The stairway to heaven may actually be a bootpack.
Just a 15-minute hike in ski boots up through the snow from the Ninety-Nine 90 lift on The Canyons side of Park City Mountain Resort delivers skiers and snowboarders a view from the clouds. Cobalt blue peaks blanketed in brilliant white snow and shaded with crystalized conifers huddle around the ridge line. Below, wide open aprons of nearly untouched powder unfurl, ushering riders into their own semi-private Shangri-la.
But those who accept the invitation into the unmaintained backcountry terrain may be making a deal with the devil. A stark black-and-white sign at the resort exit point cautions as much. It is not inappropriately marked with a skull and crossbones and the words “YOU CAN DIE.”
People have. Nearly half of the 37 skiers and snowboarders in Utah who have died in avalanches in the past 20 years have perished in backcountry terrain accessed via a ski resort lift. And more than half of those — including two men who died in separate avalanches in January — left through the exit point above the Ninety-Nine 90 lift.
With so many deaths connected to a single exit point, the questions must be asked: Why do these backcountry gates exist, what makes this one so deadly and what, if anything, can be done about it?
For now, the Park City resort has temporarily closed access to all of its exit points. It took that measure last month following the avalanche deaths of snowboarder Kevin Jack Steuterman, 31, of Clinton in the Dutch Draw area to the looker’s left of the Ninety-Nine 90 lift, and of skier Kurt Damschroder, 57, of Park City, near Square Top Peak to the right. As it determines its next step, the resort has conferred with representatives from the United States Forest Service and the Utah Avalanche Center.
The most extreme measure the resort could take is closing the gates permanently. It’s an option unique to Park City because, unlike most ski areas in Utah, it sits on and is surrounded by private property. It is therefore under no obligation to any other agency to allow access to lands outside its boundaries.
The thought of the closures becoming a permanent arrangement concerns many backcountry skiers. Among them is Charlie Sturgis, the executive director of the Mountain Trail Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to building and protecting trails around Park City. Though each death is tragic, he said he doesn’t want the misfortunes of a few to spoil something enjoyed by so many.
And taking away the gates won’t necessarily deter people from ducking into the backcountry.
“Gate? No gate?,” Sturgis said. “I think that’s not necessarily the factor in whether someone’s going to get killed up there or not.”
The gate debate
Wyoming’s Jackson Hole set the trend in backcountry gates in 1999 when it opened the first of its eight exit points. Suddenly patrons had easy access to thousands of acres of terrain that previously would have taken the better part of a day to skin up to or that would have cost those enticed to scoot under resort a boundary line the loss of their lift pass and possibly a fine.
A majority of Utah resorts have since installed their own backcountry exit points. In addition to Park City, they can be found at Brighton, Snowbird, Snowbasin, Alta, Brian Head Resort, Solitude, Eagle Point and Beaver Mountain.
“For resorts, it’s valuable to be a good partner in a community,” said Ben Kraja, who manages special use permits for the U.S. Forest Service’s Salt Lake District. “... Keeping the backcountry or certain [exit] gates open really lets folks enjoy that freedom of enjoying their public lands.
“And for the skiers,” he added, “obviously it makes it a little bit more accessible and gives them access to some more areas. A lot of times when you’re going through the gates, you’ve got to hike, it gets your blood flowing. It’s a different type of experience than lift-served skiing all day.”
Most of Utah’s resorts are situated on Forest Service property. As a term of their permits, each must submit an annual winter operating plan to the agency for approval. Kraja said the Forest Service encourages resorts to incorporate access to public lands, even if that land lies within the resort’s permitted area.
“I think it’s extremely important,” he said. “That’s kind of one of our main missions for the agency is to provide public land recreation opportunities. That’s honestly a big part of why people move here and call Salt Lake and Utah their home.”
The backcountry gates check that box.
The gates aren’t really gates, per se. In fact, the Forest Service prefers to call them “managed exit points.” It’s a conscious shift in terminology made in part because they typically are more of a gap in the boundary line, buffeted by two wooden posts and flanked by a cadre of signs warning of the dangers beyond. The agency also hopes the term will drive home the point that once skiers or snowboarders go through that gap, they’re entering unmanaged and often dangerous territory.
Highway to the danger zone
When a few inches of snow fell on the Wasatch Mountains during the first week of January, it taunted skiers and snowboarders alike. Northern Utah hadn’t seen any significant snowfall since early November, before lifts started running, and this storm allowed ski areas to open a few more acres of in-bounds territory.
Steuterman and his girlfriend were eager to venture into that fresh terrain on Jan. 8 as they pulled into The Canyons. Connecting four lifts, they arrived at the top of Ninety-Nine 90 less than an hour after the resort opened.
Perhaps it was part of their original plan, or perhaps they were tempted by the less-tracked slopes they could gaze upon on the ride up. Either way, they decided to hike up the bootpack, or trail, to the exit gate, turn left and traverse a ridge into Dutch Draw. Prior to exiting the resort, they passed several signs marked by exclamation points and bold lettering, including the large skull-and-crossbones sign, a beacon check and another brown sign advising travelers they are entering an area without avalanche controls or ski patrol. Neither carried any avalanche safety gear.
After reaching a broad slope near Silver Peak, Steuterman, a project manager for an aerospace and defense company, dropped in first on his snowboard. When he was about midway down, his girlfriend followed on skis. She made just two turns, according to a Utah Avalanche Center report, before a slab of snow broke at her feet. The avalanche — which measured 150 feet wide and 600 feet long and could have been triggered by either of them — swept up Steuterman. It carried him 200 feet downhill before burying him under two feet of debris. Unable to find him, his girlfriend called 911. By the time rescuers uncovered him, he had suffocated.
