Avalanche rescue teams brace for intense winter, as backcountry gear sales skyrocket and uncertainty looms over resorts

Avalanche rescue teams brace for intense winter, as backcountry gear sales skyrocket and uncertainty looms over resorts

"We are trying to prepare for the worst and hope for the best."

VicesSeptember 28, 2020 By Will Brendza

The 2019/20 ski season came to a jarring and altogether unexpected halt last year, when COVID-19 hit the scene and the mountains shut down wholesale. The best skiing months were effectively ripped away, leaving powder junkies and snow fiends jonesing for more, shaking, trembling, yearning — going through all the horrible steps of withdrawal.

It was traumatizing. And for anyone who didn’t have backcountry gear/knowledge, it was very much the end of the ski season.

However, for those lucky souls who did, there was plenty of touring still to do. They had backcountry setups and the wide world of Colorado’s Rocky Mountains to explore — no need for a lift, or access to curated mountains like Vail, or Aspen.

Well, that grim situation inspired a lot of folks to break into the backcountry on their own. Since March, online sales for backcountry equipment have been up five times their normal rate. Boulder-based Scarpa North America has seen a record-setting surge in both individuals and retailers ordering equipment this year. Cripple Creek Backcountry out of Carbondale jumped to open two new stores in Aspen and Avon, far earlier than planned, to meet the rush. In March internet demand for skins (when the resorts closed) climbed 156%.

For good or ill backcountry skiing is about to go mainstream, largely because of COVID-19 and the shadow of uncertainty it’s cast over ski resorts. People are tired of being beholden to greedy corporations to get their skiing fix. However, not everyone who is buying equipment is also investing in the necessary avalanche training to accompany it. Which has many search and rescue teams on edge and expecting a very busy year…

“We are hearing about the number of people purchasing backcountry gear and, while having that gear is essential, I’m concerned that people are going to say, ‘Well, I have the gear, I’m safe,’ but they haven’t practiced with their beacon or used their probe or practiced strategic shoveling techniques,” Jeff Sparhawk, president of the Colorado Search and Rescue Association told the Colorado Sun in an interview. “We are dealing with an unprecedented situation, so we are making projections and trying to prepare for the worst and hope for the best.”

Last year, in late March and into April (notably right after resorts closed and at peak avalanche danger) search and rescue teams saw unparalleled traffic at backcountry spots like Loveland Pass, Vail Pass and Berthoud Pass. The parking lots were at capacity and the trails were crowded, making search and rescue operations even more challenging than they already are.

And making avalanches potentially far more dangerous to far more people.

That’s why avalanche education groups are working on overdrive right now. They’re doing everything they can to reach as many people as possible, to spread the good word of knowledge to those who need to hear it most. Both the Colorado Avalanche Information Center and the Utah Avalanche Information Center are offering a library of online resources for building knowledge and awareness of avalanche hazards and strategies to stay safe. It’s part of their national “Know Before You Go” campaign (which is currently restricted to live virtual education programs for groups over 25, but offers both on-demand and e-learning versions of their presentation).

The CAIC is also currently circulating a “Pledge to Check the Forecast” on social media, to encourage any and every backcountry skier or boarder to check the statewide avalanche and weather forecasts on their website before hitting the slopes — they also have a "Watches and Warnings" page that they keep updated throughout the winter. All of these are extremely accessible tools to avoid potentially lethal backcountry accidents (and to save search and rescue resources for other accidents they’ll undoubtedly be juggling).

“We just want to provide as many hooks as we can to get people in the habit of checking the forecast,” Ethan Greene, the executive director of CAIC, said in an interview. “We are trying to broaden the message so we can capture the most people. We want people to have good information so they make good decisions.”

Other non-profits like the Friends of Berthoud Pass offer free avalanche training courses and on-snow sessions for backcountry skiers, both new and experienced who want a little more knowledge under their belt before taking to the slopes.

But nothing beats a legit American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE) avalanche training course. These certifications usually run anywhere from $500-1000 — depending on the provider — and take several days to complete. It’s a commitment (particularly on top of all that backcountry gear), but one that is worth every penny and minute of your time. There is no substitute for an AIARE1 course. If backcountry skiing is something you’re planning on taking on, this course is highly encouraged — here is a list of all the upcoming AIARE1 courses in the US.  

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

Which would almost certainly cause a cascading effect, like a trigger that would (quite literally) avalanche into the backcountry and could cost people their lives.

Regardless, even if the resorts stay open all season, without hiccups or closures, the backcountry is going to see a lot more traffic. Both avalanche information groups and search and rescue organizations seem to believe that’s true. They’re gearing up for a busy winter — the bare minimum any backcountry accessor can do, is arm themselves with the proper equipment and sufficient training.

It’s going to be a strange winter, no matter what. Let's try and make sure it isn’t also a high mortality one.