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Avalanche Highlights Troubling Question

Avalanche Highlights Troubling Question



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John Hollenhorst reporting This weekend's avalanche tragedy highlights a troubling question: How much responsibility does a ski resort have to regulate dangerous behavior by its patrons? On that issue, some experts have been critical of The Canyons resort.

It's hard to argue the victims are blameless. They ignored warning signs and forecasts. But some say The Canyons was warned of the danger years ago, and should have done more to protect customers from their own enthusiasm.

Those who skied and snowboarded in Dutch Draw Friday knowingly entered dangerous terrain. They went right past a disturbing warning sign.

Sheriff Dave Edmunds/ Summit County Sheriff's Office/ Friday: "These are people that just flat out disregarded the warnings and decided to go and take their lives in their hands."

But at Snowbird resort, the ski patrol probably would have stopped them. Even on low-hazard days, back-country skiers have to check in with the ski patrol. They must have partners and avalanche equipment. On high-danger days, Snowbird simply shuts down access gates to the higher back-country and issue tickets to violators.

Mike Morris/ Assistant Director, Snowbird Ski Patrol: "We're in the business of safety. If we can make it safer, we will close certain areas."

Just above Dutch Draw the map has a label, "Access to BackCountry." Elsewhere, the map does say "The Canyons neither encourages nor discourages backcountry skiing".

But a former ski patrolman is sharply critical.

In an E-mail to KSL, he wrote, "The Canyons uses their back-country access as a marketing tool, and then wash their hands of responsibility by simply placing an ominous sign at the access gate."

Greg Voth is a member of the local Planning Commission. He remembers fierce debate in the late 1990's. When The Canyons was seeking county approval, many opposed lifts that would bring so many casual skiers within easy reach of avalanche territory.

Greg Voth/ Snyderville Planning Commission: "The backcountry skier community especially turned out just in droves. Of course one concern was the flooding of the backcountry. But the concern was raised about the avalanche risk, that those ridges are very, very dangerous."

A 1999 planning map shows a special fence to keep casual skiers out of Dutch Draw.

Greg Voth: "I recall this agreement that they would have this fence. I have to say, I haven't been up there in a couple of years, so I don't know what's there."

The Canyons has refused on-camera interviews. We asked a spokeswoman Sunday night if the fence was ever required, or if it was ever built. She said she wasn't sure she could find out on such short notice. We're still waiting to hear.

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