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Safer on the mountain

ASHLAND — During prime days for skiing, snowmobiling and snowshoeing along the back slopes of Mount Ashland, Jackson County Sheriff’s Sgt. Shawn Richards would sometimes get a telephone call about what could be a major problem — or not.

There are three cars parked at the end of the Mt. Ashland Ski Area parking lot, the jumping-off point for backwoods exploration. But there’s no clue whether these cars belong to day-hikers lost in the woods or alpine snow campers who didn’t plan to be back by dusk.

“So I’d have to investigate them all, make sure they’re doing some sort of Nordic recreation and are OK, not just (lost) out there,” says Richards, the who heads the sheriff’s search-and-rescue program.

“You have to treat it like it’s a problem until you can prove that it isn’t,” Richards says.

The vast majority are people not in distress, but it would be nice to know that ahead of time.

Search-and-rescue crews now have that opportunity with a very low-tech, lightly intrusive check-in station so search-and-rescue crews and Mt. Ashland ski patrollers will know who might be in need of help and who is just getting away for a few days.

A new check-in station has been erected for snowshoers, cross-country skiers, snowmobilers and others to check in, write in their destinations and expected return times and their vehicle descriptions. That way, rescue crews can know instantly whether the parked car should launch a search.

“We’ve decided to be a little more proactive,” Richards says. “Hopefully this will be a positive thing.”

Appearing like a white version of a county boat-ramp pay station, the Winter Recreation Trip Plan Box is at the far end of the ski area parking lot.

Check-in locations on backwoods trails have been around for decades. But the increase popularity of multiday backcountry getaways means there are cars that are legitimately at this trailhead and they can easily be identified by rescue crews.

“If it saves someone from having to spend a cold night in the woods, we did our job,” Richards says.

Paul Rostykus and Lena Sessions of Ashland stopped by the station Wednesday before headed onto the backside of Mt. Ashland for some backwoods skiing.

Rostykus filled in the requested information and slipped the form into the box before they used ski skins to hike up the groomed forest road trail.

Certainly, it wasn’t much of an inconvenience.

“I think that’s probably reasonable,” says Rostykus, also a volunteer ski patroller on the mountain. “If it cuts down on unneeded searches and unneeded worries, it’s worth it. We’ll see how much it gets used.”

Forest Road 20 as it heads out of the ski area parking lot has long been the end of the driving and the beginning of the cross-country skiing and snowshoeing for largely day-use visitors. Occasionally, people would ski, snowshoe or snowmobile down to the warming hut at Grouse Gap to stay overnight.

But winter recreation activities have ballooned to a point where it is not unusual to have people leave the parking lots with the intention of overnight or multi-night snow camping, Richards says. There are even contingents of moonlight snowshoers now, he says.

But the problem is that a snow camper’s SUV looks exactly like an afternoon snowshoer’s SUV.

So when the ski area crew would call in the make and license plate of leftover vehicles at night, Richards couldn’t expect the best. He had to prepare for the worst.

“I’d have to treat them like a missing person,” Richards says.

That meant run the license plate to determine the owner, then try to get hold of them. He’d even run them through known data sources and see if he could get a contact through social media just to see if they’re overdue or not, Richards says.

“Sometimes I’d physically have to go out to their houses to check in, even talk to their neighbors,” he says.

Now, with leftover cars in the lot, the ski area crews check them against the registered plates to weed out the ones not overdue and pass on just the overdue ones.

So far, so good, Richards says. Not even a week into its existence, the new check-in program has saved Richards some Facebook searching without making a trek down the snowy Forest Road 20 something to fear.

“We don’t ever want to discourage people from any backcountry recreation,” Richards says. “It’s a good thing. We just want all people to be OK.”

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.

Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune Paul Rostykus and Lena Sessions of Ashland stopped by the station Wednesday before headed onto the backside of Mt. Ashland for some backwoods skiing.
Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune Paul Rostykus and Lena Sessions of head out back country skiing at the back side of Mt. Ashland.