Is Boundary-Free Skiing Freedom or Risk?

A debate between a Europhile and a worrier.


POINT: Vive la France
By Tim Neville
I was 12 years old the first time I ducked a boundary line. I’d been scratching Pennsylvania ice when I spotted what looked like powder beyond the rope—a thing I’d never actually touched before. I poached it, got busted, and was lectured. “You could get hurt,” the patroller said.

I’ve never been injured skiing—knock on wood—and it isn’t because I stay inbounds. Before patrollers hunt me down with wire clippers, I’ll be the first to say that ropes are there for a reason. And maybe I’ve just been lucky. But fast-forward a couple decades and I’ve come to realize the biggest beef I have with American ski areas isn’t with patrollers and ropes but with Americans.

I can say things like that because I now live in Europe, where ski-related rescues are a quarter as likely as in America. Here—as well as in places like Canada, Chile, and Argentina—you learn fast that the only way to miss the dog shit is to watch your step. In America you can find someone else to blame. Just ask David Graven. In 1992, he fell into a ravine off the side of a double black at Vail. He sued the resort and won. The courts ruled unmarked ravines aren’t an inherent risk, so falling in them really isn’t your fault. Out came the ropes.

In recent years, however, American resorts have begun to loosen the gates and open more backcountry terrain. But they still have a long way to go until they adopt the French idea of libre circulation, which gives you free access anywhere. In Europe, as soon as a foot of snow covers mountain turf, that land becomes public property, regardless of whose home sits atop it. Marking areas off-limits is the exception, not the rule. Sure, obstacles might not be marked and you may end up far from where you need to be. But that’s freedom.

Europeans don’t expect ski areas to be concierges or babysitters. If you need a rescue, even inbounds, you pay: 48 euros for on-slope help and up to 16,000 euros for a helicopter with a multiday search. A Carte Neige insurance policy costs around $50 and covers transportation costs should you need a rescue, but even so, having to pay up front makes people think twice about what they ski—or whether they should be skiing at all. A Breckenridge, Colorado, ski patroller told me he once got called out to patch a toenail.

The European system certainly has its flaws, but in general, when skiers here want to explore, they hire a guide and head out prepared. When they ski, they’re not expecting a padded room. They know that mountains have ravines.

After spending two years in Europe in the 1990s, writer Tim Neville moved back in August for a third, indefinite stint, this time in Switzerland.

COUNTERPOINT: Arrêtez les Idiots
By Russ Rizzo
My first taste of Europe’s laissez-faire approach to ski boundaries landed me in a Swiss family’s backyard. I was at Grindelwald resort six years ago. At one moment, I was enjoying vertical drops twice as long as those I was used to stateside. If there was a boundary rope, I didn’t see it. The next thing I knew, I was hoofing it back to the ski area I’d left a quarter mile back.

I’m the first to admit my detour was a shining example of an American taking his habits to a foreign place. From an early age, it’s been ingrained in me that orange ropes act as guardrails on a ski slope, just as slow in chiding black letters means I’m getting close to the lodge. In Europe, if you see a warning sign or a rope it probably means you’re on your way to certain death off a cliff.

The reality is, most skiers, especially those in the U.S., don’t show up with knowledge about avalanches or backcountry safety. A lot of skiers are Texans wearing jester hats and belt buckles—and they need guardrails and warning signs.

In the U.S., bad things can happen when people ignore boundary lines. Last winter, 24-year-old Oscar Gonzales Jr. ducked a rope at California’s Mountain High and got so lost he spent the night in an old airplane fuselage before getting airlifted to safety. He was lucky—three others that weekend died in separate avalanches close to where he was.

All told, eight skiers in the U.S. were killed in avalanches just off resort property last winter, in one of the deadliest avalanche seasons in American history. In most cases, those skiers knew the dangers. They carried avalanche gear and left resort property through gates clearly marked with warnings. I can’t imagine what would happen if there were no boundary ropes or warning signs.

In the U.S., stick to the rules, and you can rest easy knowing you’re not getting in over your head. When I ski a resort, I leave the beacon and map at home and trust that ski patrollers have thought of the precautions so I don’t have to. I’m free to enjoy my day without keeping a vigilant eye out for rogue cable cars. By enforcing their boundaries, American resorts are protecting their ability to provide peace of mind. Now that’s real freedom: being able to shut off your brain and just ski without worry. Besides, there’s enough to pack for the ski trip without adding shovels and probes to the mix.

Europeans may look down on our off-limits approach to skiing. But while they’re checking for cliffs every turn, I’ll be comforted knowing that I’ll return to the lodge in one piece without any life-threatening detours.

When he’s not risking it all in the backcountry, freelance writer Russ Rizzo enjoys inbounds skiing in Colorado and Utah.