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Mountain News: Sidecountry warnings reframed



JACKSON, Wyo. — Sidecountry has become a common term to describe the terrain located adjacent to ski areas. You can use the lifts to get your vertical, then slip through a backcountry gate to catch powder long after the slopes have been skied off.

But the sidecountry slopes adjacent to Jackson Hole Mountain Resort are not the same as those inside the ski area. Two people died after going through those backcountry gates in January, the Jackson Hole News&Guide explained, while a trio of snowboarders fell scores of metres over a cliff, although they survived.

The ski area operator and the local search and rescue team have teamed up to see if they can more effectively communicate the dangers that lie in the canyons, cliffs, and other avalanche-prone slopes. The News&Guide explained that photos of the terrain will be posted at two of the six gates.

Skull-and-crossbones symbols already exist to warn the community of the danger, but they don't always work, explained Jon Bishop, the resort's risk manager. "They think the warnings don't mean what the warnings say. Or they go out once and have a good experience."

During the last two ski seasons, incidents in one sidecountry area, called Rock Springs, have accounted for a quarter of all winter rescue calls in Teton County.

Writing in the same issue of the News& Guide, backcountry columnist Molly Absolon — whose husband was killed in a climbing accident — continued to puzzle over how the human brain assesses risk. She focused especially on the brains of people in their early 20s.

"It's hard for kids who grew up in Jackson Hole not to be aware of avalanches," she said. "With Sunday's avalanche fatality outside Grand Targhee Resort, the Tetons have seen 16 deaths from avalanches in the last four years. That's a lot of death."

Still, a local high school science instructor who teaches an avalanche unit reported not all of his students do understand the risks. Instruction starts in a middle school after-school club. When one of the instructors, a member of the Jackson Hole Ski Patrol, asked the kids if they had ever skied past the resort's gates, the majority said they had.

A dry February, but now the fun will start

ASPEN, Colo. — Winter got off to a good start high in the Rocky Mountains, but mid-winter was sluggish. Ketchum, for example, got just one inch of snow in February.

Meteorologists last autumn had warned to expect just this sort of El Niño pattern. They also said to expect lots of moisture beginning in March and continuing until May.

That's still the prediction of Aspen-based Ryan Boudreau and his partner, Cory Gates, who own a micro-forecasting service called Aspen Weather. They told The Aspen Times they expect another 317 to 330 centimetres of snowfall on local ski slopes through the third week of April. The precedent Boudreau recalls is 1983, another El Niño year.

That 1982-83 winter had also started strong, then turned ho-hum after Christmas. As the ski slopes began closing, the storms arrived one after another in Winter Park and other mountain towns. There was so much spring snow that Vail reopened for Memorial Day Weekend in late May.

Then it got hot in June — and the snow vanished. Rivers roared. Downstream in the desert of Utah, managers of Glen Canyon Dam began to worry. Lake Powell, the second largest reservoir in the United States, can hold nearly one and a half times the annual, average flow of the Colorado River.

This was not a normal year, though. Spillways were opened, but the volume was greater than ever experienced. The whole dam began to shake violently. Plywood was installed atop the dam, so that the reservoir could hold more water. It looked to be a lost cause, but then in mid-July the volume of inflow into Lake Powell began to slow.

A relatively new and highly regarded book called The Emerald Mile tells the story of that calamitous summer and a thrilling raft ride on the crest of those flood waters through the Grand Canyon.

Can we expect that again? Not likely, as Lake Powell was only 46 per cent full as of Sunday, so there's lots of room. Too, El Niño appears to be weakening, said Nolan Doesken, the Colorado state climatologist. Still, it is likely to be a cold, wet spring, which is "always a boon for (water) supplies and sometimes an indicator of flood potential."

Collapsed cornice, and now his story is all over

DRIGGS, Idaho — Don't tempt your fate by stepping on a cornice. You might end up like the 30-year-old man at Grand Targhee.

The Jackson Hole News&Guide reports that the broken cornice sent the man falling down a slope, which in turn triggered an avalanche that swept him over a steep cliff. He was buried under a metre of snow and died.

The paper said the man, an immigrant from Mexico, was well liked in the Jackson Hole community and left a wife and two children.

A similar incident a year ago banged up a 28-year-old visitor from Australia but he survived.

A seven-year itch for high-end real estate?

ASPEN, Colo. — After six straight years of upward momentum, is Aspen's real estate market ready to slip-slide downward? In the last 40 years, six years has been the longest period before there's a market correction, said Randy Gold at a recent meeting of the Aspen Board of Realtors that was covered by The Aspen Times.

Gold, a partner in the Aspen Appraisal Group, had issued the same cautionary note about the six-year cycle last year, but this year said he felt more certain about an impending downhill slide.

January and February numbers have been sliding compared to those of 2015. At more than $2 billion in volume, it was the biggest year in the Aspen area since 2005. "I think 2015 was the market peak and we're moving into the next phase of the down market," he said.

Mountain coasters to debut at Vail, Heavenly

BROOMFIELD, Colo. — Five years after the U.S. Congress passed a law allowing expanded year-round use of ski areas on federal lands, Vail Resorts will debut canopy tours, alpine coasters, and other amusements on Vail Mountain and at Heavenly Mountain Resorts beginning in June.

Vail Resorts emphasizes the marriage of learning and play in its new venues, which it is branding under the name Epic Discovery.

"Epic Discovery offers families the opportunity to learn through play together in the national forest," said Chris Jarnot, chief operating officer of Vail Mountain. "For kids, it will be the ultimate playground in an alpine setting."

At Vail, adventurers will be able to partake of a guided tour called the Game Creek Canopy Tour. It will have an array of zip lines and aerial bridges as high as 90 metres above the valley floor. In a press release, Vail explains that participants will learn about the mountain environment from interpretive guides while working their way through the course.

Also planned is an alpine coaster, trade-marked by Vail as a Forest Flyer. The coaster allows riders to control their speed on the elevated track.

Vail Mountain will also have an expanded trail system, focused on mountain flora and fauna, created in conjunction with The Nature Conservancy, the Forest Service, and a local non-profit called Walking Mountains Science Center.

In 2017, Breckenridge will get its own set of summer amusements.

Previously, authority to engage in overtly commercial activities was unclear. In 1986, Congress passed a law governing ski area permits, but spoke only of snow sports. As such, local federal forest managers were inclined to refuse expanded commercial activities in summer.

A law passed in 2011, however, specifically identifying zip lines, mountain bike terrain parks, Frisbee golf courses, and rope courses as appropriate for summer use. It specifically excludes tennis courts, water slides, swimming pools, golf courses, and amusement parks. It made no mention of mountain coasters, however.

Park City and Whitefish, with private land at their disposal, already have an array of such activities. Vail Mountain, during the 1990s, also created modest activities on private land located at the top of its gondola.

Summer has always been a money-losing time for most, if not all, ski areas. Vail Resorts doesn't expect these new activities to replace skiing.

"Winter revenues are dramatically greater for our company, and they always will be," declares Blaise Carrig, the president of the company's mountain division, who was quoted by Ski Area Management three years ago.

Carrig said the summer activities would produce some cash while allowing the company to offer more year-round jobs.

"What we are hoping for is that we can grow our summer business to significantly reduce or eliminate the loss quarters (of summer and fall)," said Carrig.

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