Should You Have a Beacon To Ski Southback?

Patrollers heading South

In light of questions we have received after the recent tragic avalanche accidents that have occurred beyond the ski area boundaries near Stevens and Alpental, I want to clarify how we manage Southback. Unlike Alpental’s Whack Bluffs cliffs and Stevens Pass’s Tunnel Creek, Crystal’s Southback is not “true backcountry” nor it is not “out of bounds”. Southback is “in bounds” avalanche prone terrain within our permit area, and we use explosives to mitigate the avalanche hazard. Even though we significantly reduce the avalanche hazard in bounds it is still avalanche prone terrain and the inherent risk of avalanches can never be 100% eliminated. We open the gates based on conditions and we recommend that users carry transceiver, probe and shovel and ski with a partner.

At the start of the hike up the throne a beacon checker beeps when it picks up a beacon signal. Sometimes, when I stand near this checker, I hear very few beeps as throngs of skiers and riders head south. We hope that everyone heads out into this “avalanche prone” area with their eyes open and their beacons on. However, we do not require them to do so.

The difference is that we’ve been out there, mitigating the hazard ourselves. Skier compaction is the name of the game in managing avalanche terrain, and Southback is no different. We would rather that skiers seeking powder head towards Southback rather than venturing beyond the signed, designated ski area boundary into a true backcountry area that gets little skier compaction. Instead we hope to have Crystal guests help us out by skiing up the powder in Southback.

One might ask why we don’t require users to bring along the proper equipment. Our answer is simple: because Southback isn’t true backcountry. To manage it as backcountry, we would reduce the amount of skier compaction and that would mean an overall increase in avalanche hazard.

But please do us a favor. Carry the proper gear with you when you head into this “avalanche prone” area. While our explosives and ski cutting missions take care of the majority of big slides, there can still be little ones or pockets that aren’t ready to go until an unsuspecting skier or rider comes along.

Also realize that if you venture beyond Three-Way Peak, then you are in the true backcountry. Watch for the rope and signs telling you that you’re leaving the ski area boundary. We do not use explosives past that point, nor do those slopes get much skier compaction.

In addition, we do not mark hazards in Southback, nor are they any signs telling which way to go. Last weekend, the patrol offered our first “Ski with a Patroller” Tour, and we explored both Northway and Southback. We hope to offer more of these in the weeks to come. Stay tuned.

4 thoughts on “Should You Have a Beacon To Ski Southback?

  1. Good post – I think this addresses questions that a lot of people have been wondering about.  Also, I highly recommend the patroller tour and I’m glad to hear it’s something you’ll consider offering again.

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  2. Wapitibob

    Good article. I like the transceiver checker at south entrance but I think there should be signage about safe travel out south. Carry shovel probe beacon know how to use them and ski with a partner

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  3. Craig Phillips

    Thanks Kim, provocative post to say the least. Crystal’s South and North are some of the best “slack country” I’ve ever skied. Relatively little work, for some really great rewards and Patrols AC work considerably mitigates the avy risk. Realistically both areas are loaded with highly technical terrain with exposure and consequence, as well as the ever present avalanche danger. I am far more concerned with tumbling down an obscure chute than triggering a slide. I do feel reassured when my beacon triggers the sensor on the way in, although I frequently travel solo. I gear up many times because I don’t want to be the one who is unequipped if the need arises to go looking. There is a side of me that considers requiring beacons might cut down skier traffic and leave more for me and my friends. Selfish, yes. More realistically the Beacon requirement may drive the sport I love to more elitist levels and perhaps push some to pursue alternative, riskier entrances. From a risk reward perspective I would look to the number of non employee rescues that involved a beacon search, Crystal has an enviable record of skier safety, most likely due Patrols ability to consider  guests poor decision making at times. Keep up the good work.

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  4. Denis Ford

    I’ve been on the fence for a while about bringing mine, and this post was the tie-breaker.  Thanks for all the great work you guys do keeping our favorite mountain safe and fun.

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