Skiing and snowboarding are already pricey sports, and they could become even more expensive for snowhounds who ignore signs warning them to stay off of closed runs and trails.
Under a bill winding through the Legislature, people who disregard such signs at ski areas could pay up to a $1,000 fine and spend up to 90 days in the freezer, also known as jail.
Current law doesn’t set a penalty for violators, and it’s hazy whether trespass law applies. Making it a misdemeanor would remove the confusion, according to advocates.
"We need more teeth; we need to be able to close the doors," said Duncan Howat, general manager at Mt. Baker Ski Area. "I think that would wake people up."
At Mt. Baker, people who disregard safety rules can have their lift ticket or season’s pass taken away. Yet people still ignore rules and "closed" signs in their quest for adventure and virgin snow.
Adding the risk of a fine and jail time should reinforce the message that such behavior can put the skier or snowboarder in peril, as well as the people who have to find them, Howat said.
"They put themselves in serious exposure," he said, "and potential serious harm."
The measure, Senate Bill 5186, was introduced by Sen. Jim Kastama, a Puyallup Democrat who is a self-described "insatiable skier" and a volunteer ski patroller at Crystal Mountain.
One cause for concern is skiers and boarders who enter closed areas where avalanche-control measures are taking place, usually in the morning at Mt. Baker. Other risky situations include trails and runs covered with ice or rubble, fallen trees, and streams that open up in warm weather.
"It’s a mountain environment and it’s changing constantly," Howat said.
Also at Baker, several hundred people often arrive early, itching to hike into the backcountry or up the ski slopes even though the chairlifts aren’t running yet. Employees patrol the lower runs on snowmobiles to intercept people who won’t wait until the ski area opens for business.
An early version of the bill said ski patrol members could gather information on culprits and send details to the sheriff. Howat liked that idea, but the provision was taken out of the bill early on.
Kastama couldn’t be reached for comment about how enforcement might occur.
Duncan presumes ski area managers would gather information about violations, take pictures of suspects and turn over the material to law officers later, if a deputy wasn’t available.
Kastama’s bill easily passed the Senate in early March, with local senators Kevin Ranker and Doug Ericksen in favor. The House version, which made it a simple misdemeanor instead of a trespass, won approval earlier this month, with Rep. Jeff Morris in favor and Reps. Jason Overstreet and Vincent Buys opposed.
The bill wouldn’t apply to backcountry areas, because ski resort operators don’t control that terrain. At Mt. Baker, people who venture backcountry alone, without proper equipment or without adequate knowledge of snow and avalanche conditions run the risk of losing their ski pass.
"We take it very seriously," Howat said.
To track Senate Bill 5186 and other legislation, go to access.wa.gov and enter "bill information" in the search window.