Long Arm of the Law, 5280, December 2010

ski policeIt’s a windless morning at Steamboat Ski Resort, and Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” pulses through a bright Gondola Square. Shuffling across the slushy snow, skiers line up to board the Steamboat Gondola, but first they must unzip, de-layer, and turn out their pockets. Like travelers at Denver International Airport, these would-be gondola riders must run through a gauntlet of security checkpoints before taking to the skies.

After ticket scanners confirm that skiers’ lift passes are legit, a panel of uniformed police officers pats everyone down and inspects backpacks for contraband such as alcohol. Refuse the search, and that $97 day-ticket becomes null and void. Still, on this bluebird day, one baby boomer flexes his ’60s-honed flower power and bucks the system. “You don’t have any right to search me!” he shouts. Throughout the loading zone, heads swivel toward the lone renegade. The cops try to respond to him in hushed tones. But he won’t be quieted. “You have no right!” he repeats.

But under its permitted lease agreement with the US Forest Service, which grants the resort rights similar to private ownership, Steamboat can legally search its paying customers. After the police explain this, the man decides that resisting the invasion of privacy seems more compelling than skiing slush. He storms out into the sunshine, his skis and head held high.

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 on drunken, 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.

In any business—and skiing is big business in Colorado—the answer to most questions is money. And this situation is no different. Lean recession years have made resorts especially prickly about attracting and keeping paying customers—“paying” being the operative word. Resorts are eager to prevent pass fraud because even a handful of missed ticket sales cuts into revenues. So, cops stationed at lifts watch for “borrowed” passes. Police presence also combats ski and snowboard theft. “We’ve paid attention to trends—what times of day and days of the week thefts occurred—and put uniformed officers in place at those times,” Breck’s Morrison explains. The surveillance has reduced thefts by two-thirds: Only 57 pairs of skis and snowboards were stolen in 2009–2010, compared to 165 pairs in the 2007–2008 ski season.

But the biggest factor driving up the police presence is a shift in demographics: Many Colorado resorts now court families rather than swinging singles. Baby boomers who couch-surfed through ski towns 30 years ago now bring their families to the slopes. And across demographics, families spend big when they ski: In one week, the average family of four spends 10 grand on lift tickets, accommodations, ski school, babysitters, meals, and the like. “We’re a family area,” says Greg Ralph, Monarch’s director of marketing. “Those kind of people feel more secure in [a policed] environment.” Which means the ski bums, who occasionally foul the family-friendly vibe resorts are trying to promote, are not welcome any longer, especially when their rowdiness sneaks out of the bars and onto the runs. Four years ago on April 1—dubbed “Gaper Day” by some—a group of Breck employees got drunk, dressed in costumes, and taunted tourists. The resort brought cops onto the hill. And when Gaper Day antics migrated to Steamboat the next year, police patrols were initiated there as well. “The sport of skiing doesn’t really have room for that,” Steamboat’s Allen says. “We are a family resort, and we want to stay that way.”

Allen explains that Steamboat’s gondola-based searches are another attempt to maintain the PG-rated ambience. Police at the gondola are looking to curtail the flow of alcohol—cans of PBR and flasks of Maker’s stuffed into skiers’ puffy jackets—which he says can fuel “antifamily” behavior. (Interestingly, alcohol sales at the resort continue. Allen insists the problems are not generated from those alcohol sales.) “Word spreads like wildfire that the cops are on the mountain,” Breck’s Morrison says. “It has a very good preventive effect.” Plus, Morrison adds, ski hills are like stadiums. “Any time you get 20,000 people together, whether at a rock concert, a beach, wherever—there will be a few troublemakers in the crowd, and dealing with them enhances the experience for everyone else,” he says.

Apparently “everyone else” does not include 32-year-old Steamboat local Mark McNeal, an ACZ Laboratories Inc. technician who’s tallied five season passes in Ski Town USA. “Ski areas should expect a certain amount of misbehavior, especially when they’re selling alcohol,” McNeal says. “Unless there’s an issue, there’s no reason they should be searching people.” There’s also no evidence—none of the resorts or any other organizations could provide hard, researched numbers—suggesting that officers’ watchful eyes make us safer on the slopes. At Arapahoe Basin, which is famous for its closing-day carousing, police are conspicuously absent. Drinking is rampant. Costumes are provocative. Pond-skimming stunts raise concerns for skier safety. Yet, each year passes without incident. “We don’t feel the atmosphere and environment really require police on site,” says Leigh Hierholzer, A-Basin’s director of marketing and communication.

There, at least, skiers can still find fun without the fuzz. That means more than just the freedom to strain your groin by pulling a drunken daffy: It yields a temporary escape from the best-behavior expectations of daily life. This is skiing, after all, a sport born out of a need for speed and a craving to experience something just a bit out of bounds.