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This Winter Broke Backcountry Records, And Not In A Good Way

When the Covid-19 pandemic shut down ski resorts in March 2020, skiers were left with two options: either hang up the skis or find a different way to access the snow. With over two months of viable ski season left across the western United States, skiers flocked to backcountry access points in ravenous hordes.

In a three-day period between March 27 and 30, 2020, the Utah Avalanche Center reported 30 human-triggered avalanches throughout the state. The Colorado Department of Transportation blocked off roadside parking with snowbanks to mitigate traffic and the State Patrol gave out tickets to illegally parked cars. Those without adequate equipment cleaned out local shops in search of beacons, shovels, probes, and touring gear. Skiers were taking to the backcountry to salvage their seasons in the same way those in quarantine were stocking up on toilet paper at Costco.

“To reflect on last spring, it was the barometer to how the winter was going to be as far as interest and density was concerned,” says Craig Gordon, forecaster for the Utah Avalanche Center. “You could see the writing on the wall last March and April.”

Numbers of skiers and boarders getting into backcountry terrain grew substantially this season. Photo: Re Wikstrom

The rug was pulled out from underneath people, in a sense. Winter was trucking along with ample snowfall and skiers weren’t ready to give that up prematurely, leading to enormous saturation in the backcountry and at the select ski resorts that allowed uphill skiing despite lift closures.

As spring gave way to summer and then fall, speculation swirled about what the 2020-’21 ski season would look like. Resorts were offering season pass assurance in the event that COVID restrictions forced them to halt the lifts. Backcountry equipment was continuing to fly off the shelves, begging the question of whether an influx of inexperienced backcountry travelers would be added to the mix. And with more skiers entering the backcountry arena came anxiety overcrowding at trailheads, on the skin tracks, and on the mountaintops. Uncertainty became the chosen noun used to describe the state of the world and skiing was no different.

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