Out-of-Bounds vs. Avalanche Areas – What’s the Scoop?

Every year the ski patrol are approached by people wondering whether we do any form of avalanche control in places like West Bowl or other areas outside the ski area boundary. The short answer is no, we do not, but there’s a bit of background information that people may find helpful in deciding whether to venture beyond the ropes. It’s also worth repeating what the difference is between out-of-bounds areas and avalanche  control zones, as both exist at Lake Louise and are subject to their own rules and policies. I’ve copied much of the following post from another article that appeared here in the very early days of the Lowdown, in a winter where avalanche involvements in western Canada were dominating the front pages of many newspapers.

Out-of-Bounds

At Lake Louise, out-of-bounds means just that – any area that lies outside our operational boundary, which is marked with orange rope and bamboo fencing, and is identified with orange signs stating “Ski Area Boundary – Not Patrolled”. Our entire boundary is open, meaning there is no restriction with regards to when or where someone can leave the resort area to enter the backcountry (as long as they don’t travel through an avalanche closure to do it). At the same time, anyone considering a backcountry trip needs to realise that there can be a whole new set of hazards and implications involved with their decision.

First and foremost is the fact that no avalanche control is performed outside the resort boundary (except in a few cases where out-of-bounds terrain has the potential to avalanche into in-bounds terrain). So, even though a piece of backcountry terrain has the same characteristics (slope angle, aspect, elevation, etc) as somethings in-bounds, it has not received any of the ongoing control work that makes terrain safe for skiing.

Related to avalanche control work is skier compaction. The more traffic a piece of terrain gets, the more the snowpack gets compacted and pounded into the mountain face, adding to stability. Within the boundary we have a very good idea of the amount of skier compaction that has occurred on any given run. This is not the case for terrain outside the boundary, meaning that the stabilising effects of skier traffic are mostly unknown.

Another thing to consider when traveling outside the boundary is that rescue can take much longer to perform. Within the resort, assistance is only minutes away. In the backcountry, the rescue effort can be much more involved, and rescuers must ensure their own safety when approaching the site, especially in avalanche terrain. A serious injury such as a broken femur can be life-threatening, and if it takes a few hours for the injury to get reported and the patrol to locate the site and perform a rescue, it could be hours the patient does not have.

When it comes to West Bowl, while it is officially considered a backcountry area, the fact that it gets skied so often means that it can be at times more like an in-bounds slope than one that seldom gets skied. West Bowl never receives avalanche control work, but the high amount of traffic does add snowpack compaction that would not exist on slopes further from the ski area and therefore harder to access. Compaction, however, is only one of many factors that contribute to slope stability, and by itself does not mean the slope is safe. All the same factors that contribute to avalanche hazard inside the area boundary exist in West Bowl (snow, wind, temperature, aspect, slope angle, etc), except it does not receive the control work that is so vital to slope stability inside the boundary.

Avalanche Area Closures

Within and separate from the resort boundary are areas identified as avalanche zones. These are areas, mostly in the alpine, that the avalanche forecaster has deemed to be unsafe for skiing. Like the boundary, these areas are marked with orange rope and bamboo fences, but have different signage. These signs are stop sign-shaped, and use mainly red and white markings with the text “Closed – Avalanche Danger”. Unlike the boundary, entry into these areas when closed is not negotiable nor open to interpretation. Not only could the terrain be unsafe, but the patrol may be performing avalanche control work with explosives.

Entry into avalanche closures can be dealt with in a few ways. Generally, we aim for an “education, not alienation” approach when talking with “poachers”. However, if a poacher appears to have a bad attitude or lack of appreciation for why the terrain is closed, or if they appear unwilling to learn from the experience, then pass removal is the usual outcome. Season or multi-day pass holders  must successfully complete an avalanche quiz at the end of their suspension in order to have their pass returned.

CLOSED! (tracks belong to patrollers - or those studying for a quiz)CLOSED! (tracks belong to patrollers – or those studying for a quiz)

Poachers almost never have any understanding of avalanche hazard and how it relates to weather or snowpack development, nor do we expect them to. We expect that people trust our experience and decision to keep terrain closed due to hazard, and that they obey all posted signage. A good example of poor knowledge came from one poacher who claimed “Well, it was open last year and it was okay then!”.

Anyone who rides Paradise chair already knows the most heavily poached spot on the mountain – the ER 4/5 fenceline (the fact that poachers are visible to a chair full of people never seems to occur to some of them). The common excuse we hear is “I was just inside the fence, how dangerous could it have been?”. We then explain that:

  • by placing tracks in a closed area, you send the message to others that the terrain is open to be skied (sucker tracks).
  • you endanger the lives of those who may be skiing below in open terrain.
  • you endanger the lives of those who would come to your rescue in the event you got into trouble.
  • you may have been by the fence, but the next person will go in further to get their fresh lines, and so on until people are skiing right in the heart of an avalanche slope.

Arguably one of the biggest impacts poaching has on everyone else is that dealing with folks who decide to ski in closed areas takes patrollers away from other important tasks, like trying to control and open more terrain.

Public Education

One of the things that makes public education a challenge is that there is no single universal policy in the ski industry when it comes to dealing with these areas. In some places, those leaving the resort boundary are subject to criminal prosecution. Others allow you to leave the resort, but make it clear that those requiring assistance or rescue will be responsible for the total cost. Given that many serious injuries require the use of a helicopter, patients could find themselves faced with a bill in the thousands of dollars.

Because Lake Louise is located in Banff National Park, the situation here is somewhat unique in the industry. Since those skiing at the Lake have entered the national park with a park pass, that pass covers any sort of rescue that may be required. This includes hikers who injure themselves far from the trailhead, and climbers who get stuck high on the mountain. (Having said that, those who make a habit of getting into enough trouble to require rescue may find themselves faced with the bill. This should prevent people from just assuming that a helicopter will come and whisk them off the mountain at the first sign of trouble).

