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

Backcountry skiers faced the most challenging season in recent memory, including a record-tying number of people killed in avalanches.

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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.

What actually transpired over the course of the 2020-’21 backcountry ski season was a complicated recipe: an unprecedented global pandemic shifted human behavior and coincided with extraordinary avalanche conditions, resulting in a dangerous storm.

Overcrowded Trailheads and Virtual Classrooms

"Beacon check at Alta Lake, Colo."
A group performs a beacon check at Alta Lake, Colo. Photo: Keri Bascetta

Overcrowding was one prediction that did come to fruition. The skiers showed up in droves to the trailheads, yes, but so did anyone looking to escape their domestic prisons and play in the snow.

“People were trying to get out of the city with their kids who are bouncing off the walls and they want to go throw snowballs or go sledding,” says Scott Schell, executive director of the Northwest Avalanche Center. “Snoqualmie Pass is obviously the closest to Seattle. There’s a highway interchange there. And on weekends those interchanges were filling up with people parking on the freeway and sledding onto the interchange.”

Russell Hunter, owner and CEO of Colorado Mountain School, saw it, too, as parking lots in Rocky Mountain National Park, where the school holds the majority of its avalanche classes, filled up earlier than ever before.

“In Rocky Mountain National Park the parking lots were filled earlier than usual, on weekends, especially with the low snow, it was definitely tricky to kind of spread out from the public recreational skiers,” says Hunter.

Rocky Mountain National Park, while still about an hour-and-a-half drive from the closest large communities of Boulder and Fort Collins, is still a hugely popular backcountry access point. Similar areas that offered quick access to backcountry terrain—highway passes and resort backcountry gates, for example—saw large numbers of skiers, especially on the weekends.

“We definitely saw some craziness on the weekends. We saw a lot more use for backcountry skiers in the Alpental Valley, outside of Crystal Mountain, and in the Mount Baker backcountry. There was a lot of sidecountry use.”

The natural assumption for novice backcountry skiers would be they would congregate at these easy-to-access zones with ample snow. On the surface, this assumption was a good one. The other expectation was that these presumably uneducated and underprepared skiers would get into trouble in unmitigated terrain. For the most part, however, the opposite occurred. Education was top of mind for skiers in the 2020-’21 season. Colorado Mountain School, for example, saw a huge uptick in sign-ups for its avalanche education classes, a demand it was able to meet during a time of social distancing.

Check it out: This Intuitive Avalanche Tranciever Could Save Your Life

“We educated 60-percent more students than we did last year. And so it was a record year for us,” says Hunter. “It’s interesting to speculate as to what was the cause of that demand. Was it just the upward curve that we’ve been seeing from backcountry use? Or was it Covid restrictions at ski areas? I feel like it was both.”

A Complex Snowpack

"Mellow backcountry terrain right outside the Observatory at Alta Lakes."
Jon Jay skiing in the backcountry near Telluride, Colo. Photo: Keri Bascetta

In terms of avalanche accidents, it was experienced and knowledgeable backcountry travelers that were often at the center of a winter that’s tied for having the most avalanche fatalities on record. It’s impossible to clearly define all of the circumstances tied to avalanche incidents, but a unique combination of cabin fever from the pandemic and low early season snowfall across the west may have contributed to these accidents.

“We had this level of impatience. You could see that in the spring and carry over into the fall,” says Gordon. “Here, we had early season snow in November, and it looked like it was going to be a nice, robust winter… and then by the middle of the month, everything shut off.”

The demand for backcountry tracks arrived with high pressure parked over Utah, which steadily weakened the base of the snowpack. Gordon and the Utah Avalanche Center were well aware that when the snow did return, it would create dangerous conditions.

“When we have a storm track that starts off in a robust fashion, but then quickly shifts, we know it’s only a matter of time before the snowpack weakens,” says Gordon. “We also know it’s only a matter of time before it does start getting stormy again. And once it does, we’re gonna see the setup for dangerous avalanche conditions.”

The 2020-’21 winter proved to be a uniquely challenging year for backcountry travelers tasked with assessing avalanche danger as dangerous avalanche conditions turned out to be an understatement. Widespread dry weather followed the early season snowfall, significantly weakening the foundation of the snowpack in many parts across the west. Places like Colorado and Utah were the most affected.

From February 1 through February 15, 15 people died in avalanches in the United States, the highest number of avalanche deaths in a seven-day period since the National Avalanche Center began tracking fatalities.

On February 12, the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC) released a video detailing the state’s exceptionally weak snowpack, stating that they hadn’t seen conditions that bad since 2012. The next day, a massive storm dropped 100 inches of snow on Utah’s Little Cottonwood Canyon over five days, causing avalanche danger to rise to “extreme” on all aspects at all elevations on February 17.

