The Mountain Times

°F Wed, April 23, 2014

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Lost skiers: Dangerous risks vex authorities

KILLINGTON - Some 50 skiers from Killington and Pico, have gone off the established trails in search of fresh, deep powder and gotten lost in the woods, says Vermont State Police Capt. Ray Keefe. Most of the 50 confirmed incidents, thus far this ski season, have been folks from out-of-state who are not familiar with the topography and are underprepared for the conditions.

"Killington topography is very unique in that if a guest leaves the ski area boundary, they will not filter to a basin area or the Killington Access Road, they are going down a different ridge line that eventually flattens out," states Killington Resort in memo on lost skiers. Those stuck in the backcountry flats usually face at least a two-mile walk out to the nearest road in Mendon. Without climbing skins, water, sufficient clothing and daylight, and a ride back, this can be a dangerous venture.

"This year has seen an unacceptable amount of skiers, primarily at Killington Mountain, intentionally leaving the marked trails and eventually having to call for assistance to get out of the woods," wrote Keefe in a recent police report. We must find a way to "curtail these reckless and poorly thought out acts by skiers who are not physically/mentally prepared to deal with the harsh Vermont winter conditions they face upon getting lost," he continued.

State police have the responsibility to lead searches; they receive support from the resort.

"They call 9-1-1 and the ski patrol leads them back, if they have GPS," Keefe said. "But that gives many of them a level of comfort they wouldn't have without a phone." And not all calls end well, with hypothermia, frostbite, dehydration and fatigue constant threats to health and survival.

The cost begins to add up, Keefe says. Sometimes it's in the form of overtime, but when search and rescue teams need to be called in, it can amount to thousands of dollars. "This places a large drain on State Police uniform and dispatch resources," he adds.

Keefe and the state police will be meeting with resort officials to see what more can be done to keep people safe.

Killington marketing director Sarah Thorson said the resort would try to do more to educate skiers about staying on the established trails.

"We plan to put more signs up and post warnings on the snow report page," she said. "We'd like skiers to be more aware and try to go skiing with a buddy."

"We're going to take a fresh look at the situation," Keefe said. "We're going to look at the land owners and see who has the power to post. We could look to make it a civil offense and write a ticket. That way, if someone from out of state says, 'I don't have to pay this,' we can have their license suspended."

Currently, under Vermont law, it is not illegal for skiers or riders to ski out of the ski area boundary. Skiers/riders, however, are legally liable for all expenses of search and rescue. Killington Resort does not presently fine or ban lost skiers/riders from the resort, nor do they take their season pass or lift ticket away. (However, the resort reserves the rights to change this at any time.)
Killington Resort always recommends that skiers and riders stay within the ski area boundary. The language on their trail guides reads: "Woods and backcountry areas beyond open and designated trails are not maintained or checked by ski area personnel. Killington assumes no responsibility for safety of, or injury, death or damages to skiers or snowboarders going beyond open, designated areas or the ski area boundary (shown by a dotted yellow line bordering the map)."

Rescuing lost skiers out of bounds is not new, but the problem has increased to new levels this year at Killington and Pico, and has expanded to include many more who are unprepared for the venture, which truly vexes authorities.

Things have been different at Okemo Mountain Resort, according to spokeswoman Bonnie MacPherson.

"We haven't had any such incidents this year," she said. "Part of that is the lay of the land. Between the railroad tracks and Route 103, most can find their way back."

As it happens, the period from Jan. 19 to Jan. 27 is National Safety Awareness Week at ski resorts across the country.

On the mountain, Killington will have Mountain Ambassadors in bright yellow jackets which will display important safety awareness messages. Together with ski patrollers and terrain park staff, they'll be handing out Know the Code and Smart Style stickers and cards. Thorson said they are always looking to find more ways to get the message out.

"We'll continue to brainstorm ideas," she said.