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Backcountry Growth Accentuates Risks, Rewards

Ski Area Boundary

There’s little doubt that there are more people skiing and riding beyond the traditional boundaries of mountain resorts.An unfortunate yet unfailing offshoot of this activity is the heightened risk of injury or fatality -- due to avalanche force.


One of the fastest-growing winter sports sector comes with thanks to those who succumb to the siren song of backcountry powder. Whether sliding through a control gate or hiking deeper into the National Forest, more and more people are making turns in unpatrolled areas – especially in the Mountain West.


A recent report by SnowSports Industries Association indicated more than 5 percent of skiers and riders put themselves in the “backcountry” category; that figure is rising, reports say, given the ease of access across boundaries and the sales of off-piste equipment in recent times.


So far this winter, two people have died in out-of-bounds avalanches, and one from a slide in a closed, inbounds area. That’s about normal, in terms of numbers.


“By going into the back country, you naturally put yourself in harm’s way,” Scott Toepfer, an avalanche forecaster for Colorado Avalanche Information Center, tells SnoCountry.com. “With more people in avalanche country, there’s going to be more triggers.”


3,000 Avalanches A Year


The Colorado center gets reports of 2,500-3,000 avalanches in an average year. Many more, Toepfer says, occur without human witnesses. Colorado leads the nation in avalanche fatalities – 250 since 1950-51 – due in part to relative ease of access to backcountry terrain.


It is rare that an intermediate or advanced groomer-lover gets caught. Of the three fatalities as of Jan. 1, 2013, two were experienced ski patrollers. The deadly 2011 slide behind Stevens Pass Ski Area killed three from a group former Powder magazine editor Keith Carlson described in The New York Times as, “a very, very deep, heavy, powerful strong group of pro skiers and ski industry people.”


The significant uptrend in sales of backcountry equipment and apparel reported by retailers -- combined with the intuition of observers over time -- points to a growth sector.


5,000 On Any Given Utah Day


On any given day, the Utah Avalanche Center estimates that some 5,000 people are in the Wasatch National Forest back country and beyond ski area boundaries. Often, that’s as many as a weekend crowd at Snowbird, Alta, Solitude and Brighton combined, the center says. More and more people click onto the center’s website to check before they go out.


Observers say the sport’s growth took off when major resorts opened up their ski area boundaries. Jackson Hole Mountain Resort did so in 2000; others followed quickly. Some, like Snowbasin, had had open boundaries all along


“Regardless of where you are, when you step beyond that (boundary) line, you are on your own,” says Frank Waikart, head of snow safety at Snowbasin. 


Most resorts sit on national forest land where unfettered public access is a matter of policy.


"Sidecountry" Is Backcountry


A new term, “sidecountry,” refers to those who seek out the freshies just beyond a ski area’s boundaries, as opposed to those who hike farther off the beaten track. However, the National Ski Areas Association carried a strong editorial in its January 2013 edition arguing there is no such thing as "side country" (see SnoCountry.com story) and that "backcountry is backcountry."


Instruction on safety and avalanche awareness is easily found. Colorado and Utah forecasters teach at elementary schools. The American Avalanche Association runs online and in-person workshops, and the Sierra Avalanche Center holds classes at resorts, colleges and community centers throughout the region. Avalanche.org serves as a clearinghouse.


“It seems like people are more savvy about avalanches,” says Waikart. “They’ve taken an avalanche course online, and they check the avalanche forecasts regularly.”


At resorts, signs at ski area boundaries warn of backcountry dangers, and strongly suggest safety equipment and safeguards, like going with a partner. R&D has produced more innovations, like the split snowboard. Sales of safety devices, like the float air bag, also have risen.


Waikart attributes some of the increase to a growing “adventurous spirit” among skiers and snowboarders: “They want to get away from the crowds, make some fresh turns and try out that equipment,” he says. 


But, in the end, Toepfer says, staying alive in avalanche country with our fellow humans isn’t a precise science: “With different weather and terrain, it would be easier to track. But throw in human behavior – from people’s expectations, skill sets, competition with other groups – and you’ve tossed a real curveball into the equation.”


Photo: Southeast Ski Areas Association




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