Skiers have to pass through a gate and several warning signs before going into the backcountry at Steamboat Ski Area.

Photo by Matt Stensland

Skiers have to pass through a gate and several warning signs before going into the backcountry at Steamboat Ski Area.

Rescues spike in backcountry near Steamboat Ski Area

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Nick Demarest watches Jordan Osterman drop off a rock in Fish Creek Canyon on Thursday. Demarest is a ski instructor, and Osterman is a ski patroller. Steamboat Ski Area has been busy during the past week rescuing skiers who venture into the backcountry and do not know where they are going.

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Torre Saterstrom snowboards Thursday in Fish Creek Canyon.

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Torre Saterstrom snowboards Thursday in Fish Creek Canyon.

— Following existing tracks when venturing into the backcountry is not a strategy on which skiers and snowboarders should rely, ski area officials said Thursday.

Steamboat Ski Area recently has seen a rash of incidents where skiers have gone into the backcountry and then needed to be rescued. Ski area spokesman Mike Lane said Thursday that ski patrollers have been out on rescues five days during the past week.

The advice from ski area officials to skiers and riders wanting to venture outside the boundaries of the ski area was pretty clear.

“Don’t go if you don’t know where you’re going,” Steamboat Ski Patrol Director John Koh­nke said.

A day after 11 people crossed through the gates at the ski area and got into trouble in Fish Creek Canyon, Steamboat Springs snowboarder Torre Saterstrom was one of the many people enjoying the steep terrain, rock drops and deep powder. He calls it the ski area’s hidden gem, but he is well aware of the dangers that exist in the area. Earlier in the day, his friend broke his ankle after dropping off a rock in the area and had to be rescued by ski patrollers.

“People think this is sidecountry, and it’s not,” Saterstrom said. “It’s gnarly. It’s no joke. We get cliffed out all the time back here. It’s no good.”

Saterstrom knows what to expect, though, and he has ridden the area enough to know why there are strong warnings as well as skull and crossbones signs at the gates entering the backcountry.

The warnings are not enough for some. Skiers who are unfamiliar with the territory have been following the existing tracks of people who previously needed to be rescued, and then those skiers needed to be rescued themselves.

“Once you have that first set of unfortunate tracks, it multiplies,” said Doug Allen, Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp. vice president of mountain operations. “It’s like lemmings. They keep following the tracks.”

As the ski area was closing Wednesday, several calls came in from skiers who were in trouble after going outside the ski area boundary. In all, 10 people needed to be lowered from the cliffs above Fish Creek using ropes. Another man did not need to be lowered but was soaked and cold after falling into the creek.

Rescuers initially thought the number of people needing help was as high as 21, a figure that resulted from multiple people from the same groups calling for help.

Koh­nke said the local man who fell in Fish Creek while snowboarding is lucky to be OK. He reportedly accessed the backcountry from East Face and was with a friend who was familiar with the area.

“Within the first four turns, he lost his friend,” Koh­nke said.

The man called for help, but with spotty cellphone service, ski patrollers had difficulty contacting the man.

“We had no idea where he was,” Allen said.

The man built a snow cave thinking he might spend the night.

“He really thought he was in trouble,” Koh­nke said.

Routt County Search and Rescue members assembled to help ski patrol rescue the man, but he hiked to the Fish Creek Falls parking area on his own. Search and Rescue incident commander Delbert Bostock said the man was assessed for injuries and then taken to the ski area. Bostock reiterated the advice from ski patrol.

“If you don’t know where it’s going to come out, don’t go in there,” he said.

After taking care of the lone snowboarder, Search and Rescue members hiked back up the Fish Creek Falls Trail to help the 10 skiers who were stranded on cliffs 60 to 80 feet high near the second bridge. They also had built shelters in anticipation of spending the night in the canyon.

Koh­nke said a brother and sister from the East Coast had followed a group of eight college friends into the backcountry via an access gate near Pony Express chairlift.

Everyone in the two groups made the same mistake and got in trouble. Instead of traversing left back toward the ski area, the skiers looked at the untouched powder and kept going down into steeper terrain, Koh­nke said. They found themselves on a cliff that kept them from skiing any farther.

“It’s so steep, they can’t hike back up,” Koh­nke said. “They said they hiked for an hour and made it 10 feet.”

Koh­nke said 15 patrollers were involved in the rescues.

“I can’t remember having to rescue 10 people in the same area,” Koh­nke said.

In addition to knowing where you are going, ski area officials urge people to bring the necessary equipment when going into the backcountry. That includes avalanche beacons, a probe and a shovel.

To reach Matt Stensland, call 970-871-4247 or email mstensland@SteamboatToday.com

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