Steamboat skiers face $500 fines for backcountry rescues
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — The fine print on the trail maps and signs at backcountry access gates now alert skiers that they can be charged up to $500 per person for rescues at the Steamboat Ski Area.
The policy is new this year, and the ski area hopes it will deter inexperienced skiers from going places they do not belong.
“If you don’t know, don’t go,” was the advice Ski Patrol Director John Kohnke offered.
Melanie Mills, CEO of the Colorado Ski Country USA trade group, said she was not aware of any similar fines at any Colorado ski areas, but she added she supports it and said other ski areas are considering it.
“I think they’re very serious about it,” Mills said. “I don’t know if we’ll see other ski areas do it, but it’s a hot topic in the industry.”
Kohnke said a fine as a deterrent is needed because the popularity of backcountry skiing has increased in recent years. This has led to more people going through the out-of-bounds access gates the U.S. Forest Service requires.
Kohnke said at the beginning of his 40-year career, perhaps 20 people would go through the gates each day. These days, he said, the number might be closer to 500.
Kohnke recalled one rescue mission two seasons ago when about 12 skiers followed someone else’s track and got stranded on a cliff. About 14 ski patrollers were involved in the rescue, which required setting up ropes and lowering the skiers to safety.
“The next day, we were short a third of our staff, because they were exhausted,” Kohnke said.
During the busy season, ski patrollers are called to perform two or three rescues each week. Kohnke said some of the rescues go into the night and can be dangerous. He recalled one ski patroller who tore a knee ligament.
The ski area discussed the fine policy with the Forest Service and Routt County Search and Rescue, which is responsible for rescues in the county under the authority of the Routt County Sheriff’s Office.
Sheriff Garrett Wiggins said he did not have a problem with the policy.
“Maybe it will help convince some of these people to not ski out of bounds,” Wiggins said.
The Forest Service also did not mind.
“In essence, we support the county and Search and Rescue,” District Ranger Chad Stewart said. “They didn’t need our blessing, because this is an agreement straight with the Sheriff’s Office.”
Search and Rescue sometimes helps with the rescues by hiking up from the bottom of the mountain. Per state laws, Search and Rescue does not charge for its services. The state Search and Rescue organization feels that charging would discourage people from calling for help.
Routt County Search and Rescue board member Chad Bowdre said he understood the issue the ski area is dealing with, adding that it made sense for the ski area to have the ability to impose a fine if ski patrollers need to rescue someone. It would take much longer for Search and Rescue volunteers to arrive and help.
“They’re the ones that are right there,” Bowdre said. “It’s sort of like an ambulance service where they are staffing their service 24-7.”
Bowdre said he hopes the fine serves as a deterrent to skiers who are not prepared to exit the gates and go into the backcountry.
“I hope it works,” Bowdre said.
Kohnke said the potential fine should not impact experienced backcountry skiers.
“Each case is going to be different,” he said. “It’s hard to have a hard and fast rule for what you’re going to do. It’s really set up as a deterrent.”