Officially, the resort boundary dictates who will perform a rescue – inside is ski patrol, outside is Parks Canada’s Public Safety Specialists. Unofficially, the ski patrol will assist with backcountry issues close to the boundary, and the parks service will assist inside the boundary if their help is requested. This results in a great working relationship between the resort and the park’s public safety staff.

In the end, all we can hope is that people respect the closures in place within the resort boundary, and that those traveling outside the boundary be prepared. The Ski Patrol at Lake Louise is always available to answer your questions. If they can’t, they’ll point you in the right direction to find out all you need to know.

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8 Comments on “Out-of-Bounds vs. Avalanche Areas – What’s the Scoop?”

  1. Luke Norman says:

    Thanks for another really informative post.

    Regarding your closing paragraph, it’s a shame that it doesn’t always seem to be the case. When I asked Rocket earlier this season if he knew what the conditions were like in West Bowl, all he would do was smugly report the avalanche.ca information, whilst telling me I should already know it (I did!) if i was planning to go in there. That kind of attitude lets you all down.

    • lakelouiselowdown says:

      Thanks for the comment Luke.

      Rocket’s response to your question is not an attitude – rather, it is a strict policy within our Ski Patrol that we not discuss conditions of terrain that lies outside our ski area boundary, and this falls into the “unable to answer” part of the last paragraph of my post. This policy exists for a few reasons. First, as mentioned in the post, public education is a significant challenge, and with the huge number of people skiing out-of-bounds, we want them to be prepared if they plan to leave the boundary for some backcountry turns. This preparation includes gathering as much relevant information as they can (and kudos to you for doing this – you are in the small minority!), and whatever we can do to let people know where they can find this info gets us one step closer to our goal. Too often, people wait until they’re at the top of the Summit platter to think about asking, when they should have done their research long before then. (You might be surprised at the number of people who ask the liftie for avalanche conditions in the backcountry!)

      Second, because West Bowl is outside the boundary, I think you can imagine how much trouble we could find ourselves in if we start advising people on whether they should leave the boundary, for terrain that we do not control, do not conduct snowpack analyses on, nor mark for hazards or wayfinding. If a skier made a decision on whether to ski outside the boundary based on our opinion of conditions and then got into trouble, it doesn’t take much to see where that could fall back on us. We must focus solely on areas within our operational boundary.

      I should have been clearer about this distinction in the article, but I hope this explanation makes sense. The answer you got is the one we train all patrollers to give, and did not reflect our opinion of your preparedness.

      Chris

  2. Bob says:

    How do you deal with a friend who refuses to obey closed areas in a resort? I usually win with stubbornness, just refusing to follow him in and he will turn around but I cannot seem to get through to him. I’ve tried explaining the characteristics of the snow pack and the consequences to him and others, but it doesn’t seem to help. His usual responses are along the line of, “It’s not going to slide.” and I just don’t know where to go from there. He has no interest in back-country education. You’re comments regarding sucker tracks ring very true (if he sees tracks he will follow them and it’s almost impossible to talk him back).

    • lakelouiselowdown says:

      Hi Bob,

      That’s a tough one. It’s good that you try to keep him on the right side of the fence. Perhaps rather than explaining snowpack characteristics, ask him what he knows about it that our avalanche professionals don’t, and why he’s so sure the slope isn’t going to slide. He has to remember that others may see him in closed terrain or follow his tracks – does he want to be responsible for someone else getting into trouble because they followed his lead?

      As I said in the article, ski patrol has enough to worry about without having to chase people who think the rules aren’t for them. They work hard to open as much terrain as possible, and any time spent dealing with people in closed areas is time taken away from other important duties.

      Keep trying!

      Chris

  3. RyderDA says:

    Excellent article. I practically come to tears when I see folks poaching closure fences. Recently, I watched some do it at Sunshine while avalanche control — WITH EXPLOSIVES — was going on above them. I know these circumstances are very frustrating for Patrol. And what is really frustrating is knowing that folks don’t have to poach fences to find great lines. As a friend of mine says, “it’s not the equipment you bring to the hill, it’s the attitude”.

    • lakelouiselowdown says:

      You’re right about not having to poach to find great lines. Even on a powder morning, when there’s freshies all over the place in-bounds, people venture outside the boundary where conditions are way less predictable. Early in my patrol career here we had a huge dump on New Year’s Eve (+50cm), and the next day, with not that many people on the hill and untracked lines in every direction, one guy decided to venture into Maintenance Bowl (which is outside the boundary) on his own, and ended up triggering a slide that buried him up to his chest. He eventually dug himself out and lived to tell the tale, but had he not been upright, that could easily have been the end of the road for him.

  4. Dwayne Irwin says:

    Great article on West Bowl, I and many others who ski at LL every weekend would feel much better if LL could get West Bowl added to its lease boundary, and have the ability to bomb it when necessary and close it when necessary. Can you comment on if they have tried and what the blockage is: IE Parks Canada. Maybe we need a petition to Parks Canada. I am hoping it doesn’t take a needless death to make this happen.

    Dwayne.

    • lakelouiselowdown says:

      Thanks for your comment Dwayne.

      As far as I know there has been no effort on the part of the ski area to have West Bowl included in its leasehold. I do know that any significant changes to the ski area – including the addition of new terrain – will only be considered if they are included in a long range plan, which is a work in progress and will eventually be submitted for public and Parks Canada review and approval. In other words, if we asked now to have West Bowl added to our lease, the answer would be “no”, but not because of any specific objection to that area. I’m afraid we’re going to have to wait and see.

      Chris


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