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Zero Tolerance

The key to avoiding backcountry fatalities may lie in hiring a guide. But not everyone is on board with that idea... yet.

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During the 2016-2017 winter season, there were zero reported avalanche deaths in the Utah backcountry. Zero. Zilch. Nada. Considering 900,000 skiers and 1.1 million snowboarders reported skiing or riding in North American backcountry areas last season—according to the Snowsports Industries America (SIA)—the fact that no one died in Utah as a result of an avalanche is certainly something to celebrate. But as more people, in particular Millennials, travel into uncontrolled terrain each season to find virgin snow and fuel their Instagram feeds, guides and avy forecasters are looking for ways to keep the fatality number at zero across more states.

Zero Tolerance Silverton store
What will it take to get more skiers to hire guides in the backcountry? Education, advocacy, and good ol’ trying it out for themselves.Photo Credit: Keri Bascetta

Avalanche education is a great place to start, and the next generation of backcountry skiers knows this. “Millennials,” notes Ian Havlick, a guide for Eleven Experience and a forecaster at the Crested Butte Avalanche Center, “are the overwhelming majority of participants in American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE) Certified Level 1 courses.” These classes are the first formal step to becoming an educated backcountry traveler, and participants learn basic protocols for avoiding avalanches. Contrary to what some students believe, however, this introductory course is a first step down a long path of learning about backcountry hazards and avalanche avoidance, and is certainly not meant to be the end-all, be-all of becoming an experienced backcountry traveler.

“Many skiers, especially Millennials, believe they know everything after they take their AIARE Level 1 course,” says Michael Wachs, an aspirant American Mountain Guide Association (AMGA) Ski Guide who has worked for Jackson Hole Mountain Guides for over four seasons. Wachs calls this sophomoric mentality “competently incompetent.” “If I never see my students after that first course,” echoes Jayson Simons-Jones, director of expeditions at Colorado Mountain School in Boulder, “I sometimes wonder if I gave them a loaded gun without enough knowledge to safely use it.”

To further complicate the picture, Millennials tend to be addicted to technology, which isn’t necessarily beneficial in the backcountry. “Millennials, with their reliance on their phones, tend to be quite comfortable going through life with their heads down looking at a screen while walking down the street, driving, or while doing any number of multitasks,” says Aaron Brill, Lead Guide and founder of Silverton Mountain in Colorado and Silverton Mountain Guides Alaska. This addiction to screen-time “predisposes younger people to a significant disadvantage in a backcountry environment where observational assessments are critical to success.”

One way to keep the avalanche-death number trending toward zero—beyond Level 1 courses and phone apps—is to hire a guide with developed backcountry experience and professional certifications. “The AIARE courses are great for introducing class participants to the basic knowledge, but they don’t provide the in-depth experience that creates better judgment capabilities. Those can be developed over time by working with guides,” says Wachs.

American backcountry users have been somewhat predisposed to what Brill calls a “prevalent attitude that hiring a guide somehow makes them lesser skiers.” But Brill has noticed that Millennials are not as bashful about hiring a guide compared with previous generations. As American guides become more professional and reliant upon guiding to make a living, it’s becoming more apparent to the younger generation that ski guides want to ski good snow and come home safely at the end of the day, just like their clients. “The best way for this negative attitude toward guides to change is for more people to hire one to experience the difference,” says Havlick.

The stigma of hiring a guide has dwindled, but the high cost is still keeping some skiers from seeking out the experience themselves, according to Wachs. “It’s hard to see the benefit of hiring a guide until you try it,” he says. “You don’t need to do it every time, but if you have an important trip, or conditions create a level of uncertainty, the least you can do is call a guide for a consultation.” Some guiding services are already starting to offer informal consultation, including the Crested Butte Avalanche Center and Jackson Hole Mountain Guides.

Simons-Jones hopes that connections with guides built during avalanche-education courses will lead to stronger long-term relationships. “By giving a client something to apply outside of a guided environment, it gives faith that they’ll come back when they’re ready for the next big objective,” he says. And as long as everyone keeps coming back from their objectives like they did in Utah last season, that can be considered a job well done.