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Experienced Backcountry Skiers Most Likely to Be Involved in Avalanches, Study Finds

The pandemic is drawing more and more skiers into the backcountry, but novice users aren't the only ones at risk.

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Early one January morning, in one of the oversized ballrooms tucked deep in the belly of the Colorado Convention Center, no one seems to be paying much attention to an industry seminar. The air in the standing-room-only space is languid and warm, and the majority of eyes watching the deck are half-open at best.

The presentation, covering the previous seasons’ increase and decrease in sales of skis, apparel, and other alpine gear according to the Snowsports Industries of America, seems flat. Sort of like the growth in sales of these same products.

But, on what could have been the tenth or perhaps the one-hundredth slide, a statistic pops up that snaps the room’s trance. Pens click, notebooks flip to a fresh page, and many raise their phones to snap a photo. Sales of backcountry skiing equipment, including skis, boots, transceivers, skins, and the like, had increased by 40 percent from August 2017 to March 2018 compared to the previous year. It’s the biggest growth number presented that day.

illustration of PPE skiers
There are a lot of ways for backcountry skiers to become a statistic right now. Don’t be that person. Photo: Michael Byers/Levy Creative Management

Since March of 2018, the momentum of backcountry equipment sales have not slowed down. And when ski resorts shuttered due to the pandemic in March 2020, skiers cleaned out shops of any leftover tech bindings and touring skins.

Now, with continued uncertainty around this ski season, more and more people have taken to uphill skiing with the enthusiasm of a ski school class finding a big bag of Skittles in the lifeline.

“There will be more people, and more people with less experience,” says Adrian Ballinger, an International Federation of Mountain Guide Association (IFMGA) certified guide and founder of Alpenglow Expeditions in California. And with more people, “we’re going to see a dramatic increase in accidents,” he says.

Social media backs this up. At press time, questions on Facebook from backcountry newbies pondering buying an airbag instead of a beacon have gone viral.

Instagram stories show skin track conga-lines forming in Wasatch terrain traps. YouTube portrays skiers awkwardly waddling their way up skin tracks with skins on, heels locked in, and no backpack or partner insight.

Our comparison of pre-and post-COVID periods suggests we may not see an increase in avalanche accidents driven solely by a flood of new users.

Luckily, as Ballinger notes, not everyone is recklessly heading out into the backcountry without some level of safety. His company nearly doubled the capacity of its AIARE Level 1 courses for this season, and more people than ever before are signing up. It is a trend seen at other avalanche schools as well.

“Normally, in November, we’d have 20 to 50 people signed up this far in advance of a course,” he says. “But we’re already at 70- percent capacity for the entire education season.” Requests for Alpenglow Expeditions’ local guiding services in the Tahoe area have increased significantly since March as well.

This rise in avalanche education is a great thing, unless it becomes sophomoric confidence in practice. A report written by Ethan Greene and Spencer Logan from the Colorado Avalanche Information Center found that the majority of avalanche accidents reported in the state over the 2019-2020 season were more likely to have involved backcountry users with more experience and more avalanche education compared to beginners.

“Nearly 40 percent of the people caught in an avalanche, or in a group with someone caught in an avalanche, had taken a Level 1 avalanche class,” states the study, referring to all of the accidents for which they had data over the entire 2019-2020 season. “According to our Inferred Avalanche Experience Level [scale], about 70 percent had intermediate or advanced avalanche experience.”

The number of those involved with avalanches skewed even more heavily towards experienced users after March 13, 2020, when the Governor of Colorado mandated that ski areas stop lifts indefinitely due to the pandemic. In other words, both before and during the pandemic, first-time backcountry skiers may not be the most dangerous problem. “Our comparison of pre- and post-COVID periods suggests we may not see an increase in avalanche accidents driven solely by a flood of new users,” concludes the report. “Clearly the conditions that lead to an increase in avalanche accidents involve the interaction of multiple factors: more people in avalanche terrain, more use in easily accessible areas, more people moving into new areas looking for solitude or fresh snow, changes in the distribution of education and experience, and a myriad of other factors.”

As trailheads become more crowded and it becomes impossible to find the popular Salomon SHIFT touring binding at local ski shops, it is the responsibility of every user to practice humility and remain extra cautious to prevent accidents, conflicts, and trailhead closures. “The biggest thing is going to be the human factor,” says Todd Walton, President of the Winter Wildlands Alliance (WWA), an organization that works with the National Forest Service to designate backcountry use in a way that respects the land and environment. “We’re all in this together,” he says.

Walton and the WWA have dealt with conflicts in the backcountry for years. The group works with the Forest Service to create boundaries for motorized oversnow vehicle users. These boundaries are often created to protect specific plants and animals in snowy environs, and they usually lead to volunteers and WWA ambassadors attempting to convince people riding 400-pound machines that they can’t just brap in any old place.

“We’re not anti-snowmobile,” Walton notes, with the solid tone of a father explaining why rules exist to his rebellious teenage children. “We’re just finding the best way to use and respect the land and environment.”

In preparation for the increased potential of accidents and conflicts among backcountry users during a COVID winter, the WWA created a winter version of the #RecreateResponsibly campaign, based on a similar summer edition penned by the Outdoor Alliance. “There are seven simple things to think about,” says Walton. “And a common thread throughout: Just don’t be a jackass.”

While all of the seven points of the Recreate Responsibly movement are important, there is one that all backcountry users need to keep at the forefront of their minds this season and beyond, regardless of their ability level: Play it Safe. “Know your limits and your gear,” reads the tenet. “Slow down and choose lower-risk activities to reduce your risk of injury.”

“Just because you have the gear doesn’t mean you know how to use it correctly,” says Walton. “And just because you’ve done it before doesn’t mean you’ve done it correctly,” referring to backcountry skiing and avalanche avoidance. It’s clear that Greene and Logan’s report backs this up.

“We all have to have humility,” echoes Ballinger. “And we all have to be a little less selfish.” Ballinger encourages all backcountry users to be especially mindful of pandemic-related risks and avalanche danger—consider the ICU bed availability at nearby hospitals in addition to the local avalanche forecast, for example—before heading into the backcountry.

“You have a right to challenge your limits and risk your life,” he says. “But there is a bigger picture of the societal benefits of getting more people outdoors,” especially during a global pandemic. “Know what the risks are, and encourage others to do the same.”

This article was originally published in the January/February 2021 issue of SKI Magazine with the headline “Tracked Out.”

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