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Out-of-bounds ventures lead to rescue calls

After a day of snowboarding with friends on Dec. 29, one visitor at the Mt. Ashland Ski Area decided to go out of bounds. He hoped to end up on the lower part of the mountain access road. The 30-year-old man had arranged to have his friends pick him up at the bottom, but when he didn’t show they became worried and called 911. Fortunately, the out-of-bounds snowboarder also called 911 and gave his location. He was then able to hike up the mountain a bit to a road where Jackson County Search and Rescue picked him up and returned him to his party without injury.

For the first time in three years, skiers and snowboarders are able to enjoy Mount Ashland’s recreational runs, but with the opening of the trails and more people frequenting the mountain, the desire of some park visitors to go out of marked areas also increases. This snowboarder who was unable to reach his friends is the third time this season that Jackson County Search and Rescue has been dispatched to the mountain looking for back country travelers.

Hiram Towle, general manager of Mt. Ashland, explains how people going off the park trails isn’t the problem — instead its people going out of bounds who are ill-prepared.

“People go out of bounds everyday, a lot of people venture into the backcountry," Towle said, “A lot of well-trained back country enthusiasts have come to snowshoe, ski and snowboard for years but problems occur when they make bad choices out of bounds.”

The manager explained how the three snowboarders who were lost overnight only a day before this most recent incident were stuck because they weren’t able to hike out of a backcountry area on the the south side of the mountain.

Fortunately, all the incidents reported to Search and Rescue on Mt. Ashland this season have ended with those lost being found, but larger problems can emerge if visitors unfamiliar with backcountry terrain try to take on unmanaged areas.

“If you don’t know what you’re doing in avalanche terrain, you could have bigger problems than getting lost,” says Ashland resident Ryan Ghelfi. As an avid outdoors man and back-country skier, he has seen firsthand how the desire to get off the packed paths has grown on the local mountain.

“People get up there in the morning and, since the park is small, the trails are packed down before noon. Everyone wants to shred on fresh powder, but don’t realize they have to get out of the areas they just went down.”

The Mt. Ashland ski park works throughout the season to make sure that their park is safe for visitors, but outside of their marked boundaries, like most other parks, use is unregulated. Having worked as a ski guide at Mt. Shasta for four season, Ghelfi has taken courses in avalanche awareness training, instruction he says is crucial for those wanting to get out on fresh trails.

“Compared to other mountains in the state and around the country, Mt. Ashland is fairly low in terms of avalanche danger,” Ghelfi says, “but they still can happen if you don’t know what to look for.”

In a report by the National Ski Areas Association, the number of fatalities from avalanches totalled 11 for the 2013-2014 season. All of these deaths occurred in back  country terrain.

For those looking to familiarize themselves with avalanche training or back country information before blazing their own trail, there are online courses available, as well as training offered in northern California.

The Jackson County Sheriff's Office Facebook page put up a post about a string of rescue calls: "Luckily, everyone has been found in safe condition — even those who have had to stay out all night; however, previous years have seen death and serious injury in similar situations. We ask users of the Mt. Ashland ski resort to please do their part and stay in bounds. It could mean the difference between a great day on the hill and a tragedy on the mountain."

With the three incidents of lost visitors all occurring within a short amount of time, the Mt. Ashland park submitted a press statement about their stance on riding the unmarked areas via Facebook: “We get lots of back country traffic. We support our back country skiers and riders and simply encourage them to be well-trained; travel with friends and be safe.”

Ashland freelance writer Eli Stillman is editor-in-chief of The Siskiyou, the student-produced Southern Oregon University newspaper. Email him at stillmane@sou.edu. Follow him on Twitter at @eliment13.