Mountain Passages: A Fool’s Errand?

Mountain Passages: A Fool’s Errand?

Backcountry patrollers are good people who have difficult job. And this one particular old Bear is a bit tired of trying to please everyone on the trails in winter. By Alan Stark

The sun is just coming up over the horizon to the far southeast. A red circle blasts through the neighbor’s pine trees as I wait for coffee to drip into the pot on this winter morning. The sun is about as far south as it gets before the long arc northward, as it moves toward the summer solstice. Then it becomes a startlingly bright yellow flare that comes up over Greeley to the far northeast.

Coffee is beginning to drip into the pot. I scratch my scrotum, because that’s what half the population does standing around in jammies watching the sunrise and waiting for their coffee. Sure it’s a time for a scratch, but also a time to reflect. The subject that pops into mind is, “trying to please everybody,” a concept that has totally eluded me for my entire life. And the more I think about the concept, the more I know it’s a waste of time to consider. There are a good number of days when I can’t even please myself, much less anyone else.

I put on water to boil for oatmeal, pour a cup of coffee for Blue Eyes, walk down the hall and put it on her bedside table. Moving to a familiar routine and finished with my reflection of the day, my thoughts now move to the work in front of me.

In an hour, my partner and I will get to the equipment cache at Ned Fire. We’ll sign in, draw radios, a SPOT unit, and whatever other gear we’ll need. The duty firefighter may or may not be up when we get there. But if the firefighter is up, we’ll talk for a moment, usually about the weather or maybe just say, “Have a quiet shift, no fires today.” The firefighter will nod and maybe say, “Have a good patrol, no incidents today.”

IMG_2271At the Brainard Gateway, I park the Highlander, grab my boots and coffee cup and head for the warming hut. After I get my AT boots on, I start working on a fire in the small stove. There is something primal about building a morning fire. I’m not sure what it is, but getting that fire started is all consuming. I think of nothing else but making sure the fire is going. My partner is outside shoveling snow away from the warming hut door and then the doors to the pit toilets.

There are forty or so cars already here. These cars and trucks belong to the hard-core backcountry skiers. Some of them started near dawn and will be coming in, just as the citizenry begins to show up in force around 10:30. The hard-core skiers are worth listening to, because they have been coming here for a hundred years and know all the trails cold, and can accurately tell us where trees are down across the trail. We use their information to pick our route for the day. If one of us is feeling responsible and into trail work, we might go clear the tree, but more often than not, we’re just looking for a good ski route, not additional work. Whether we clear the tree across the trail this week or next doesn’t matter all that much, it’s a long winter.

“Hey, what trails did you do this morning?” I ask.

He’s 50 to 70, silver hair and beard, fit looking, wearing an anorak with tele gear and old Scarpa boots. His skis have seen a number of miles and probably have “omni wax” on the bottoms, a combination of years of waxes and scraping which will help him hold on a pitch and effortlessly glide down a trail.

“Reservoir Road to Little Raven and back on Waldrop. My loop.”

“Anything good?”

“Little Raven.”

“ You been doing this for a hundred years?”

“Just like you.”

“Just thirty years.”

These are good mountain people. But some of them think there is no need for ski patrollers in the backcountry—that if a person is out here, she should be able to take care of herself.

As backcountry patrollers, we understand that. When we first started work up here, at the request of the Forest Service, there were a number of patrollers who wanted to do the work but didn’t want to wear red vests and white crosses, because they thought uniforms might make the hard-core backcountry skiers grumpy. But we worked hard to earn and keep our crosses. The vests have pockets everywhere for our first aid gear, radio, and SPOT unit, so we wear them and we’ve gotten used to the occasional look of surprise or even a frowny face when we pass by.

We have even gotten used to the occasional smart ass…

“Whoa, ski patrol is here, now we’re all safe.”

“Yup, except you.”

“What daya mean?”

“Think about it.”

Or the person of limited observational skills…

“Sorry sir, but your dog isn’t allowed on that trail.”

“Where the hell does it say that?”

“On the Brainard Lake webpage, on the map at the warming hut, and on the sign your dog is peeing on.”

We make an effort to be friendly and helpful and not act like snow cops. The job is service and safety, education and information, and a basic medical response if needed. Unlike ski area patrollers, we don’t do law enforcement. The Forest Service folks make it absolutely clear that we are not to do law enforcement in the backcountry. Alpine patrollers have a much tougher job, and more bosses than anyone needs—both within the patrol and from ski area management.

Backcountry patrollers have an easy job and light-handed supervision from the local Forest Service folks. They are good people with the difficult job of managing the forest and serving the community at the same time; often caught between massively conflicting interests. As good and decent as our local Forest Service people are, I sometimes end up shaking my head at the Forest Service policies handed down from biggies in Washington who have forgotten their field experiences.

With the exception of the smart-mouths and the terminally stupid, most of our interactions with trail users are positive and often interesting, sometimes fun. Some take time to tell me what they are thinking about. The perennial subject is dogs on the trails, the new subject this year is fat tire bikes.

I get it that dog spelled backwards is God. I love my dog. But dogs on the trails can be a problem. We have seen dogs badly hurt by the steel edges on skis. Is this injury the dog owner’s fault or skiers fault? It is usually the dog owner’s fault. And the fat tire bikes…in the summer a hiker can step off the trail to let a mountain bike pass. Not a problem, but in the winter getting off the trail is problematic. Conflicting uses…we tell people to try to get along and cut some slack with each other.

The chores are finished. We go back to the Highlander and pull out skis, poles, and packs and walk to the trailhead to gear-up. It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood.

IMG_2272It’s absolutely true that National Forest belong to all of us, not just elitist backcountry skiers in plastic boots on AT skis. But certain uses are simply incompatible with other uses. A more extreme example than dogs and fat tire bike riders happened last year when we stopped a rabbit hunter on the Middle Saint Vrain Road who was shooting north. He didn’t have any idea that people skied the Buchanan Pass Trail a 100 yards north of the road.

The Forest Service needs to rethink the concept of multi-use trails, particularly in the winter. Trying to please everyone is a fool’s errand. Sure, there are trails where multi-use works. But the Forest Service needs to change their policy and accept the fact that some activities are mutually exclusive; this activity works here and this one works better over there. A good example of specific trails for specific activities is here at Brainard, where there are two trails, CMC and Little Raven that are designated “skier only” in the winter. But most of the trails we patrol are multi-use and a free-for-all. We need more activity specific trails in our National Forests.

Will the multi-use policy, particularly in winter, change? Probably not. Sometimes I wonder what the Forest Service folks in Washington scratch in the morning.

Alan Stark is a volunteer backcountry ski patroller and lives with a Blue Eyed person and her dog in Boulder and Breckenridge. He can be reached at