People want to know why – The Durango Herald

A petition circulating two years ago to change the policy has resulted in little to no action

Chelsea Gardner and her dog, Birdi, climb the slopes of the Hesperus ski area. Mountain Capital Partners owns both Hesperus and Purgatory, but uphill travel is only allowed in Hesperus. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

David Taft circulated a petition in February 2021 hoping that a show of community momentum would be enough to convince Purgatory Resort management to allow uphill travel. Two years later, Taft left Durango for more tolerant tracks, and questions still swirl about why the resort hasn’t changed its policy.

Taft is a ski mountaineering, or skimo, racer. Backcountry skiers like Taft use lightweight skis fitted with modular bindings and skins to ascend, before removing their skins, attaching the heels of their boots, and descending, as any skier would in a resort.

Off-piste skiers use climbing skins that grip the base of the ski for traction on climbs, then peel them off before descending. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

As the name suggests, most backcountry skiers enjoy backcountry slopes that are inaccessible by chairlift. But the sport has exploded in popularity in recent years, making resorts a vital resource. For skiers new to the sport, the dangers of navigating avalanche hazard in the notoriously dangerous snowpack of San Juan Mountain can be significant.

During the 2021-22 season, four people were caught in avalanches in the area, including one who was killed, according to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. Five backcountry skiers and snowboarders were killed in the area in the previous season when Taft circulated the petition.

Taft, with the others 911 people signed the petition, asked Purgatory to come up with a policy allowing uphill travel. According to American Ski Mountaineering Association, Purgatory is one of only two resorts out of 29 in Colorado that don’t allow uphill travel at all. Of the 27 stations that allow uphill travel, many require users to purchase a pass for a nominal fee, restrict access to the terrain, and/or limit the hours the activity is allowed.

Unclear tracking

After Taft’s petition surfaced in 2021, Purgatory General Manager Dave Rathbun Told The Herald of Durango “The timing is not good. But if people want to talk about it, we would be happy to talk about it.

Asked about the 2021 petition and whether anyone tried to take up his offer to talk, Rathbun said, “Nobody ever reached out.”

However, emails between petition organizer Taft and Rathbun tell a different story. After the February 18, 2021 article in which Rathbun offered to speak, Taft emailed Rathbun on February 25 extending a cordial greeting.

“I’ve spent time this winter contacting different ski resorts to find out how each of them handles uphill access with the aim of learning more about the different approaches and challenges, and it seems like a lot of between them have a kind of voluntary uphill access. committee just to keep things organized,” Taft wrote. “I would be happy to assist in this effort if you deem it appropriate.”

Rathbun responded the next day and copied then-Columbine Ranger District ranger James Simino.

“To be ambushed as we were by the Herald really doesn’t suit me or our property, just so we’re clear on the basis we’re standing on right now,” Rathbun wrote. “This situation has brought me to a clear understanding of the reasoning behind Purgatory’s policy as it relates to uphill travel and this topic will be discussed internally and at our annual meeting with the Forest Service this summer.”

Asked about the swap afterward, Rathbun said, “it’s ancient history in my mind,” and said his comment regarding the silence of users upstream was in reference to the 2022-23 season.

Purgatory operates under a Special Use Permit on lands managed by the US Forest Service and owned by the public. A Forest Service spokeswoman confirmed in 2021 that a permit amendment would not be required for the station to change its policy, and that the change could be made to the annual operating plan.

Rathbun said those internal conversations took place. Although he was open to discussing a policy change in 2021, he has since hardened his stance.

“Nothing has changed,” he said emphatically this week. “Our situation remains the same and we do not envisage any change in the bottom-up policy.”

Rachel Landis and Darren Cioppa begin carving up Hesperus Ski Area in 2021. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald File)

When asked if he had raised the issue with the Forest Service, as he had told Taft, Rathbun replied that he did not recall. A Forest Service spokesperson said he spoke with four or five agency employees, and none recalled the issue being discussed.

Rathbun said backcountry users can access the backside of the mountain via Hermosa Park Road (Forest Service Road 578), and the access it provides should be enough accommodation.

Although Forest Service Manual 2340 allows resorts to restrict certain activities, these prohibitions must be publicly listed. Scott Owen, a spokesman for the Forest Service, said Purgatory does not have the ban in its online public policy. However, the politics appeared online this week after Herald brought the matter to Rathbun’s attention.

The rationale for the station ban is security. Unruly uphill travelers cause problems for groomers at night and can clash with downhill skiers during the day. Rathbun said skiers trying to climb at night constantly caused problems for resort staff.

Durango resident and outdoor enthusiast Keith Roush said it might be time for Purgatory to reconsider. He owned Pine Needle Mountaineering from 2002-2012 and has extensive experience as an avalanche educator.

“I think they must be wondering why they’re one of only two not doing it,” he said during a break from ski tours at the resort. “Everyone seemed to come up with a good reason, (be it) just to get more people into their facilities or for the community. …I think they need to look into why they don’t (allowing uphill travel) because it’s obviously popular.

Local backcountry skiers agree.

A business or a community resource?

Taft lived in Durango for four years before leaving for the Roaring Fork Valley this fall. Lack of uphill incoming access was a factor in that decision, he said. Now he can train for races and climb at one of Aspen’s four main resorts.

Taft used to compete in skimo races at resort boundaries all over the country.

“At the end of the day, it was really, really disappointing to come home from one of those trips and really have no options at home,” he said.

Purgatory is hosting a skimo race to benefit a Durango-based avalanche safety awareness nonprofit called Know the Snow in January.

Rathbun’s response, Taft said, was unnecessarily gruff.

“It’s appalling, I’m absolutely furious with this man,” Taft said. “I think he handled it in the worst possible way. He could have embraced it as an opportunity to seek the opinion of the community, but I think, kind of on the mark of purgatory as a whole, he took it as a threat and as a personal affront. … I don’t think Purgatory sees itself as a community resource.

Taft is not alone in this sentiment.

“If Purgatory wants to be part of the community instead of just being a business, (that question) seems pretty important,” said Durango-based backcountry skier David Cummins.

Cummins said uphill access to the Hesperus ski area, which like Purgatory is owned by Mountain Capital Partners, is not enough. Instead, Cummins makes the hour and 45 minute drive to Wolf Creek Ski Area when he wants to sneak in. Uphill access is free at the resort, but Cummins said he often spends money on food and drink, noting he also sometimes spends the night in Pagosa Springs.

While the Purgatory ban is rooted in safety, ultimately the case for lifting the ban is also rooted in safety.

“The beauty of this for the community is that it allows a backcountry skier who is new to the area or new to the backcountry to learn skills by scanning and picking routes and learning his gear without stepping out into dangerous terrain,” Roush said. “And as an avalanche instructor, that’s just a big bonus.”

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