Nightmare scenario: You're yo-yoing between your local resort and the backcountry when you slip through the gate and trigger a slide on the out-of-bounds side of the rope. If you're lucky, your partner can dig you out. If not, you're probably dead. "You step across that magic line," says Bruce Tremper, director of the Utah Avalanche Center (see "The Avalanche Experts" article below), "and suddenly you've stepped into the Stone Age."
Most ski resorts that border public land have backcountry access gates, but once you leave the resort, you enter Forest Service domain - which means ski patrol's probably not coming. And even if the local search-and-rescue team finds out you're buried, it could take hours to mobilize a search - let alone find you alive.
So while resorts are loosening their boundaries (Sierra-at-Tahoe, California, and Snowbird, Utah, close gates only in high avalanche danger, and Winter Park, Colorado, allows skiers to slip through orange wands unchecked), don't be lulled into a false sense of security. Only you can keep yourself safe.
Sound alarmist? Consider: Fifty-four skiers and snowboarders were killed in avalanches in the U.S. between 1999 and 2004. Thirty of them - that's 68 percent - died within two miles of a ski area. So do yourself a favor. Avoid dicey snowpack. Carry a beacon, shovel, and probe. And know that if you get buried, you can't expect ski patrol or SAR to find you fast enough. "Go through all the necessary precautions," says Tremper. "Otherwise, you're just rolling the dice."