Telluride gets backcountry permit for Bear Creek

Telluride gets backcountry permit for Bear Creek

by D. Dion

The first time I ever ducked the rope at the top of the Telluride Ski Resort to ski the off-piste terrain in Bear Creek, I was following a friend. The snow in the creek was about three feet deeper than it was on the ski area, and it was pretty deep on the ski area—the whole mountain had been enveloped in clouds for three days. We had our avalanche beacons, shovels and packs, but as I watched her disappear over the ridge into the gray, snowy mist, I couldn't help but feel spooked. 

Back then, it was still illegal to ski Bear Creek. The Forest Service had shut it down after a series of avalanche fatalities in 1986-87 and 1992; there would be another in 2002. The agency had gone so far as to arrest and prosecute a pair of skiers for trespassing into the closed area. Bear Creek only became more alluring, its mystique enhanced by tales of chest-deep powder runs and near-death scrapes with avalanches. Locals named the runs and chutes, and dropped in with increasing regularity. 

Forest Service officials eventually threw up their arms in surrender. They opened backcountry gates into Bear Creek at what are considered the safest points of access, and this week, they gave the ski resort a permit to guide visitors through the inherently dangerous terrain outside the ski area boundaries. The permit allows the resort to guide commercial tours in upper Bear Creek and the Alta Lakes basin; lower access points in Bear Creek will still be open to unguided skiers and boarders, but closed to commercial activity because of the conservation easement in Bear Creek preserve. The backcountry tours range in price from $275-625. The price goes up $95 for each additional skier or boarder, with a limit of three. 

What you can’t put a price tag on are the secret stashes of heavenly, bottomless powder and that heavy feeling in your gut, the heady rush of risk and adventure as you arc your way to the bottom. The element of danger will always exist in Bear Creek. Its steep, leeward chutes will remain perilous and exciting, even with an experienced ski patrol guide. After all, one of this winter's avalanche victims was an off-duty patroller who survived a 900-foot ride that ended with two broken elbows, a chipped pelvis and fractured ribs.

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