Backcountry errors

When he was found Saturday morning, Alex Maginnis was the beneficiary of La Plata County Search and Rescue’s excellent volunteer crew, with the guidance of Butch Knowlton, the county’s director of emergency preparedness. Maginnis’ rescue after spending a sub-freezing night in the Hermosa Creek backcountry came thanks to Search and Rescue’s expertise, some help from technology and no small amount of luck on Maginnis’ part.

His becoming lost was another story altogether – one that could have been easily avoided.

Maginnis required the services of 31 search-and-rescue personnel after he crossed the ski-area boundary on the backside of Purgatory at Durango Mountain Resort, enjoyed some “great snow” on his way to a beautiful clearing and then realized his error. “This is not good,” Maginnis recalls dawning on him. Leaving aside for the moment the rather obvious issue of whether Maginnis was aware of having ventured out-of-bounds – he says he was not, Purgatory officials beg to differ, saying his tracks were clear and boundary markers plentiful – the next steps he took were perplexing.

His cellphone map told Maginnis he was within a mile of the ski area. That – and the fact that the phone was poorly charged – would seem to offer a simple solution to his predicament: With a map showing his location, and that of the ski area, Maginnis could have made way for the boundary posthaste. Instead, he decided to take his chances and try to find his way to Needles Country Store – the opposite and roundabout direction from the ski area, and much farther to boot. Doing so was manifestly foolish.

Despite having a backpack containing a partially filled water bottle, three energy bars, a shovel and an emergency blanket – the latter two items somewhat inexplicable for a day of skiing at Purgatory – Maginnis was ill-equipped for an ad hoc backcountry journey. The terrain and temperatures were not altogether forgiving, and Maginnis had a night that could have ended quite poorly. He is more than fortunate it did not.

Furthermore and foremost, though, is the simple fact that ski-area boundaries exist for a reason. They are in place to keep people safe, and Purgatory, as most other resorts, is replete with clear markings of those boundaries as well as warnings not to cross them. Doing so is both irresponsible and dangerous, and anyone who manages to ski out-of-bounds – inadvertently or otherwise – should work expeditiously to reverse their mistake. Maginnis failed to do so, instead taking himself farther into the backcountry, and all the more unprepared for what turned into a 50-mile ordeal.

Knowlton said it best: “Mr. Maginnis made a choice to defy warning signs at DMR that prohibit skiing out-of-bounds, left the DMR property and skied in an area that he was not familiar with.” Doing so put his own and rescuers’ lives at risk, consumed considerable resources and caused worry among Maginnis’ loved ones. It is good he is safe, but he took unnecessary risk that had potentially great consequences. No amount of great snow is worth that.

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