Why COVID-19 Has Made Avalanche Safety Education More Important Than Ever

Backcountry recreation
Backcountry recreationAlastair Spriggs

Backcountry recreation exploded this past summer. Camping gear sales soared, search and research calls increased dramatically, and public lands saw higher-than-usual visitations, as more and more Americans began exploring their backyards amidst pandemic restrictions. Top avalanche experts are now predicting this trend will stretch into the winter months, and may even be heightened due to uncertainties surrounding local ski resorts. They’re raising concerns over the increased likelihood of human-triggered avalanches and highlighting the importance of virtual avalanche safety training.

“We’re expecting to see record numbers of backcountry skiers, splitboarders, and snowmobilers accessing avalanche terrain this season—and potentially thousands of users with limited experience or training,” said Karl Birkeland, a world-renowned avalanche scientist and director at the Forest Service National Avalanche Centre. “Increased numbers means an increased potential for trouble.”

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A Push Toward the Backcountry

A growing allure for winter backcountry recreation is nothing new.

For any enthusiast, noticing overcrowded parking areas near out-of-bounds touring zones and crowded trailheads can provide anecdotal evidence that more and more skiers are exploring public lands. Even a veteran like Birkeland has trouble escaping the crowds at his favorite spots in southwest Montana: “I used to see no one in my go-to zones, but in the past five years, I’ve seen masses of people ski touring back into these remote areas.”

Even the data, though limited, backs up these claims. Backcountry ski and binding sales grew 9.1 percent in 2017 and another 6.1 percent in 2018, according to Snowsports Industries America.

When ski resorts closed last March due to COVID-19, an influx of backcountry traffic ensued. In San Juan County, CO, authorities had to prohibit backcountry recreation due to insufficient emergency services, and Utah Avalanche Center reported 30 observations of human-triggered slides throughout the state during a three-day span.

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Birkeland suggests the growth will be accelerated this year due to social distancing protocols and the increased likelihood of ski hills being unable to operate at full capacity. Many resorts across America have already laid out physical distancing and reservation system rules to limit the number of people on the mountain. He explained that if ticket sales are limited at resorts, then hordes of skiers will have nowhere to go. This may in turn drive even more inexperienced people into the backcountry.

Adventurers reviewing avalanche safety education and protocols
Adventurers reviewing avalanche safety education and protocols Sean Zimmerman

Mitigation Through Forecasting

On average, 28 people die in avalanches every year in the United States, and nearly all of these deaths occur on national forest land. Birkeland and his team work to mitigate avalanche risk in these zones through advanced forecasting methods and education.

They provide backcountry users with daily avalanche forecasts that discuss detailed snowpack characteristics, weather, and an overall avalanche danger rating. Users are encouraged to use these advisories vigilantly when deciding when, where, and how to ride responsibly. Though avalanche forecasters are gearing up for a busy season, Birkeland explained avalanche centres will continue to operate as-per-usual given their scalable services.

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“Our forecasts are made public and anyone can access them,” he said. “So, we will continue providing the absolute best avalanche forecast possible, with hopes that every individual entering the backcountry will utilize these services.”

Forecasters, educators, ski groups, and local shops across the country have been increasingly raising awareness about the value of avalanche forecasts. For instance, Friends of the Colorado Avalanche Information Centre introduced a backcountry pledge, where they are asking users in all states to check the forecast before they venture into the backcountry this season.

Evaluating snowpack safety to mitigate avalanche risk
Evaluating snowpack safety to mitigate avalanche risk Sean Zimmerman

Harnessing the Power of Education

Knowing the forecast, getting the proper safety tools, and acquiring the knowledge on how to use them effectively can greatly increase the likelihood of avoiding an avalanche incident.

“Understanding these concepts begins in the classroom,” says Sean Zimmerman-Wall, a program director at the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE), a nonprofit that develops standardized curriculums for avalanche safety training programs.

AIARE provides several courses for recreational avalanche training that focus on backcountry travel preparation, planning tools and checklists to promote low risk decision making, and companion rescue. Each course traditionally involves a theoretical classroom component and a hands on field component.

“These services are becoming more and more popular. We’ve seen an exponential growth in backcountry use and a relatively flat curve in fatalities year after year. This is hopefully a result of increased education and awareness,” added Zimmerman-Wall. “This is encouraging, but we know there’s a lot of room for growth this year.”

To promote growth this upcoming season, AIARE and other U.S. avalanche course providers are adapting their services to be more virtual, replacing the classroom component with Zoom calls and web-based training tools like quizzes. The in-field component is expected to be unaltered.

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Zimmerman-Wall suggests these online services will be scalable to meet high demands, but the greatest challenge rests in increasing awareness around the importance of avalanche safety training. Practical and theoretical teachings can be taught in courses, but awareness requires a full-fledged approached from the entire snowsports industry—from board and gear shops to local avalanche centers, tourism boards to mainstream media outlets. Everyone needs to do their part.

If you’re reading this and plan to engage in backcountry travel this upcoming season, we advise you to visit avalanche.org to seek out a local avalanche safety training course provider and familiarize yourself with local avalanche advisories.

Also check out our top avalanche safety tips, according to experts.

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