Long Arm of the Law

Police are increasingly patrolling Colorado ski areas. But are they actually making us safer or just destroying the free-wheeling culture of the slopes?

December 2010

Colorado’s famous slopes have never been entirely free from law enforcement. Local cops have always responded to individual incidents involving theft, drunken disorderliness, and poaching (skiing closed trails is an infraction of state law). In 1994, Aspen tried to station police patrols on the slopes, but the effort was jettisoned that same year after skiers complained about seeing Johnny Law as they schussed. But over the past few years, police have become a more common sight not only at Steamboat, but also at several other Colorado ski hills: Monarch Mountain, Breckenridge Ski Resort, and Vail Mountain increasingly invite police on-mountain.

Resorts say they want to crack down ondrunken, reckless skiing, so they’re recruiting local law enforcement to help maintain a “family environment” on the slopes. Breckenridge’s police department bought special ski uniforms for its officers to wear while patrolling the runs. Monarch now parks a police cruiser at the entrance staircase for maximum visibility. And, in addition to conducting searches, Steamboat asks county cops and federal US Forest Service officers to ride the lifts and monitor skier behavior. “It shows that we mean business,” says Doug Allen, Steamboat’s VP of mountain operations.

In contrast to the negative response in Aspen years ago, resorts insist the skiing public is greeting the authorities with open arms. (Steamboat’s cantankerous boomer was an exception, they say.) “Response has been amazingly positive,” says Greg Morrison, Breckenridge’s assistant police chief. At Steamboat, Allen boasts, “We’ve had a tremendous amount of positive feedback from destination guests.” If this is true—that skiers feel happier knowing that cops have their backs—then skiing’s cultural pendulum has pulled a jaw-dropping 180.

The slopes—wide open, pristine, and wild—have always offered an escape from inhibition. You always feel far away from your cubicle when savoring mountain vistas from an empty ridge, watching snowflakes collect silently on your mittens, or sluicing through stands of aspens.

Consider: Ever since lifts began hauling skiers uphill for no reason other than the joy of skidding down again, skiing has represented a way to cut loose. Ski towns were bastions of counterculture, attracting bums who rejected the cities’ daily grind in favor of a free-wheelin’ mountain lifestyle. Women flirted with ski instructors, drinking and drug use were de rigueur, and bar patrons danced on the tables at local drinking holes. In the ’80s, Steamboat’s legendary Tugboat Grill and Pub saw as many revelers swinging from the ceiling as dancing on the floor. “It was a wide-open, free-spirit town, and you didn’t get in trouble for being that way,” recalls co-owner Larry Lamb. In short, skiing—and its attendant culture—has been a way to evade the everyday routine.

These days, though, skiers glimpse badges at the bottom of the run—or gazing down on them from the chair lift overhead—which has a way of squelching the fun factor. “My opinion is, I don’t like it,” says Lamb, who has nevertheless resigned himself to the change. “In yesteryear’s climate, if people did something that wasn’t totally legal or law-abiding, there was no real need to address it. Today, there is.” So what’s different now? Good question.