Danger in the Backcountry: Avalanche rescue groups brace for an intense winter

Danger in the Backcountry: Avalanche rescue groups brace for an intense winter

Backcountry gear sales skyrocket as uncertainty looms at resorts

CultureNovember 23, 2020 By Will Brendza

The 2019/20 ski season came to a jarring and altogether unexpected halt last March, when COVID-19 erupted onto the scene and resorts shut down wholesale. The best snow months were effectively ripped away, leaving powder junkies and snow fiends Jonesing — itching, craving, yearning for more — careening through all the horrible steps of shred withdrawal.

 It was a traumatic situation. And for anyone who didn’t have backcountry gear and knowledge, it was very much the end of the ski season.

However, for those lucky souls who did, there was plenty of alpine touring still to do. They had backcountry setups and the off-piste world of Colorado’s Rockies to explore — no need for a lift, or access to curated mountains like Vail, or Aspen. They continued shredding while everyone else bitterly watched snow fall from quarantine. 

That painful situation apparently inspired a lot of skiers and boarders to break into the backcountry on their own this year. In March (when the resorts closed), internet demand for alpine skins climbed 156% and since then, online sales for backcountry equipment have been up almost five times their normal rate. 

For good or ill, it looks like backcountry skiing is about to go mainstream — largely because of COVID-19 and the shadow of uncertainty that it’s cast over resort skiing. People are tired of being beholden to companies like Vail and Alterra to get their skiing fix. And who can blame them? 

But, not all who are buying alpine touring equipment are also investing in the necessary training and education to go with it. Colorado is the most deadly avalanche state in the US, accounting for 287 deaths since 1950. Understanding avalanche risks and safe backcountry conduct is every bit as important as having the right gear. 

And yet it’s a corner that people often cut.

Needless to say, all of this has Colorado’s search and rescue teams on edge. They’re expecting a very busy year and with winter fast approaching, they’re running on all cylinders to prepare for it. 

“We’re working with all of the search and rescue teams to try to make sure that they’re recognizing the situation that might unfold,” says Jeff Sparhawk, president of Colorado Search and Rescue. “This situation is new and we’ll be breaking new ground with whatever happens.” 

The perfect storm 

Last year, from late March into April (notably right after resorts closed and during peak avalanche danger) search and rescue teams saw unparalleled traffic at backcountry spots like Loveland Pass and Berthoud Pass. The parking lots were overflowing and the trails were crowded, making search and rescue operations even more challenging than they already are — and making avalanches a far bigger threat to far more potential victims.  

This year, rescue teams are expecting things to be much the same, perhaps even busier. 

Adding to that, Sparhawk says that the new wave of “remote work” will likely affect traffic surges in the backcountry. With so many more people having flexibility to move their free time around and work on the go, high traffic times might not be as predictable as they once were. 

“Does the weekend really matter anymore? Are we changing the whole calendar?” Sparhawk wonders. “In which case [people] will simply go skiing whenever it snows — and that’s when it’s dangerous: while the snow is falling and shortly thereafter, that’s when the avalanche conditions are at their highest, typically.” 

That would complicate things on multiple levels for Search and Rescue, Sparhawk explains.  Since they are a totally volunteer-based organization, most rescuers work day jobs. That makes finding available rescuers on weekdays much harder. Not only that, but Sparhawk points out, when it’s snowing they can’t deploy rescue helicopters, their “last resort” for critical rescue operations. 

Skiers and boarders are probably also going to be pushing further into backcountry areas than they normally do, Sparhawk says. Potentially moving into more dangerous spots. 

“Typically, people go riding and skiing in the backcountry to get away from other people,” he says. “So, are people going to go further into the mountains to get away from the crowds that are closer to the trailheads? Pushing back where they might not be as familiar with the avalanche conditions and really know what is and isn’t safe?” 

If last March and April’s packed trailheads were any indicator, the answer to both of those questions is Yes. In ecology, it’s called “dispersion” and it applies to backcountry skiers the same way it applies to wild animals: when one area gets over-crowded, individuals will venture off in search of new powder pastures. 

“People have their ‘secret stashes.’ And if new people learn about them, well, maybe you have to go find a new secret stash,” Sparhawk says. From a search and rescue standpoint, that means his teams are going to get spread out even further, spreading their resources even thinner. 

“We’re seeing this as a multifaceted issue,” he says. “It’s kind of the perfect storm.” 

