Backcountry Skiing and Land Use Conflicts

Backcountry Skiing and Land Use Conflicts
February 12, 2024 Brent Hepfner

By Brent Hepfner

Following a winter storm in mid-March 2023, which deposited 30 cm of new snow, and with the current weather forecast indicating that a ridge of high pressure was developing, we knew the time was right to pack our gear and load-up our snow machines for a winter ski camp in the Glacier Creek area of the Purcells. It could easily have been predicted that the heli-ski operator in the region would also be busy up Glacier Creek. When the skies are going to be clear the high country beckons for both types of skiers: those who climb and tour and those who fly and pay. This remote area typically boasts a considerable snowpack, with breathtaking mountain vistas as and long, untracked ski runs on the glaciers and moraines.

Due to the distance from a maintained road the area can be accessed in winter only by snow machines (sleds or tracked vehicles) or helicopters. Even with a snow machine travel along the Glacier Creek forest service road (FSR) can sometimes be impossible, as there are several slide paths along the way, with one or more potentially heaped with frozen avalanche debris, blocking further access. This is exactly what we didn’t want to happen to the three of us in mid-March. We hardly covered any distance at all on our snow machines on the FSR before coming to a halt at a frozen slide. Looking up to our left was a gully on the steep, forested, mountainside. To our right, a cliff dropping steeply into Glacier Creek, some 50 meters below. After parking the machines and climbing on top of the frozen avalanche we assessed the situation and determined that we were reasonably safe from secondary avalanches. With some excavation effort we should be able to carve a path through the frozen slide. We would also need to be very cautious not to go over the downhill edge when driving the machines across. It took us a couple of hours with a chainsaw, which is a must-have piece of equipment on a trip like this, to cut a route through the ice debris. Using large shovels, we cleared the frozen blocks we had just cut and piled them on the downhill side to build-up a safety berm. Having one of our snow machines slide over the cliff edge was not an option. Fortunately, no more avalanches were encountered as we continued for another 25 kms along the FSR.

Across the Slide

We set up camp along the summer access trail somewhere below the west side of Jumbo Pass, near a stream for water and reasonably close to the moraines at the south end of the valley, which lead up into the alpine. These features can be climbed to access the amazing ski terrain and glaciers on the mountains, namely Cauldron Mountain, Truce and Blockhead. On the first morning we had a fairly early start and were skinning-up the first large moraine when we heard and felt the first helicopter thump, thump, thumping directly overhead. It was 9:00 a.m. The helicopter landed on a mountainside feature across the valley, allowing its clients to disembark and ski. We watched it take-off again and circle around the area for a while, as it seemed to be inspecting the terrain before landing in the valley bottom to wait for the group skiing down. While observing their operation we heard and felt a larger and louder second helicopter thump, thump, thumping above our heads. Back and forth these machines continuously ferried their paying customers and guides around the whole area, up the glaciers and all other skiable terrain. Basically this went on for most of the day. For the first while it was kind of interesting to watch what their operation is all about, but eventually, we carried on with our own ski tour, climbing up towards the east Cauldron glacier. Obviously the noise and concussion of the helicopters can be disturbing to people and it would seem likely that other critters would feel the same way. That is not to say that our snow machines don’t have a degree of adverse effects on the environment and people either.

Climbing up the moraine

Once we were on the top of the final moraine ridge below the glacier ski run, one of the helicopters landed on a nearby knob directly along the ridgeline, and a man stepped out. We assumed he was one of the guides working for the heli-ski operator. The helicopter took-off and flew away so that the guide could holler across and communicate with us. It was not a friendly “how are you doing” kind of greeting. His language carried more of a warning/threatening tone in which he had assumed we were the people who had built an unauthorized cabin in the area. I didn’t feel like hollering back along the ridge at him so I said very little and waved him off as he continued with more shouting along the lines of “better get your equipment out of there because come springtime it’ll be gone.” Later, discussing this episode among our group, it was obvious that the heli-ski operator didn’t want other people skiing where they ski. This is nothing new of course but it is the first time we encountered the resentment in the field. Really there is nothing they can do about people backcountry skiing on public lands where the heli-ski operator might happen to have a land use disposition for their commercial use. Various other users might be hunters, trappers, loggers and miners. There will be conflicts on land use, but all parties need to respect the rights of others. We joked about getting revenge on them by sending in some local youth on their snowbikes to shred-up the heli-ski runs. If you haven’t seen it before, you’d be very surprised of how quickly a snowbike can ruin a powder slope for skiers.

