It’s still early in the 08-09 ski season, but it’s already been a season of tragedies for British Columbia’s winter sports community — and there are signs that the recent slew of deaths may have repercussions for backcountry use more broadly.

Canadian news agencies were transfixed over the past two weeks by the story of 8 snowmobilers killed in a series of avalanches near Fernie, BC. The men, all experienced backcountry riders, set out in a group of 11 — the 3 survivors made the agonizing decision to walk out without their friends when repeat slides threatened to bury them all again.

“We can’t build a Berlin Wall, that’s not practical,” said one Whistler rep.

Meanwhile, at Whistler-Blackomb — already stinging thanks to global reporting of its recent gondola collapsetwo visitors were killed in the week leading up to Christmas. Both had ventured onto closed courses, or beyond the areas marked as safe.

The resort, which is due to co-host the Olympics in just over a year, is now contemplating ways to discourage boarders and skiers from disregarding the posted routes.

“We can’t build a Berlin Wall, that’s not practical,” said one resort representative. But Whistler has suspended all issue of backcountry passes, and is considering season bans for anyone caught outside the marked areas.

As the Canadian Press writes: “For season pass holders, that could mean losing their $1,800 pass with no refund.”

Some B.C. resorts already bill out-of-bounds riders for the costs of their rescue when they get into trouble. And beyond Whistler, the B.C. provincial government itself is considering new measures, including government-mandated fines for those who venture out-of-bounds.

This Globe and Mail article includes responses to the proposal from some of Canada’s highest-profile skiers and boarders.

Ross Rebagliati, who won the first-ever snowboarding Olympic gold medal at Nagano, pointed out the importance of distinguishing between true backcountry, and simply going out of bounds at a commercial resort:

In ski resorts, it’s marked out of bounds for a reason. They have to try and maintain a certain amount of order out there… [But] one of the great parts of skiing and snowboarding is powder and fresh tracks. That’s really what it’s all about. They’re really going to be walking a fine line.

What do you think?

Would you risk a season-long (or even lifetime) ban to chase some out-of-bounds powder? Do you think riders who knowingly go out-of-bounds should be on the hook for their own rescue costs?

And does the recent string of tragedies change your view of backcountry adventures?

Photo by bernhardjeff (Creative Commons)