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LearntheRopes

Deep thoughts
posted: 06/01/2005

Follow me, he said, and I did, ducking the rope and breaking the law, violating ski-area policy and risking my pass. And wouldn't you know it—the snow was deeper, lighter, and drier than what I'd left behind. When I went to bed that night, I didn't feel the slightest guilt, nothing but the afterglow of fat powder turns and the seductive satisfaction ofhiding a secret. How intoxicating the rush of the personal powder stash! Poachito ergo sum.

Few people talk openly about it, but on any given day, I'd wager there's more poaching in American ski areas than in all the Denny's west of the Mississippi. Poaching is neck and neck with dope-smoking as skiing's biggest open secret, and pretty much everyone I know does it from time to time. This includes the usual skidlike suspects, of course—but patrollers, instructors, and marketing officials hit the dark side, too. It's just part of skiing culture, a manifestation of the anarchistic streak that leads to swapping passes, reusing lift tickets, and sneaking—via Ho Chi Minh—style trails—onto the upper reaches of mountains, where tickets won't be checked. Fighting the power is a sentiment that runs deep among skiers.

This doesn't make it right, however. Skiing across a closed boundary, or onto a closed run, is wrong. Rules are rules, whether you agree with them or not—and if you adhere to a rigid ethical stance, you wouldn't poach at all. People who argue that ski areas shouldn't bar us from our public lands or stretch ropes across the mountains (I'm one of them) are offering worthy, if ultimately empty, justifications for their behavior. Skiing is indeed about unfettered freedom, but when we buy a lift pass, we're making a commitment to follow the rules. The back of the ticket is right.

But I've been out there on countless stormy days, and mostly what I've seen is a world colored by shades of gray. Which is another way of saying that, while I'm as honest as a winter night is long, I can't promise I won't poach again. Blame it on Adam, who was given the entire world but still wanted the one thing he couldn't have, and in taking it not only got kicked out of paradise but passed down his fatal flaw to every human being who followed him. Poaching as original sin? Why not? How else to explain regular violations of ski-area policy except by pointing to the flawed makeup of human character and the powerfully seductive appeal of the taboo? It's as good an argument as any. Untouched powder is da kine; I'm human and can't help myself. Forgive me, Father, for I have poached.

I have never poached wantonly or openly, and because I spend most of my time at resorts with open boundaries, I really haven't poached all that much. What little poaching I've done I've excused by doing it in what I consider to be a responsible manner. I've spent many an hour with ski patrols—up all night and out on dawn patrols, shadowing them in gale-force blizzards, and witnessing the kinds of B.S. and foolishness that come of dealing with the public. I certainly don't want to do anything that makes their job harder or endangers them or others. But there are shades of poaching, just as there are shades of gray in storms. Ducking a boundary rope where the average skier can't see you or your tracks is a far cry from ripping up a closed avalanche chute that overhangs a trail. One poach is minor, harmless, and victimless; the other, serious, dangerous, and counterproductive.

I suppose I'm a boundary libertarian and an inbounds conservative. Some ski patrols are notoriously slow about opening their storm-day trails (critics of Crested Butte Mountain Resort used to say its initials really meant "Closed Because it's My Run), and some resorts are ridiculously conservative about allowing access to the gnar, but most inbounds, off-limits trails are closed for damn good reasons. Conditions might be bad. A clueless tourist might be suckered into the same line. Avalanche danger could be high. There are a hundred legitimatee reasons for closure.

Boundaries are different, however. If a ski area abuts public land, I feel its boundaries should be open—period. If it abuts private land, it's the owner's right to bar trespassing, but all 50 states now have statutes protecting landowners from litigation if a recreational user gets hurt on their property; thus, there's no good reason, short of orneriness, to prevent passage. Despite the occasional boneheaded yahoo, skiers are generally responsible about their backcountry sessions and should be trusted. Jackson Hole's five years of open boundaries are proof that education can increase safety and keep accidents to a minimum. A closed boundary invites poaching.

The good news for powder-starved skiers (and bad news for incorrigible poachers) is that resorts are in the midst of an unprecedented glasnost. Jackson's boundary-opening may have been the highest-profile event, but throughout the ski world, resorts have been aggressively granting access to the backcountry. Part of this stems from pressure to let us on our public land; part of it comes from smart businesses responding to the desires of their customers. The result is that there are fewer places to poach and fewer reasons to duck a rope, which isn't a bad thing at all. The forbidden fruit tastes pretty sweet, but it's nice to eat an apple in the light of day, too.

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