Know before you go 

Realizing that this year will see an explosion of backcountry traffic throughout Colorado, avalanche education groups like the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC) are working on overdrive to reach as many people as possible. 

“Our mission is very much the same: to reach as many people as we can with backcountry safety information and make sure that anyone who is heading into the backcountry has good information at their fingertips so they can make safe decisions.” says Brian Lazar, the deputy director of CAIC. 

Since COVID-19, most of CAIC’s in-person seminars and classes have been cancelled, forcing them to step up their virtual education and outreach. This year they’ve greatly expanded their “Know Before You Go” avalanche awareness course online, adding a library of pre-recorded e-learning and information classes — all totally free for the public to access. 

CAIC also provides daily weather and avalanche forecasts throughout the winter, for all of Colorado on their website. They’re extremely useful and accessible tools for backcountry, side-country and even in-bounds skiers and boarders. Checking the forecast should be part of every backcountry accessor’s daily ritual, says Lazar.

At the end of the day, though, there is no substitute for an Avalanche Information Research and Education (AIRE) level 1 course — and sadly they aren’t free. These courses run anywhere from $400-1000 (and throughout Colorado they’re filling up fast). However, they are worth every single penny if you haven’t taken one. Not only do they teach everything you’ll need to know to stay safe and avalanche aware, but most include an on-snow portion where students get hands-on experience with a guide or instructor.

If it sounds like a lot of research and effort to learn avalanche awareness and safety, that’s because it is. Going out into the backcountry without that knowledge not only puts your life at risk, but puts your partner’s life, other skiers lives, and the search and rescuers lives all at risk.

There are other consequences too. As two snowboarders discovered this year, causing an avalanche can result in criminal charges — even if no one’s injured. Last March, the two backcountry boarders accidentally triggered an avalanche over Eisenhower Tunnel that buried a service road in 20 feet of snow. Now they’re being charged with reckless endangerment and may owe over $168,000 — something that has never happened in this state’s history. 

All of this is to say, there’s a lot to lose in the backcountry. The least anyone going out there can do, is prepare with the right information and education to try and stay safe. 

A community approach 

Unquestionably, there are a lot of backcountry veterans out there who are not excited that their sport might finally be going mainstream. For decades, the backcountry has been the place to go to get away from the Jerry’s, the resort tourists, the park rats, the crowds, the noise and the hustle bustle. It’s been an unspoken secret — to be kept from the masses; to be coveted and reserved only for the few, the initiated, the elite. 

The prospect of that sacred refuge getting busier and more tracked out won’t sit well with a lot of folks. 

That’s really too damn bad, though. As Jeff Sparhawk with search and rescue notes, most backcountry gates and trailheads are on National Forest property. People are going to access the backcountry, experienced or not, avalanche aware or not, trained and educated or not. That space belongs to all of us — there’s no gatekeeping out there. 

Besides, treating people like they aren’t welcome because they’re new to the sport, doesn’t make anyone any safer. 

“We need people who have experience, who are safe, who have cut their teeth on the Colorado snowpack to be mentors,” Sparhawk says. “To be out there helping, teaching people along with the guides, along with the various educational outlets.” 

This is not the season to be shunning and shaming newbies, he says. Everyone who’s in the backcountry is out in it together and for the same reasons. And realistically, it’s safer for everyone if people are trying to offer friendly, respectful advice, rather than trying and to slam an invisible door in someone’s face. 

“To me it’s got to be a community approach,” Sparhawk says. “Simply because there’s so many more people who are potentially coming into the community this year.” 

Gearing up 

So far, both Vail Resorts and Alterra Mountain Company are charging full steam ahead into ski season, opening ski resorts across Colorado this month. Vail alone has already sold over 850,000 passes for 2020/21 — a notable 18% increase from this same time last year. But the company still claims it’s bracing for a difficult year: not only will limitations on lift tickets, food, beverage and travel cut into their bottom lines, but they could very well, once again be shut down entirely by the governor should another wave of COVID-19 slap down on Colorado this winter.

Which would almost certainly cause a cascading effect: like a trigger that would send an avalanche of skiers and boarders torrenting into the backcountry.

Regardless, though, even if the resorts do stay open all season, without hiccups or closures, the backcountry will see a lot more traffic than it has in years prior. Both avalanche information groups like CAIC and search and rescue teams throughout Colorado seem to believe that’s true — and as skiers and boarders across the state gear up to get out of bounds, those rescue teams are gearing up for a busy and altogether uncertain winter.