When ski resorts closed in March due to the onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic, many skiers would not be deterred from getting their turns. With unused season pass days snatched away, they took to the backcountry to get their skiing fix. Out-of-bounds dabblers and novices joined the dedicated backcountry skiers and showed up at trailheads in droves.
With the influx of backcountry traffic came trailhead crowding and parking issues, skier-triggered avalanches, new strategies from avalanche centers, and more than a little outrage from those choosing to abstain from the backcountry.
In Colorado, cars lined the highways near easily accessible backcountry zones like Berthoud and Loveland Pass; the Colorado Department of Transportation had to block off roadside parking with snowbanks to mitigate the traffic and Colorado State Patrol was giving out tickets to those who parked illegally on the passes.
In Utah, the Utah Avalanche Center (UAC) reported 30 observations of human-triggered slides throughout the state from Friday, March 27 through Sunday, March 29.
The Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC) and UAC continued forecasting through the spring, while other centers, like the Northwest Avalanche Center (NWAC) and Avalanche Canada shut down operations so as not to promote backcountry recreation during the pandemic.
Nowhere was the surge in backcountry travel more apparent than at local gear shops, where touring rentals and products flew off the shelves.
“We sold out of our entire [climbing] skin inventory within the first two weeks of the quarantine,” says John Weir, retail manager at Bent Gate Mountaineering in Golden, Colorado. “It was a big rush initially when the resorts were closing, with people who hadn’t ever considered the idea of backcountry skiing before, and certainly wouldn’t ever get into the sport if there was a resort option.
Weir says that type of customer was concerning compared to their usual consumer base who has been backcountry skiing for a while with a better foundation of safety education and knowledge.
Weir’s wasn’t the only retail shop selling out of touring gear, as retailers across the West reported huge surges in alpine touring gear sales in the weeks following the resort closures. Hoback Sports, in Jackson, Wyoming, for example, sold out of its climbing skin inventory and most of its touring bindings as soon as Jackson Hole Mountain Resort closed down.
More people were heading into the backcountry, and based on the fact that they needed to purchase gear to do so, the majority of them didn’t possess any experience skiing away from resort boundaries.
As resorts began their annual season pass sales this, many acknowledged through deferral programs that the 2020-21 ski season is anything but guaranteed. This begs the question: If the pandemic causes an interruption in operations for resorts in 2020-21, will the backcountry once again become flooded with an increased number of skiers, many of them new or inexperienced?
“I anticipate next winter if the resorts are limited or closed, the backcountry being a zoo,” says Russell Hunter, owner and CEO of the Colorado Mountain School who implemented virtual learning when the pandemic shut down business in March.
Weir agrees, and foresees rentals and purchases of touring gear spiking again with skiers looking to get out if resorts can’t open. “It is going to continue to be a draw moving into next winter,” he says.
For some skiers, backcountry access caused them to hold off on purchasing a season pass under the assumption that if, come the fall, the resort outlook remains uncertain, they can always fall back on ski touring.
“I think I’m going to wait as long as possible to decide if I am getting a pass this season,” says Denver-based skier Caitlin Bell, who received her AIARE 1 certification during her first winter in the backcountry this past season.
“This upcoming season is very uncertain and I feel so fortunate that I can continue skiing in the backcountry. And if [the resorts] don’t open up at all, I can strongly say I’ll be skinning up whenever and wherever I can, safely, of course.”
Resorts have not released data on season pass sales, but regardless of pass purchasing, the fact remains that the backcountry community should anticipate an increase in its user base if resorts cannot operate under state-mandated guidelines.
The UAC is keeping this in mind when planning for next season. “We’re currently planning for several potential scenarios we’re likely to face next winter,” says program director Bo Torrey. “One of which is if ski areas are unable to operate we do expect to see an increase in backcountry usage and assume many of those new users have little or no avalanche education. That will mean more people in our already crowded backcountry areas.”
Increased traffic always induces groans from the backcountry community that skis away from the resort to find better quality snow in greater abundance and escape the crowds for solitude.
Blown-out skin tracks and over-harvesting of local zones could result in higher-risk tolerance from folks seeking out hidden honey holes.
“It’s a big unknown,” says Andrew Oesterreicher, a board member for Tahoe Nordic Search and Rescue. “The more comfortable people get the more they stray from the skin track or go over the next ridge, their intrigue in what lies beyond grows. I wouldn’t doubt that we see an increase in use that is a little bit more risk-tolerant especially if it’s the only option in town and the uptrack is blown out. It’s all speculative, though.”
Experienced backcountry travelers and locals should have enough beta to escape to their own gold mines and avoid others, but that doesn’t solve the problem of inexperienced users crossing new thresholds. Social distancing measures could put a wrinkle in avalanche education courses come this winter, leaving educators to ensure they can continue to teach beginners safe backcountry travel.
“In the field, for skiing, there’s a greater ability to maintain that distance; but for the classroom sessions, we’re used to having 24 people in a classroom,” says Hunter at the Colorado Mountain School. “It’s going to be impossible to maintain a six-foot distance at all times, we’re just recognizing that risk so we’re taking steps to manage that risk through personal protective equipment, masks, hand sanitizer, etc.”
Colorado Mountain College hopes they can utilize the web as a substitute for the classroom component of an AIARE course. The virtual courses could also alleviate issues with course capacities being exceeded due to increased demand.
“Using Zoom calls and self-paced learning online, we could almost handle all indoor teaching remotely, and then just meet our clients and be right in the mountains. So that’s our gameplay for adjusting for groups indoors,” says Hunter.
The UAC is also preparing to move its in-person education seminars online to ensure backcountry skiers still have a wide range of resources available to them. Even shops, like Bent Gate, are relying on education during sales of touring gear to aid new backcountry users.
“I would say 20 to 30 percent of customers come in and leave with a full setup to go touring with their buddies the next day without safety gear; they will not even consider that in their budget when they’re budgeting for this stuff,” says Weir.
To help direct novices toward better education, Bent Gate partners with organizations like Friends of Berthoud Pass, Colorado Mountain College, and Irwin Guides to make it easy to sign up for AIARE courses, and, “hammer home that education piece, it’s something we teach our sales staff, to ask those questions.”
Among the many unknowns the current pandemic presents to backcountry skiing is whether social distancing will deter from education, or if its financial impacts will prevent novices from making the necessary purchases.
In addition to the newly found COVID awareness we all possess, backcountry skiers will need to be hyper-aware in the backcountry next year, keeping an eye out for parties other than their own, and contributing to keep everyone safe.
“I encourage everyone to check in with the people you encounter on the skin track or the summit and share information with each other,” advises UAC program director Torrey. “If you suspect someone is inexperienced, remember that we were all beginners at one point so welcome them to the community and offer some guidance.”
This article originally appeared on Powder.com and was republished with permission.
For access to exclusive gear videos, celebrity interviews, and more, subscribe on YouTube!