Telluride Ski Resort in the Backcountry Business?

Bear Creek Permit Decision This Week

For years, skiing from the Telluride resort into Bear Creek meant ducking a rope and breaking the law. This spring, you won’t just have the Forest Service’s permission to ski off-piste—you might also have a ski patrol guide.

Skiing in out-of-bounds Bear Creek has been the topic of much debate in Telluride. The area is avalanche-prone and dangerous— there were avalanche deaths in 1986-87, 1989 and 2002 as well as numerous accidents and injuries—and the Forest Service has closed access from ski resort boundaries in the past.

Since 2000 (following a spirited local “Free Bear Creek” campaign) the Forest Service has allowed access into upper Bear Creek from a designated gate at the top of the ski resort. This season the agency opened more backcountry access points, including one lower in Bear Creek. USFS District Ranger Judy Schutza says they opened up access because so many people were skiing into Bear Creek anyway, and not always from safe routes. “We lifted the closure order because people were ducking the rope and going wherever they wanted to go … we put in some access gates in safer places and it seems to be working pretty well.”

This spring the agency might take things one step farther: This week, the Forest Service is expected to issue a permit to the Telluride Ski Resort to allow guided backcountry trips into Bear Creek. The permit would allow the resort to offer guided excursions this season from the upper access points into Bear Creek. As with any guiding or public lands permit, the ski resort would have to pay a fee to the Forest Service based on the volume of business generated.

Not everyone is pleased about the possible permit—town officials from Telluride and conservationists have argued that it would put commercial activity in Bear Creek Preserve, an area protected by a conservation easement. Schutza says that the permit would skirt the conservation easement, but locals who oppose the permit application argue that skiers and boarders will not always follow the exact permit route.

It’s not just a question of the conservation easement; it’s also a question of liability. How do you keep people safe in such a notoriously unsafe area? The ski resort started conducting snow safety tests in Bear Creek last season to get a better picture of the avalanche activity and risks in the area. It’s not just the copious snow, but also the avalanche danger that has helped to create Bear Creek’s mystique and allure, giving it nicknames like “The Dark Side” and runs called the “Suicide” chutes. That air of danger is well-deserved: One of the people caught and injured in a slide just this year was a professional ski patroller.

The snow testing and the permit application have led to much local speculation about the Telluride Ski Resort expanding to include Bear Creek terrain, but CEO Dave Riley says that there have been no decisions or plans made. Riley told the Telluride Watch that “at this point, we’re just listening, asking a lot of questions and gauging what the issues are.”

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