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Peace in powder as snowcat operator drops lawsuit targeting former guide’s book about Buffalo Pass

Beacon Guidebooks’ upcoming guide to Buffalo Pass will not include names of runs and locations created by Steamboat Powdercats, which argued the titles were “trade secrets.”

Steamboat Powdercats has settled a lawsuit against a former guide, arguing he is using the company's "trade secrets" in an upcoming guidebook on snowmobile-accessed skiing on Buffalo Pass. The area has seen an increase in the number of skiers using snowmobiles to access remote snowfields. (Provided by Steamboat Powdercats)
Steamboat Powdercats has dropped its lawsuit against a former guide who penned a snowmobile-skiing guidebook using names of runs created by the snowcat operator on Buffalo Pass. The area around Buffalo Peak has seen tremendous growth in backcountry use in recent years. (Provided by Steamboat Powdercats)
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The bickering between Steamboat Powdercats and a publisher of an upcoming guidebook has ended in powder-loving peace. 

Author Stephen Bass and his publisher, Andy Sovick, have agreed that their upcoming guidebook for Buffalo Pass will not include the names of runs and locations used by Steamboat Powdercats, which has shepherded skiing clients around Buffalo Pass since 1983.

The snowcat operator minted those run names and argued in a lawsuit filed last month in Routt County DIstrict Court that Bass, a former guide for the company, was using proprietary information and “trade secrets” in his upcoming guidebook. 

Following widespread news of the lawsuit, the guidebook author and publisher visited with the director and manager at Steamboat Powdercats and came up with a plan to replace all the names from the book, which will include an app, maps and recommendations to help snowmobile-riding skiers better access Forest Service land around Buffalo Pass. 

Many of the route and location names “came about from memorable events or people in our past,” said Eric Deering, the director of Steamboat Powdercats, in a statement he emailed to The Colorado Sun. 

“The company information is important to our daily operations and certainly an integral part of our guest experience,” he said. 

Andy Sovick’s Beacon Guidebooks published the guide to backcountry snowmobile skiing around Buffalo Pass. (Provided by Beacon Guidebooks)

After creating new names for runs and locations in the guidebook, Sovick and Bass sent Deering a copy. Then they hammered out a plan to include suggestions to help ease parking and traffic issues on the pass. The book also includes several tips about backcountry etiquette around a guided operation and how to ski and snowmobile around a snowcat.

“After hearing some of our concerns regarding ongoing parking issues and permit area rules and safety guidelines, Andy expressed a willingness to entertain comments that we thought might help the situation as a whole, especially as the area continues to gain in popularity,” Deering said. 

Bass, a ski patroller in Utah who worked for Steamboat Powdercats for two seasons, had originally proposed the book to Sovick as a way to “help organize crowds and help move people around more safely,” he told The Colorado Sun last month. Sovick’s Beacon Guidebooks provide photos, maps and an app to help skiers navigate popular backcountry areas in Washington and around Crested Butte, Silverton and Berthoud Pass. 

The two sides did not talk before the snowcat operator sued. After news of the legal skirmish spread, they found a way to resolve their issues. 

“Overall, the process that we just went through is testament to two parties working together to resolve an issue and to seek common ground,” Deering said. “We are grateful to have had this conversation and certainly appreciate Andy’s forthright approach. Our business is founded on helping people access their public lands and we’re grateful to continue in this path.”

Sovick’s initial concern with changing the names for features, descent lines, exits and drop-off and pick-up points around Buffalo Pass was that new names might muddle the scene, especially for search-and-rescue teams trying to reach someone needing help. 

“Those are also names we use and other people use. They are not just Powdercats’ names. They don’t really own those names. They are pretty common names that were around even before Powdercats,” said Andy Wiener with Routt County Search and Rescue. “So this could be  confusing for us. If someone calls for help and they say they are at Johnny’s Rock or whatever, we are going to say ‘Where the heck is that?’”

The Routt County Search and Rescue team has seen some early drafts of portions of the guidebook and they were able to offer feedback about “potentially dangerous spots,” Wiener said, adding that Sovick addressed their suggestions.

Sovick also will send the team copies of the book and maps, so they can learn the new names of locations on the pass. But with modern technology, the names of places are losing their importance. Calls to 911 from mobile phones often include precise GPS locations for medical and emergency crews.

“So I wonder if the names are really going to make that much of a difference for us,” said Wiener, who noted that names are helpful when mobile phones don’t have reception and searchers are using radios to convey locations. 

Sovick said the app that he offers with guidebooks will provide GPS coordinates and the maps also have grids — known as Universal Transverse Mercator systems — which enable users to pinpoint their coordinates. 

“It’s a bummer,” Sovick said, “but I don’t think it’s a dangerous situation to have multiple run names out there.” 

When Sovick first received a cease-and-desist letter and then notification of a lawsuit, he thought Steamboat Powdercats was trying to prevent people from accessing the public lands where the operator has held a permit for guiding skiing for nearly 40 years. Buffalo Pass has seen increasing use among a growing breed of skiers using snowmobiles to access remote powder stashes around Buffalo Mountain and Soda Mountain.

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The growth has challenged Steamboat Powdercats, which builds and grooms some of the roads used by travelers in the Buffalo Pass zone. Since the mid-2000s, both skiers and snowmobilers have been required to register for a free permit to access a 7,300-acre area on the west side of Buffalo Pass, where some areas are designated for only non-motorized use. 

After talking with Steamboat Powdercats’ Deering and longtime manager Kent Vertrees, Sovick said he recognized the operators are “open to sharing the land” and “are active and caring stewards.” 

“They have certainly put in a lot of effort and time into making sure things run smoothly for all respectful users of the Buff Pass backcountry,” Sovick said. “Hopefully I was also able to show them that the Buff Pass products I’ve made — like all of our guidebooks, maps and apps — will provide helpful communications and information to both new and old users.”

Steamboat Powdercats shares roads and runs on Buffalo Pass with a growing number of skiers and snowmobilers.(Provided by Steamboat Powdercats)

Sovick doubts the argument offered by Steamboat Powdercats — that names of ski lines on public land are “trade secrets” — would stand in a court case. He hopes the wrangling will stand as a lesson that like-minded fans of snowy public lands can work together to settle differences before calling in lawyers. 

“My hope is that when people are out there this winter, they remember to respect everybody else out there, whether they’re in a snowcat, on a snowmobile, or on snowshoes,” he said. “We’re all in this together, we have a personal and societal responsibility to treat the land, access, and other users with genuine respect.”

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