 

Heli flyby

Picking up skiers below

After our alpine encounter with the guide, we skied a beautiful run back down to treeline. Looking back up at our ski tracks in the snow and comparing them to all the symmetrical, parallel “S” turns of the heli skiers that had come down the Cauldron glacier, one couldn’t help but think that while both snow signatures were similar, ours were basically free, while theirs likely cost $25,000 or more! The next day we had the entire area to ourselves. Although the skies remained clear, the heli-ski operator likely felt that the area was now too skied-up for their paying customers and moved on to some untracked powder elsewhere. For us, there was still plenty of room for clean lines, but without the noise or the attempted intimidation.

We have had previous experiences with public land use conflicts and winter recreation. Friends and I often backcountry ski out of a cabin in the Blue Ridge range of the Columbia mountains. In winter, the area is popular among sledders (snowmobilers and snow-bikers) and skiers. Skiers always try to avoid areas that sledders frequent because it’s not fun skiing across their tracks, and it can be hazardous. I can recall more than once sailing down an untracked powder slope on skis, happily working with gravity, establishing a rhythm, and feeling like I am dancing in the clouds when suddenly, boom! Similar to hitting a cement curb, except it is a frozen sled track hidden under fresh powder. You sure don’t see it coming! You hope there is no damage or injury as you slowly manage to pull yourself up, dust-off, and collect your skis. Not only can their tracks be troublesome, but the smell of burning exhaust and the screaming of the two-strokes engines are not real pleasant to be around when you are in the backcountry. However, the rights of others must be respected and we do have quite a large playground for recreationists in this corner of the planet.

Heli-ski country

Among the locals there are some recommendations as to where the sledders should play and areas where the skiers can go. Generally people are respectful and observe recommendations if they are aware of them. Fortunately much of the terrain that skiers climb into is not accessible for the machines. In the common areas however, skiers need to be aware of the potential for hidden tracks.

While leading a trip several years ago in Kananaskis Country another conflict in public land usage occurred that had potential to be quite serious. Before it closed-down, the Fortress Mountain ski area often had some great snow conditions. Sometime after the ski hill was shuttered the area became a cat skiing operation. We skinned all the way up the old access road to the abandoned lodge, had a break for our lunch (at minus 20 degrees celsius) and then continued climbing up along the ridge to access some of the old ski runs. We noticed a snowcat operating off in the distance and heard at least one crack that we assumed was blasting for avalanche control. We skied until dusk, knowing that it would be a gentle downhill ski-out on the access road all the way back to the vehicle. Darkness came quickly while skiing down and we could see the occasional spark from our ski edges scraping gravel that was frozen into the road. After sweeping the snow off and warming the vehicle I noticed a business card had been placed on the windshield under the wiper blade. It was from the cat-ski operator who had written on the back of his card “please call me”. A day or two later I phoned him and introduced myself. He asked whether we had noticed their warning signs which they posted for blasting along the same ridge we were skiing. Of course we hadn’t seen the signage but I mentioned that we saw them operating off in the distance and heard blasting. Without pointing fingers or attributing fault we discussed the situation. After the discussion I think we both came away with a little more awareness, knowledge and appreciation of the others using the land. Our ski day could have turned-out a lot differently.

With public lands being multi-use there are many opportunities to have conflicts among the various users. Awareness, respect and caution can go a long way in minimizing undesirable outcomes.

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