dana Williams was part of that as well.”
Further, he says while Peak 5 might be a longer walk to the Dutch Draw backcountry area, he says there is equally dangerous terrain just outside the Peak 5 gate called the Python Chutes. He’s not convinced the problem is solved.
“It drops you down to the 9990 lift but it's rather than, you know, the big dramatic bowls like Dutch Draw, it's very steep and very rocky. In my tenure there, I believe we did two backcountry rescues in that area. Both involving partial burials and some pretty serious fractures, lower leg injuries and stuff like that. So, it's not, you know, it's just exchanging one problem for a different problem that may be less obvious to people. I'll be interested to see if it changes anything or not.
Even though the resort closed the 9990 gate mid-season last year, Hutchinson says it didn’t stop people from skiing in the backcountry.
“People's behavior last year after the gate was closed showed that it wasn't really effective. People are just ducking ropes everywhere, putting in skin tracks and group packs, wherever they felt like it and chose just not enough of them there to police those rope rides and as you keep chose got into the business to be, you know, rope cops, so to speak.”
And despite Goar’s comments, Hutchinson believes many people buy their season passes at Park City Mountain for that access at 9990.
“ I think there's going to be some people that will regret having bought season passes this year.”
Backcountry skier Roy Crandall told KPCW he was disappointed the resort didn’t reach out to any of the organizers of a petition that was signed by hundreds asking that the upper gate remain open.
“The petition was totally ignored. None of the petition writers were ever contacted – you know we feel like we were ignored as well as the 1800 plus people who signed the petition. We don't know who the locals are that he talked to, because none of us were after the petition. We also sent a letter to [Vail Resorts CEO] Rob Katz, and that letter was ignored. I mean we've been totally ignored.”
Goar says Peak 5 will not be closed even when avalanche conditions might warrant it. He says they expect users to be trained and be well-informed.