The first time I ever ducked the rope to ski the off-piste terrain in Bear Creek at the top of the Telluride Ski Resort, I was following a friend. The snow in the creek was about three feet deeper than it was on the ski area, and it was pretty deep on the ski area -- the whole mountain had been enveloped in clouds for three days. We had our avalanche beacons, shovels and packs, but as I watched her disappear over the ridge into the gray, snowy mist, I couldn't help but feel spooked.
Back then, it was still illegal to ski Bear Creek. The Forest Service had shut it down after a series of avalanche fatalities in 1986-87 and 1992; there would be another in 2002. The agency had gone so far as to arrest and prosecute a pair of skiers (who, ironically, had hiked to ski a different route altogether and had not actually violated the Forest Service closure). Bear Creek only became more alluring, its mystique enhanced by tales of chest-deep powder runs and near-death scrapes with avalanches. Locals named the runs and chutes, and dropped in with increasing regularity.
Forest Service officials eventually threw up their arms in surrender. They opened backcountry gates into Bear Creek at what are considered the safest points of access, and enlisted the ski resort's help. Technically, the San Miguel County Sheriff's Office and the county's search and rescue teams are responsible for coming to the aid of injured or buried skiers and boarders in the creek, but Telluride Ski Resort patrollers often help in the rescue efforts. Why not let the resort hire out its patrollers as guides? Instead of letting visitors unfamiliar with the terrain or avalanche protocols follow locals' tracks into Bear Creek, let them hire a patroller to take them safely through the inherently dangerous terrain. The ski resort applied for the permit to guide backcountry trips and despite the opposition of some local environmental groups about the commercial activity in Bear Creek, the Forest Service issued the permit Friday.
Is this a good thing? Good for the ski resort, of course, and the Forest Service, which will draw a percentage of all the backcountry business; and yes, it will keep some people safer. But what about the secret stashes of heavenly, bottomless powder in Bear Creek? What about that heavy feeling in your gut, the unrelenting grip of nervousness as you drop in, and the heady rush of risk and adventure as you arc your way to the bottom? Will it all disappear in a wave of tourism, as people trespass in long, Disney-like lines into what was once a dark and mysterious playground?
I doubt it. I think it will just push some skiers and boarders into more distant powder frontiers, new and uncrowded terrain over another ridgeline. And as for the element of danger, that will always exist in Bear Creek. Its steep, leeward chutes will always be perilous and exciting, even with an experienced ski patrol guide. After all, one of this winter's avalanche victims was an off-duty patroller who survived a 900-foot ride that ended with two broken elbows, a chipped pelvis and fractured ribs.