The abundance of snow is enticing Vermont skiers to venture off trails into backcountry powder.
But the Vermont Department of Public Safety warns that the adventure can be risky for skiers and snowboarders and, if they get lost, dangerous for everyone, including search crews.
The warning comes with sub-zero temperatures in the Presidents Day holiday forecast this weekend and after nine skiers went missing over the last two weeks and had to be rescued.
Most recently, rescuers found a missing skier Wednesday before midnight, nearly six hours after he had become separated from friends. He was waist-deep in snow about a half mile from Mount Snow resort. He was suffering from hypothermia and dehydration, officials said.
The search involved 30 to 40 people, some on snowmobiles, and the use of a helicopter, said Neil Van Dyke, the department's search and rescue coordinator.
"It (off-trail skiing) becomes a problem, particularly with the snow as deep as it is now," Van Dyke said.
Skiing out of bounds is discouraged at most ski areas for safety reasons but many still do it.
Van Dyke said a common mistake is people ski off trail not really intending to have a full backcountry ski experience and end up lost and away from the resort.
Other recent rescues involved two skiers who had skied off the back side of Killington on Feb. 1 and had to be escorted out by ski patrol on snowshoes; two cross country skiers at Prospect Mountain in Woodford who got lost Feb. 10 trying to take a short cut with one breaking a ski binding. They found shelter at a cabin but rescuers had a hard time reaching them in the deep snow.
If skiers ski off trail intentionally, they need to know where they're going, have a map, compass, extra layers of clothing, headlamp and water, Van Dyke said. They also should not ski alone and have a cellphone. Another common mistake is people ski out-of-bounds on their last run and become lost in the dark.
"If you're going to have a backcountry adventure, the idea is you start early in the day when you have plenty of daylight and still bring things like a headlamp and extra warm clothing and water," he said.
Vermont has a law allowing rescue agencies and resorts to bill skiers who get lost after ignoring posted warnings.
A bill was proposed in the Legislature in 2013 to impose a fine on people who deliberately go out of ski resort boundaries, get lost and require rescue. But after hearing from ski industry and law enforcement officials, the Senate Judiciary Committee decided to shelve the proposal. Critics said they did not want to discourage backcountry skiing, which has been a big boost to the ski industry.