The backcountry access gates at Park City Mountain are closed indefinitely per a directive from the resort’s management. The closure follows the a fatal avalanche accident in backcountry terrain adjacent to the resort’s borders, the second such incident in a matter of weeks after a fatal accident on January 8. The sudden closure prohibits—for the time being—people from accessing national forest land. A meeting between representatives of Park City Mountain and the National Forest Service is scheduled to discuss management of backcountry access gates in the future.
The fatal avalanche accident precipitating the closure occurred on Sunday, January 31, off the area known as Square Top. The victim, Kurt Schroder—a 57-year-old Park City resident who was an experienced backcountry skier and was equipped with rescue gear—accessed the backcountry via a gate at Park City Mountain just before 3:00 p.m. after riding the 9990 chairlift. Schroder triggered an avalanche on the lower portion of the slope on Square Top and was caught and buried. His ski partner was able to locate and extricate Schroder before attempting life saving measures, which were ultimately unsuccessful. Rescue crews were unable to access the area until the following morning to assist because of the high avalanche danger in the area, and mitigation with explosives couldn’t be conducted as darkness fell. Loss of life in avalanche accidents is always tragic, and condolences are extended to the victim’s family and friends.
Since 2000, at least nine fatalities have occurred on the Park City ridgeline. The area can be somewhat more avalanche prone other parts of the Wasatch due to a generally thinner snowpack, but easy access is likely what has made it the site of numerous accidents over the years. There are few similar places where a skier or snowboarder can hike such a short distance from the top of a chairlift accessing long, sustained backcountry ski lines before returning to a chair for another lap. For decades, knowledgeable locals have enjoyed the spoils of powder skiing on these mountains. But the ease of access has also lured unprepared skiers to the slopes as well.
Throughout the resort’s history under numerous different ownership groups, national forest access has been uninhibited with rare exceptions such as when search and rescue operations were underway. A resort can’t prohibit access to public land it borders without getting creative by closing private land to create an off-limits buffer between the open private terrain and public land.
Some resorts employ this tactic not as means to prevent access, but to instead provide a filter, ensuring people who enter uncontrolled backcountry terrain have the requisite avalanche gear including a beacon, shovel and probe. Bridger Bowl in Montana does this. Jackson Hole infamously moved all their rope lines 10 feet in, effectively closing access to national forest land it borders in the 1990s. The move backfired spectacularly as a culture war between resort management and local die hard skiers culminated Jackson Hole instituting the now-revered open-gate policy in 2000.
We’ve reached out to Park City asking for details about their lease on the property and how regulations affect the resort’s ability to manage the gate, if they are indeed legally permitted at all. We are waiting for details and will update this when we receive more information. We are also waiting on the fulfillment of a FOIA request for the lease.
A prolonged closure of the resort boundaries is certain to rankle the local ski community. Permanently closing access simply shouldn’t be a consideration, as restricting access to public lands is legally and morally dubious at best, and has a long and undignified history of alienating the core ski community. Most backcountry users I’ve spoken with on the subject wouldn’t oppose some measures to ensure people are prepared when entering backcountry terrain, such as requiring people to carry avalanche rescue gear and check out with ski patrol.
Avalanche professionals from the Utah Avalanche Center and AIARE I’ve consulted with also advocate for increased education or some similar form of filtering, but none has advocated for a closure of backcountry access. In Jackson Hole where the gates are always open Teton County Search and Rescue has partnered with the resort to station people at gates on particular high avalanche danger days, not as an enforcement strategy, but to help educate people about the risks. A similar system if instituted in Park City wouldn’t prevent all avalanche accidents, but it could help prevent some while still allowing people to make their own decisions.
Permanently ending decades of public lands access would be a reactionary move in the wake of two tragic accidents. Targeted measures—whether that’s moving the access gate, requiring people have appropriate gear to access the gate, or increasing avalanche education and awareness at access points—should be considered. After avalanche accidents ski resorts, avalanche professionals and backcountry users should work together to build a safer, stronger community, not move to effectively end it.
We will update this story as is progresses. Until then, stay safe and visit the Utah Avalanche Center website for updates for current avalanche conditions.
Read more outdoor coverage here.