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Last February, Park City Resort temporarily closed the Ninety-Nine 90 gate on the Canyons side of the resort after two separate slides killed two skiers in January. For several months, no one knew what the future would hold for the popular out-of-bounds terrain that’s some of the most accessible backcountry in the country.
Now, the verdict is in. Last week, the Vail Resorts-owned ski area decided to keep the Ninety-Nine 90 gate closed indefinitely. Both deceased skiers accessed the terrain through the Ninety-Nine 90 gate, and the resort ultimately decided that it has a responsibility to do what it can to prevent another incident from taking place.
According to Park City Resort Chief Operating Officer Mike Goar, the decision has been a long time coming.
“Unfortunately, over the years, we’ve had a number of fatalities and other serious injuries from skiers and snowboarders exiting from the Ninety-Nine 90 gate,” Goar said in a press release last week. “Coming out of the terribly unfortunate fatalities of last winter, we again engaged in these conversations, and just felt that Ninety-Nine 90 provided access that was so simple for people to utilize from the Ninety-Nine 90 lift. Many of them were ill-equipped, and it was something that we needed to take a different tact on.”
A little history for those not familiar with the area: According to the Salt Lake Tribune, there have been 37 avalanche deaths in Utah in the last 20 years, with about half of those taking place in the terrain accessed by Park City Resort’s lifts, and half of those took place in the Ninety-Nine 90 backcountry zone. The gate is accessible right off of the terminus of the Ninety-Nine 90 Express, where acres and acres of powder can be spied from the gate, making it tempting for less-skilled skiers.
Goar also announced that a previously closed backcountry gate off of Peak 5 would be reopened for the coming season. This portal accesses much of the same terrain as Ninety-Nine 90, but requires some hiking to access. Resort officials hope that this will be deterrent enough for the less prepared.
“While both exits access the same area,” Goar said, “the Peak 5 exit requires more hike-to effort, preparation, and intention to reach the terrain.”
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Since February, the closure has been met with opposition from backcountry skiers who feel that closing the gate is not the answer, and that the resorts shouldn’t be able to restrict access to public land. Vail Resorts counters that because access is from private land, it’s their responsibility to keep people safe.
Locals say that there are other ways to keep less-prepared skiers out of the zone.
“Various steps can be instituted at this gate, which will further educate would-be riders to the potential risks and consequences of these zones: Small fee passes, sign in/out at the patrol station, safety/gear check stations, resort waivers,” says longtime Park City resident and local shop owner Matt Schiller.
That said, it’s not just inexperienced backcountry users who’ve lost their lives throughout the years. “The majority of people looking to access this gate and out-of-area skiing are aware and prepared for the risk and reward,” Schiller says.”Yet, recent incidents have happened to seasoned veterans and unassuming visitors alike.”
Not all locals disagree with Vail Resorts’ decision, however. Park City resident and avid backcountry skier Nick Loomans says he doesn’t regularly ski that area, but he has a lot of friends who do. He doesn’t fault the resort for closing the gate.
“The Park City ridge line can be pretty touchy and sometimes more difficult to manage than one would think, even for very experienced backcountry skiers,” says Loomans. “It receives less snowfall which may take the snowpack longer to heal it’s weak layers than in other areas of the Wasatch. It also gets pretty consistently hammered by western winds, which can cause a lot of wind loading, sometimes in unexpected areas or farther down the slope than anticipated. Ultimately, this terrain can and will still be accessible through the Peak 5 gate, so the terrain access isn’t being taken away. It will just require more effort and backcountry preparation to reach those areas, which I’m fine with personally. At the end of the day, the resort has a right to control their ski area boundaries, so it’s ultimately their decision to close the gate.“
Whatever the eventual outcome, Schiller feels that the community deserves to have a seat at the table. To that end, there’s currently a petition signed by nearly 2,000 Park City locals calling not just to reinstate access to the area but to engage the community in discussion about what’s obviously a sensitive and complicated issue.
“This current situation should be used as a platform to bring all parties to the table and understand how each player can advance this trend for all greater safety and support,” Schiller explains. “Overcrowding of resorts and higher pay-to-play within the resort boundaries will undoubtedly add to the need for this next evolution.”
This is an evolving story and will be updated as more information becomes available.