Steamboat Springs Five years ago, using skins or snowshoes to hike up Mount Werner before or after the Steamboat Ski Area had opened for the day or season was one of those quaint stories effective at showing just how crazy and tough some mountain people were.
And it was not an area of great concern for ski area officials.
And while "skinning up" might still be a fine example of Routt County resolve, it’s a growing concern for the ski area, whose officials are now seeking a new way to make sure skiers are aware of after-hours dangers.
“On a moonlit night we can see hundreds of people on the hill,” said Doug Allen, Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp.'s vice president of mountain operations. “You wouldn’t have seen more than five or six a couple of years ago. It’s a pretty big 'wow'.”
Citing an effort to promote skier safety, ski area officials are asking those uphill upstarts to read through a list of dangers and don a free reflective armband made available by the ski area.
A two-page document officials are asking users to read and sign outlines many of the potential dangers. It asks hikers to be vigilant as employees are working on the mountain 24 hours a day, to respect closures and warning signs, and to strongly consider leaving their dogs at home.
Unleashed dogs are not allowed on the mountain during operating hours, and afterward there’s still plenty of danger, Allen said.
“A lot of people like to take their dogs with them. It’s a very difficult activity to do with a dog on a leash, our normal policy, and when dogs run loose, some of them like to chase groomers or snowmobiles,” he said. “It’s just a matter of time before we have a really sad accident.”
Of course, there’s plenty of danger for people, too. It’s mostly been close calls the past few seasons. At least two skiers flew past bright, flashing warning signs and into areas where incredibly dangerous winch cats were operating last winter.
Groomers working on those occasions saw the tracks that led straight up to the taut and potentially deadly cables, but didn’t see any injuries. An actual full-speed collision with such a wire is an unsettling thought.
For ski patrollers and ski area staff, the reflective armband will act as a sign that a hiker has been made aware of the dangers.
“This is more of an educational program,” Steamboat Ski Patrol director John Kohnke said. “If they don’t have an armband, chances are we’ll stop and talk to them. If they have an armband, we won’t stop them.”
The signature and the armband are technically optional. Kohnke said non-banded skiers won’t be turned around, but they may be repeatedly reminded of the dangers.
Mostly, the program is meant to try to avoid injuries and to give skiers and ski area employees peace of mind.
Ski area training has been altered in recent years to offer more warnings about the potential to see skiers and riders in any place and at any hour. Still, plenty of potential for injury exists in the dark, especially early in the season when snowmaking is a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week job and pipes, snow guns and other equipment can be strung across trails.
“There could be snowmaking hoses running all across a trail,” Allen said. “If it snows a few inches on top of it, you can’t see it. It’s just a hazard, but we still find people up there trying to get their freshies. Rather than close the whole mountain and take a really staunch approach to this, we would like to try to educate people and, with the armband, be able to confirm with an easy glance that they know what they’re getting into.”
The plan is expected to be in operation starting late next week, after the armbands arrive. At that point, the form ski area officials are asking users to sign will be available online at www.steamboat.com/uphill, or at ski patrol duty stations during normal operating hours.
The form also offers suggested routes for those who hike, helping groomers and other workers have an idea where to expect traffic. One route includes hiking up See Me or Vogue to Jess’ Cut-Off, then up Heavenly Daze to the top of Thunderhead. An easier option is up Right-of-Way to BC Skiway, then up either Vagabond or Why Not.
“What it really boils down to is that this is not a requirement, but an educational effort,” ski area spokeswoman Loryn Kasten said. “We want people to play on our playground, but to do it safely.”