Steuterman was the first person to die in an avalanche in Utah this season, but he is the fourth to die in the Dutch Draw area since 2000. Another five died after likely exiting the same gate and turning right to enter the area around Square Top Peak, including Damschroder. Combined, they account for nine of the 17 the skiers and snowboarders who were killed in avalanches after entering the backcountry from a Utah resort since the 1999-2000 season.
Though no two scenarios are alike, a few common threads link most of the victims of avalanches in lift-accessed backcountry terrain.
More often than not, they’re not tourists. According to avalanche center reports, less than half of the people to be killed in a slide off Ninety-Nine 90 likely hadn’t been there before. Generally they have expert skiing or snowboarding skills. And, almost without fail, they aren’t carrying the beacon, probe and shovel that serve as basic avalanche rescue gear. On several occasions, the victims and their partners owned the equipment but left it in the car, thinking they wouldn’t be entering the backcountry that day.
That assumption holds the key to understanding why the terrain off Ninety-Nine 90 has become such a death trap.
One of the best aspects of the Ninety-Nine 90 gate is it provides access to enticing backcountry terrain with minimal effort. Skiers and riders can reach the ridgeline within 20 minutes and without any special equipment, compared to the hours it would take to skin up to those areas from the base or from Big Cottonwood Canyon on the other side of the ridge. Plus, the terrain sets up an easy return to the ski area at the bottom.
Then there’s the lift ride. It’s practically a seven-minute commercial for the terrain beyond the ski area boundaries.
“You’ve got a pretty clear view of a whole lot of powder and you have pretty easy access,” Sturgis said during an interview with Ski Play Live. “So the decision to impulsively step out of bounds, step out of your skill level, is pretty easy to do up there.”
That combination of factors has been an issue at other Utah resorts as well. Two of them, Brighton and Snowbasin, have each seen three people die over the past two decades after stepping out of gates with similar traits.
Three snowboarders died in two avalanches just outside Brighton’s boundaries in 2002 and 2006. Both slides took place in the Pioneer Peak area after the men exited through the Crest Lift gate. Peter Tucker, the resort’s snow safety director, said that area is fairly easy to access and visible throughout the lift ride.
“On powder days everybody is happy skiing inbounds while there’s great powder skiing,” Tucker said. “As that gets skied up and skied out, people want to keep getting that fresh snow.”
The No Name gate that leads to Hells Canyon just outside of Snowbasin’s boundaries was in the same situation. Between 2006 and 2015, two skiers and a snowboarder died in that area in three separate avalanches.
But the No Name gate may make a good case study for Park City resort as it mulls the fate with Ninety-Nine 90. After that third death, Snowbasin’s managers made some changes, and despite a boom in the popularity of backcountry skiing, especially the lift-accessed kind, no deaths have occurred in the area since then.
Foremost, they moved the No Name gate a little ways down the mountain. Scott Fetters, Snowbasin’s assistant ski patrol director, said now the alluring terrain in Hells Canyon isn’t as visible from the exit point and the trek into that terrain is longer and more arduous. The gate also now sits next to a ski patrol shack, which gives staff more opportunities to intervene, especially on high-avalanche days.
“Having that touch point, you know, you can at least sort of engage them, and we do turn people around,” Fetters said. “We don’t physically turn the people around, but those conversations lead to them turning around sometimes.”
Furthermore, Snowbasin made its three backcountry gates actual gates. They now have a bar across them that skiers and riders must pull toward them in order to go through.
“You can’t just push through,” Fetters said. “This is your decision point.”
Now the time has come for Park City Mountain Resorts to make a decision.
Argument for access
Park City resort and its parent company, Vail Resorts, haven’t said much about their plans for the Ninety-Nine 90 gate since they closed it a month ago, though a spokesperson said an announcement is expected shortly.
No doubt, the resort is weighing several options.
It could do nothing other than chalk this year’s deaths up to a particularly cantankerous snowpack that has made it one of the deadliest ski seasons in state history. It could follow Snowbasin’s lead and move the gate or add an additional barrier. Or it could take a nod from a few resorts that have made the costly decision to post a patroller exit points to verify that anyone going into the backcountry has working safety gear and a partner.
Another route is to close the gates when avalanche danger is high. Resorts tend to leave their gates open under all conditions, and Sturgis said he believes concern about being held liable for accidents that happen to guests in the adjacent backcountry if the gates are monitored will make this option a nonstarter for Park City. One ski industry expert noted, however, that with all the signage, skiers have plenty of notice that they are taking on a risk and that resorts are rarely held liable even for avalanche deaths that occur within their boundaries.
That leaves the option of removing the gate and any legal access to the backcountry. That’s an alarming proposition among frequent backcountry skiers and riders. After the gate temporarily closed, Kraja said he’s “received numerous — I can’t even count how many — phone calls about that topic.” He said he can’t recall even one being in favor of permanent closure.
Sturgis said for the most part, those who play in the backcountry know they are taking a risk and are willing to accept the repercussions. He said he would prefer the decision be put in the hands of skiers and snowboarders, even if it leads to more deaths.
“I’m completely for access,” he told The Salt Lake Tribune. “I’m completely for individuals taking responsibility for their own actions.”
Even if the gates close, some skiers and snowboarders no doubt will still decide a few turns in fresh powder is worth ducking the boundary line. The only real solution, then, may be a continued push for avalanche and backcountry safety education.
And maybe even more signs. Instead of skulls and crossbones, it has been suggested on some backcountry social media channels that resorts post the pictures of those who have died after exiting a gate.
“It certainly can be frustrating to watch a bunch of people spill out of our gates with no gear,” Tucker, the Brighton ski patroller, said. “But at the end of the day, it’s their choice and it’s public land. And, you know, it’s not like they don’t have the information. It’s literally right in front of them.”