TELLURIDE, Colo. — The death last week of a snowboarder in the exhilarating but often deadly Bear Creek drainage adjacent to the Telluride ski area has renewed a discussion about who bears the responsibility for rescue of avalanche victims.
Most skiers and snowboarders in Bear Creek access the steep slopes after first riding the lifts. After several deadly avalanches in the 1980s, the Forest Service ordered backcountry gates closed.
But about a decade ago, the Forest Service decided it was time to open the gates. An estimated 150 to 300 trips are made into the bowl every day during ski season.
Bill Masters, the sheriff of San Miguel County, says he's left with the responsibility for responding when people are buried, and often killed, in avalanches. One rescue operation alone can cost $30,000 to $500,000, he estimates. And even if no avalanches occur, he has to be prepared, with a staff that is equipped and insured.
Masters tells The Telluride Watch that he wants local government jurisdictions to consider imposing a lift ticket tax to fund search and rescue operations.
Dave Riley, chief executive officer of Telluride Ski and Golf Co., the ski area operator, dislikes the idea of a lift ticket tax. Few people who purchase lift tickets go into the backcountry. "I think from an equity point of view, dinging visitors to pay for services they are not using isn't justified."
Masters says that Telluride's situation is different from that of other sidecountry ski experiences at other ski areas.
"Here it is so easy to leave the ski area boundaries, ski extremely hazardous, dynamic terrain and then get back on the lift. When I say we have 150 to 300 user trips a day in Bear Creek, there aren't that many people skiing it, but there are a lot of people doing it five times in a day."
Neither the ski area, which provides the uphill transportation, nor the Forest Service, which controls the gate, has to deal with the aftermath, he says. He suggests — as has been discussed for the last few years — that the Forest Service extend the boundary of the ski area into Bear Creek and give it responsibility for administration — and for rescues.
The decade-long sheriff in San Miguel County, Masters has handled many avalanche fatalities. He says that none of the victims he has recovered would have been saved by ABS air bags or Avalungs.
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