Then, on February 21, the Pacific Northwest joined in when the avalanche danger was elevated to extreme in Washington’s Stevens Pass and East-Central zones.

“You could have 10 or 15 years of backcountry experience, but the snowpack structure that was presented in different zones across the western U.S. was such that it might be layered in a structure that you only see once in every 20 years,” says Gordon. “And so if you take the complexity of snowpack structure, even if you’ve got a decade of experience, you might be used to seeing one type of avalanche dragon. But given the parameters that came together with this year’s snow structure, it produces a different outcome. And I think that’s where the wheels really came off the bus this year.”

A lot of the “safe zones” that experienced backcountry skiers relied on during times of high avalanche danger were no longer failsafe areas to recreate. General rules of thumb that may have led to safe powder skiing in years past no longer applied within the parameters of this year’s complex snow structures. On top of that, scarcity factored into decision-making. With the exception of the Pacific Northwest, below-average snowfall plagued the western United States. The search for fresh snow coupled with the increased crowds at popularity backcountry zones may have contributed to skiers pushing the boundaries of where they traveled, despite the unique avalanche conditions.

Related: Stop Screaming in the Backcountry and Get these Radios

“We had all of our sights set on lower and intro or mid-level backcountry travelers. And what it turned out to be actually was people who had a fair level of experience [traveling] in avalanche terrain. They probably got pushed out of their safe zones due to saturation and density,” says Gordon. “And that’s generally what you do see on low snow years. There’s limited terrain to go to and it pushes people into a narrow scope of terrain available that isn’t always the safest option.”

In places like Washington, where snowfall was above average this season, there was less evidence of skiers pushing the boundaries into areas they may not have considered in different years. Scott Schell notes that the team at the Northwest Avalanche Center assumed they would see a lot more of that this season.

“Thinking back to the summer and fall planning, we were really assuming that we might see the historical boundary of where the average person goes getting bumped out,” says Schell. “And I don’t know that it happened. It may have happened on certain days in certain areas where maybe more people pushed out further beyond where they normally toured, but if that was the case, it wasn’t a huge growth in numbers.”

While Washington wasn’t immune from dangerous avalanche conditions, the state managed to make it through the forecasting season with only a single fatality—a motorized snowbiker on February 8. States further inland in intermountain and continental climates were far less fortunate. Utah saw six avalanche deaths (four of which occurred in a single accident) while Colorado had 12 fatalities, the most in that state since 1993, according to the CAIC.

Read More: Historic Avalanche Kills Four in Utah’s Backcountry

The circumstances surrounding a notably tragic backcountry season are mostly speculative. Anecdotal evidence reveals a surge of people accessing the backcountry, due in part to uncertainty over resort operations and the desire to get out in the wilderness after many months cooped up due to the pandemic.

The Human Element

What is clear is that 2020-’21 presented some of the most challenging avalanche conditions in recent memory. The tricky and dangerous snowpack structures caught even the most experienced skiers off-guard. It forced avalanche forecasters in particular to factor in the human element more than ever, and tailor their messaging to coincide with stressed human behavior amidst increasingly dangerous snow conditions.

With the growth of backcountry skiing showing no signs of slowing down, it could be wrapped into messaging across the backcountry community moving forward.

“This year COVID forced us out of the lane of merely looking at the snow. We had to message the snowpack along with the human element to remind people that this is not a typical year, you are not operating at 100 percent of your capacity to make sound decisions,” says Schell. “We really worked on the messaging piece around how with COVID there’s an intersection to what you’re experiencing in your life with stresses and impacts, and how you should think of that, along with the snowpack, on this particular weekend or this date. That was a tone that we really were very intentional in trying to communicate. As time goes on, we’ll take a look at some of the things that worked this year and what did not.”

Related: Radios in the Backcountry Can Help With a lot more than Just Getting the Shot

Remembering Those Who Died In Avalanches This Past Season

As of April 23, 2021, 36 people died in avalanches in the USA during the 2020-’21 winter season, tying the highest amount of deaths caused by avalanches in a single season. This number equals the same amount of fatalities in the 2007-’08 and 2009-’10 seasons. Of those 36 deaths, 17 were skiers and five were snowboarders. Their names are listed below in remembrance.

Our deepest condolences to the friends, families, and communities.

SKI has made every effort to verify the names and ages of those who died in avalanches and apologizes for any unintended mistakes. Corrections can be submitted to editor@skimag.com. You can find the full list of avalanche deaths, including motorized travel and climbers, on the avalanche.org website.