When ski lifts across Colorado stopped spinning in mid-March due to the pandemic, there was a rise in backcountry use among skiers and snowboarders. Officials think that trend is likely to continue this year, too.
“Given what we saw last spring, we are expecting more people in the backcountry than we’ve seen in previous years,” said Brian Lazar, an avalanche forecaster with the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.
That could mean busier trailheads, and a potential for more accidents. The Aspen area has already seen a handful of skier-triggered slides this month, and CAIC reported 34 human-triggered avalanches in the backcountry during a week span after the resorts closed last spring. Officials at the time said that was partially due to backcountry use generally increasing, but also because of more inexperienced people heading into terrain that’s unmitigated by ski patrol.
“In some ways we approach it like we would any other year so people make good decisions in the backcountry,” said Lazar. “For some of these new users that are out there, our mission is a little bit different in that we need to do some more outreach and make them aware that not only us, but other safety resources are available for them.”
Backcountry gear sales were already up pre-pandemic, but it’s been a busy fall for retailers around the Mountain West as uncertainty looms over what this year’s ski season will look like—especially with the recent surge in COVID-19 cases. Cripple Creek Backcountry owner Doug Stenclik says his shops in Carbondale and Aspen Highlands (the retailer also locations in Avon and Denver) have seen about “two to three times” as many customers this fall as years past.
“I’d say it’s about 50/50,” he said about the split between new and experienced backcountry users coming into the store. He adds that many of the newer users say they’re interested in uphill skiing on the resort this season, or accessing low angle terrain at nearby hiking areas. Many are also receptive to pursuing avalanche education.
“I actually have noticed an uptick in education and forward thinking by some of our customers even though some of them are newer,” he said. “You don’t ever have to go into avalanche terrain to enjoy the sport of ski touring, and a lot of these new people, that’s the wavelength they’re on.”
The Colorado Avalanche Information Center posts detailed regional avalanche and weather forecasts on its site every morning from Nov. 1 through May 31 for backcountry travelers. CAIC’s Lazar says visiting the organization’s website each morning is important for all backcountry users, and many local organizations offer avalanche safety courses to learn more.
“It’s important not to conflate skiing ability, for example, with avalanche and snow safety ability,” he said. “If you’re heading into the backcountry, not only do you need the forecast and you need the training, you need to carry the minimum amount of rescue gear—an avalanche transceiver, a shovel and a probe.”
Judging by the number of cars at local trailheads this summer, Stenclik thinks local areas outside the resorts will remain busy throughout the winter, too. Although, more experienced backcountry skiers are an important part of molding new terrain users.
“If you have some experience, it’s a good opportunity to mentor someone in a fun and friendly and informative way,” he said. “I would encourage people to kind of choose that route before getting negative about it, and they’ll have a lot more fun this winter.”
Much like the pandemic, only time will tell whether all backcountry skiers heed the precautions.