No need to defog the goggles – that’s not a bird or a plane – that’s a sheriff deputy on a ski bike performing sick tricks off a kicker while shredding the gnar.
The Ski Deputy Program is back to making tracks at Purgatory Resort and the officers have a new option in their arsenal – ski bikes. The La Plata County Sheriff’s Office is bringing the bikes back to the slopes after a few years’ hiatus, with the purchase of four new aluminum-frame bikes replete with adjustable suspension, front and back inline “ripper” skis, foot pegs, and a black and yellow paint job that features the word sheriff along with the star logo across the top tube.
“People tend to get a kick out of the bikes when they see them,” said La Plata County Sheriff Sean Smith, in reference to past ski-bikes owned by the department. “And we got asked a lot of questions.”
For years the Sheriff’s Office had an older version of ski bikes it operated at Purgatory as part of its Ski Deputy Program, but they fell into disrepair and then the manufacturer stopped making them. In those days, Purgatory rented the bikes and people had to pass an ability test to get a license that lasted a lifetime. Eventually, Purgatory dropped the program, and like the Sheriff’s Office, discarded the worn-out bikes.
The Ski Deputy Program was suspended in 2019 after ethical questions were raised about deputies getting annual passes to patrol the slopes on their days off. And then came COVID-19. The ethical question arose over whether the program violated Amendment 41 of the Colorado Constitution, which is the gifting provision of the Constitution. It says that no government employee can receive a gift greater than $60 in value from any source in a given year. Unless, there is an exchange of something that is of equal or greater value.
“And that is the argument that Dave Rathbun with Purgatory and I made to the Colorado Ethics Commission,” Smith said. “Because what happens is deputies volunteer eight days on their days off in exchange for the season pass. So what we were basically saying is that what we were trading them back is more valuable than the pass we are receiving.”
The commission agreed and ski deputies were back on the slopes – albeit on skis and not bikes – beginning Dec. 15.
“We’ve got several deputies anxious to try out the bikes,” Smith said. “But we’ve learned from the first couple that tried them out that they didn’t think it was as easy as they thought it would be. They were skiers or snowboarders so we are going to be teaming up with an instructor to make sure they are trained on how to ride appropriately.”
Smith, who skis and snowboards, has also been riding the bikes for nearly 20 years. He learned to ride from a former lift operations manager at Purgatory who recorded a video of ski bikes carving through the trees and jumping off cliffs at Purgatory for National Geographic.
Twenty-four deputies are participating in the program this year with the idea that a deputy will be on the slopes every day of the season.
“The resort traditionally and currently really likes having the presence of deputies on the hill,” Smith said. “They feel like it’s a good thing. The ski deputies are not handling skiing issues on the hill, that’s not what they are there for. They are there to deal with actual violations of the law.”
Most of what deputies deal with is theft – theft of phones, snowboards, skis and other things, Smith said. But it could also be responding to a lost child or a disturbance between people. Deputies at the resort can also handle other calls in the area, which saves the department from having to dispatch a unit from Durango.
“And during the week of Christmas, (Purgatory) averaged 4,000 to 6,000 skiers a day,” Smith said. “So it becomes the second biggest populace in the county during those times. And with Martin Luther King Jr. weekend and Presidents Day weekend and then spring break, there will be a lot of different people and a big population on the north end of the county.”
The Sheriff’s Office’s new ski bikes, SKIBYK SB 2000, cost $1,600 apiece retail, but Smith got a discount because he purchased four.
“Ski bikes are just another tool, it’s just another option,” Smith said. “Most of the deputies will be skiing and snowboarding, and some will choose to use the bikes.”
The history of ski bikes goes back to the 1840s when the Austrian Postal Service used them to deliver mail. They first appeared in the U.S. in the 1940s.