Whitefish Mountain Resort reaches agreement with US Forest Service

Posted By: The Ski Channel on February 22, 2010 4:28 pm

WHITEFISH, Mont. – Whitefish Mountain Resort and the US Forest Service announced a new policy pertaining to uphill traffic at the Montana ski resort today, in an attempt to decrease unsafe behavior associated with the increasingly popular activity.

“I’m not a fan of restrictions under most circumstances, but in this case I think it is necessary,” said Becky Smith-Powell, a Snow Ranger with the US Forest Service’s Tally Lake Ranger District.

Hiking uphill in the snow for sport, once reserved for only the most dedicated winter outdoor recreation enthusiasts, has seen a surge of popularity in recent years due to better equipment and coverage in mainstream media. Some participants attach synthetic “skins” to their skis, which enable them to climb slippery slopes. Others use snowshoes for the uphill portion of their journey and switch to skis or snowboards to ride downhill.

Resort officials pointed to an exponential increase in uphill traffic over the last few years as the primary reason this issue has come to a point of action now.

“It used to be that you’d see one or two people hiking the mountain on an average evening,” said Chester Powell, Director of Operations and Risk Management for the resort. “Now, our grooming operators will tell you they see 30 or 40 people on an average night, and many more if it is exceptionally clear or a full moon.”

The resort and the US Forest Service made clear that this is an issue of safety, not revenue. Resort managers estimate that as many as 90% of uphill travelers are current winter season pass holders.

“We see uphill traffic as an important part of the unique ski culture here,” said Donnie Clapp, Public Relations Manager for the resort. “That culture is our greatest asset as a business, and what sets us apart from all the cookie cutter ski resorts out there. I guarantee you we would not risk upsetting all of the people who enjoy hiking the mountain if we didn’t feel we have to.”

This season, resort staff have reported several near-miss incidents with winch cats – grooming machines that use a powerful winch and steel cable to allow the grooming of steep terrain. The cables are under high tension and often bind and release, jumping 30 feet or more in an instant. As recently as Friday, Feb. 19, a grooming operator watched an after-hours hiker ski beneath his winch cable, encountering aggressive resistance when the skier was asked to vacate the area for his safety.

After-hours hikers also sometimes ski down close behind or in front of grooming machines after their ascents, ostensively looking for freshly groomed snow to ski on. Collisions with grooming machines have resulted in fatalities and severe injuries at other ski areas in the past.

“Our grooming operators are constantly worried that they’re going to inadvertently injure or kill someone who makes a bad decision out there,” said Powell. “I’m not willing to wait until that happens to reactively put a policy in place. I’d like to try and prevent it from happening.”

Other practices that have been identified as dangerous include travelling uphill on runs with blind break-overs or blind corners, travelling uphill in the middle of runs instead of keeping to the edge, entering terrain that is undergoing avalanche control work or closed for other reasons, and disregarding posted warnings to stay away from high-pressure water lines and high-voltage electrical cables associated with early-season snowmaking operations.

The policy developed by resort management and the US Forest Service will restrict uphill traffic within the resort’s Special Use Permit boundary to a single route on the mountain, as well as limiting the hours when the activity is allowed. The route follows the run called Toni Matt, hugging the uphill-left edge of the trail, and will be clearly marked. Uphill traffic will be allowed on the route during ski season from 6:30 a.m. until the resort closes for the day and Ski Patrol conducts their sweep of the mountain. The same route will be used between 8:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. for the first 14 days after ski season ends, with no active restrictions outside those hours and dates. Uphill traffic will not be allowed pre-season, when the resort is likely to be conducting extensive slope maintenance and snowmaking operations.

“It isn’t realistic to think we can manage uphill traffic after we close for the day, even if we identified a suitable route that didn’t interfere with grooming operations,” said Powell. “Patrol isn’t here to keep people out of trouble, and people have proven they don’t always make the best decisions on their own.”

The full text of the policy, along with an Uphill Traffic Responsibility Code crafted by the resort’s Ski Patrol, can be found online at skiwhitefish.com. A large sign containing the policy and the Responsibility Code, similar to what might be found at a Forest Service trail-head, will be erected near the bottom of the uphill route. Ski Patrol also plans to hand out fliers to and have conversations with hikers between now and March 1, when the policy is scheduled to go into effect.

The US Forest Service plans to back the policy with a Special Order amendment to 36 CFR 261.53(e), which will allow them to send staff to assist the resort with enforcing the new policy.

“We fully support this preventative measure,” said Tally Lake District Ranger Lisa Timchak. “We are pursuing this policy in tandem with Whitefish Mountain Resort in the interest of public safety, and we plan to do what we can to help make sure people abide by it.”

Resort and Forest Service officials are optimistic that most people will embrace the new policy.

“Most people I’ve talked to have been sad to see evening hiking on Big Mountain go, but have agreed that something like this is needed. We all feel that way,” said Dan Graves, President and CEO of the resort. “I’m very hopeful that those people will encourage each other to work with us on adopting the new policy, so that going uphill can remain a part of recreating here for a long time into the future.”