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Monday, December 5, 2011
The last closed gates

By Melissa Siig
ESPN.com

The Headwall at Squaw. The proposed backcountry gate would be located at the bottom of Sun Bowl.

Could Squaw Valley, the California ski resort notorious for its closed boundary policy, be showing signs that it might be joining the national trend of opening sidecountry terrain? The answer is: depends who you talk to.

The Tahoe resort, which this fall merged with neighboring Alpine Meadows to become the largest ski area in the country, announced last week that it is launching a pilot study to determine whether backcountry access between Squaw and Alpine is feasible. The two resorts are separated by private property and wilderness land.

"We will be working closely with our partner, the United States Forest Service, to conduct the pilot study," said Andy Wirth, CEO of Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows. "With the safety of our guests and our team members as our primary concern, we will be doing our due diligence to determine whether or not backcountry access between Squaw and Alpine Meadows is a possibility."

Squaw's investigation, which is focused on putting a gate at the bottom of Sun Bowl run, is being conducted in cooperation with ski patrols at both resorts and the U.S. Forest Service. The study will examine route selection, types of terrain, exposure, and topography of the area between Alpine and Squaw, as well as the best location for the access gate or gates. Other potential issues include backcountry access during in-bounds closures, search and rescue issues, and interface with private land and wilderness areas.

Over the last few decades, more and more North American ski resorts have opened up their sidecountry terrain, modeling themselves after ski areas in Europe and New Zealand. Sidecountry skiing, which is lift-served backcountry skiing, may be one of the biggest trends in the U.S. ski industry. Resorts like Jackson Hole in Wyoming, Colorado's Silverton Mountain, Bridger Bowl in Montana, and Colorado's Aspen/Snowmass all offer skiers the ability to ski beyond the gates.

Squaw is one of the last ski resorts in Tahoe to maintain a closed boundary policy. In 2005, Heavenly opened its boundary policy, and at the beginning of last season Northstar added 170 acres of sidecountry terrain. Homewood Mountain Resort shifted to an open boundary policy in 1996, while Alpine Meadows has had a long-standing policy of allowing skiers to access to its sidecountry terrain.

Squaw skiers have been pushing the mountain for years to open up its boundaries, especially the expansive and steep terrain off the backside of Granite Peak known as National Geographic Bowl. Some locals see the mere fact that KSL Capital Partners, Squaw's new owners, are considering allowing guests to ski beyond the ropes as a sign of good things to come.

"It's really cool," said pro skier J.T. Holmes, who has been skiing at Squaw since 1982. "I think it could be the first step toward an overall open-boundary policy. If that works, we can prove that we are responsible enough to handle it."

Others remain skeptical. Jamie Schectman, a 24-year Squaw skier and founder of Mountain Riders Alliance, is not impressed by the resort's proposal.

"It's opening up a traverse," he said. "If they are going to open a sidecountry gate, why don't they open some exciting terrain? This is trivial."

Any traverse from Squaw to Alpine would not be an easy cruise. Tom Day, a 30-year Squaw skier and cinematographer for Warren Miller, estimates that the traverse and climb from Squaw to Alpine would take around a half hour for a fit skier.

"It's not some little quick step over to Alpine," he said, noting that it's still better than the alternative -- driving your car or taking the free shuttle between the two resorts.

Squaw skiers shouldn't rush to get their skins and AT gear ready, however. Until the study is completed, Squaw's current boundary policy remains in place -- closed.