Sunday, September 23, 2018
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Beacons…

Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell was not happy that the National Football League cancelled Sunday’s game because of snow. “There was only five inches of snow on the ground when the game would have started. It would have been a real experience. This is what football is all about. We’re becoming a nation of wussies.”
    
When all decisions come down to safety, perhaps it is best to stay in bed, bring the covers over your head and not venture out to the kitchen without an avalanche beacon.
Speaking of beacons…
Since word was put out last week that the ski area would give first track priority when opening terrain to those with avalanche beacons, I have heard about it pretty much every time I have ridden the lift or been at a gathering or just walked down the street.
Summing it up, people with beacons seem to love the new policy. Those without beacons, don’t much care for it. The idea of spending $350 to $500 to join those first in line brings no one joy. Those local families with kids who can rip the extremes but don’t backcountry are looking at more than a grand in new gear, and I haven’t talked to anyone on that boat that is pleased with the new protocol.
As someone said to me the other day, it’s one more thing where the “cool” people get a head start on the workingman in Crested Butte.
But the issue hasn’t exploded in practice.
I missed the Headwall opening Monday but word was that it went pretty smoothly. On Tuesday, I was five minutes late for the year’s first (but hopefully not last) rope drop at the North Face. Looking over Hard Slab, the snow was still fresh and I didn’t cross anyone’s tracks all the way to Pinball. I had a beacon but it wasn’t turned on since I missed the rope drop. It was all good and we did thank a couple of patrollers for getting the terrain open and making a busy work day a lot more enjoyable.
Riding the Paradise Lift, one of the first ten people into The Face said he liked the new system. He had a beacon and I would have been right there with him if I would have caught the 9:15 bus. One person at a time was let through a “gate” and the 25 people with beacons were ushered to the front of the line. There was plenty for everyone that was there on Tuesday and it apparently worked.
So no one is yet throwing snowballs or cursing those that get the goods first because of technology. But it won’t surprise me if that changes on a fresh day in Phoenix with hundreds pushing at the rope instead of scores.
Another worry is that skiers will start looking at the patrol as enforcers as opposed to heroes working in dangerous conditions to get steep terrain safe enough to ski. How safe is safe enough is another issue, as people talk about that every time it snows and the NFL or High Lift isn’t running. However, inbounds avalanches have led to fatalities at resorts in Utah, Colorado and Wyoming in recent years. Our guys bomb the crap out the steeps so that won’t happen. Thanks. Realistically more skiers die hitting trees or other skiers than in inbounds slides. No one wants to get rid of all the trees or other skiers.
Look, the Crested Butte Professional Ski Patrol has for decades not opened the Extremes until it was absolutely safe. Avalanches certainly happen inside the Extremes but not often after control work is done. That is what patrollers do and they do a great job here. Their control work brought a smile to my face Tuesday. I trusted that since they opened it, it was at least 98 percent safe. But, this is a steep mountain. There are rocks and trees and chutes and bomb holes. It is honestly extreme. That is one thing that draws people here to ski. The ski company markets it as “Extreme” for a reason. Just the word Extreme makes it clear there might be a need for awareness. No matter what, there is risk with skiing in general and in the Extremes in particular.
Nothing is foolproof but getting a rope drop is one of the true pleasures of skiing here. I don’t see the safety benefit of wearing a beacon inside the area unless everyone has to start carrying shovels and probes and knows how to use that beacon in their pocket, and the patrol is going to open up the steeps earlier than has been normal. So the new beacon policy might be a bit of overkill here in the Butte.
On the other hand, CBMR’s Ken Stone and I chatted on Wednesday. He said the company has put a lot of thought into the new policy. “We are seeing too many situations at other resorts where an avalanche transceiver could have created a different outcome on inbound slides. I would think if you are an expert skier who likes to be in the first group for new terrain openings you would see the value in wearing a transceiver. As I said to you this morning, if you live and play in avalanche country it might be a good idea to own an avalanche beacon. We are being sensitive to everyone at new terrain openings and the first day on the High Lift went very well. We will certainly look closely at any concerns people may have as we go forward.”

Hey, maybe governor Rendell is right and postponing a football game because of 5 inches of snow is a wussie call. It sure made it safer for anyone driving near the stadium. And hey, no one was hurt in that Sunday night game in Philly. Whew!
But isn’t one reason we live at the end of the road is because we are all willing to live a bit more on the edge? Just a bit? Skiing the Extremes isn’t for wussies…with or without beacons.
Let’s be safe but let’s also be smart and let’s not try to smooth out every rough edge we have at the end of the road. And now that the steeps are opening, it’s time to start the real games and play ball…

—Mark Reaman

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