+3 33 votes

Of Skinning and Skiing


Of Skinning and Skiing -- Uphill Skinning at Mission Ridge
George Velazquez


How does a longtime Mission Ridge season pass holder, backcountry enthusiast, and all round supporter of all things active wind up on the wrong side of the law? Well, on a recent wintery morning that is exactly where I found myself.

Being the endorphin junkie I am, I set off on an early morning skin to the top of Mission Ridge on my tele gear, just as I have done many times over the past 12 years.  I hadn’t skinned the Ridge yet this year but perusing the Internet for the latest "uphill travel policy,” or checking online for the latest updates to state laws on resort- leased public lands never crossed my mind. Unfortunately, in this case, I should have.

I set off in a party of three to reach the Mission Ridge summit via Mimi to Tumwater and summitting on  Sunspot. However, according to the Uphill Travel Policy this is not an approved route. This Thursday, 5 a.m., workout had been planned for nearly a week so it was a gift that the area had finally gotten a dumping of much anticipated snow. We knew avalanche conditions were potentially hazardous, so we decided to head straight up the gut where terrain had been groomed and we where we would be out of the way of any possible avalanche control activity.

During our ascent we saw two groomers and cordially waved to them as a customary courtesy. We were also buzzed by a ski patroler on a snowmobile and also gave him the high pole wave as we gasped for more oxygen. We were half way up the last climb on Sunspot when the first avalanche control blast caught our attention. It was soon followed by another. We quickly reached the top and began our descent to the parking lot, returning exactly the way we had ascended, grateful for the respite from pounding lungs and legs.

Being a strong Mission Ridge supporter and a season pass holder for many years, my family and I skied the following day and I had the opportunity to talk with ski patrol about the incident. During this conversation I learned many things, not the least of which was that my previous morning’s workout might possibly be considered a misdemeanor according to new Washington state law!

This got my attention, to say the least. I have lived and played hard in this outdoors community for many years, yet this was the first I had heard of this new legislation. In the following weeks I researched the many changes to the culture surrounding mountain resorts and the growing popularity of uphill skiing, and have come to understand more about the fragile nature of the ties that bind us.

Through my research into public lands leased by resort operators, I learned that, as of spring of 2011, it is a misdemeanor to “knowingly ski on closed trails,” as long as they are posted indicating as such:

The Revised Code of Washington 79A.45.070 states that “A person is guilty of a misdemeanor if the person knowingly skis in an area or on a ski trail, owned or controlled by a ski area operator, that is closed to the public and that has signs posted indicating the closure.”

When I first moved back to the area we frequently skinned up the Ridge at a time when there were no “uphill travel policies”, other than the good sense to stay out of the way of groomers. But the growing popularity of this sport has presented numerous challenges for ski resorts in providing and policing a safe environment, ultimately leading to these recent changes in legislation. Mission Ridge has worked hard to develop this new “uphill travel policy”, which has put them on uncomfortable grounds with many skiers they know well who are passionate about skiing and who are just looking to add a bit to their skiing experience.

How do you get the word out to such skiers so that “law breaking” doesn’t continue and peace and goodwill can return to the Wenatchee Valley? Currently, notice over the Internet is the only avenue the Ridge has pursued, which is limiting in many ways. Why not embrace the culture, much like Alpental has, by creating an event like the Vertfest that promotes uphill travel and culminates in an uphill race? This type of event would attract the skiers the Ridge would want to educate about new uphill travel policies. It would also promote an uphill-educated, backcountry-savvy, and avalanche-knowledgeable community. This would be one of those proverbial wins for everyone!

The take away from my little story is that we can all learn a bit more as a skiing community. Even if we may think we know the rules “cuz we’ve been doing this activity for years,” we should brush up on the latest revisions to those rules and openly share those with others in our circles. The development of a policy is a good practice for the resort and, from any reasonable person’s perspective, makes good sense. In addition, as backcountry enthusiasts, we must read and be familiar with those policies before we begin our ascents -- we must “know before we go.”

I’m in complete support of Mission Ridge and their endeavor to thrive as a ski resort. I started skiing at Mission Ridge at the age of 12 when I picked cherries all summer and bought my first pair of skis from Arlberg Sports. Later, the Ridge was an important attraction that brought my family back to the valley.  All of us who ski are pulling for the resort to succeed.

Nonetheless, I think there is work to be done on both sides for developing and dispersing transparent policies as well as in respecting and enforcing those policies. Whether we’re part of the business end of skiing or simply love skiing in all its forms, we are all connected to this passion. If things go sour here I believe both sides – ski area and skiers – lose. With creativity and cooperation, however, I believe we have an opportunity to grow and strengthen our local ski culture. There are ways to avoid the perceived detriment uphill skiers are having on resort operations while giving the uphill community the chance to enjoy to the fullest this spectacular area in which we live.

So…where do we go from here? How do we bring together groups that share a passion for skiing but that at times might pursue that passion in different ways or for different reasons?  If you have ideas on ways we can work cooperatively with the ski area to build something unique that helps educate uphill skiers, builds goodwill toward Mission Ridge, and broadens the love of skiing in all its forms, use the comments box below to brainstorm.