Our View: Know before you go
The popularity of backcountry skiing is on the rise, and with the announcement Monday that Steamboat Resort is limiting uphill access this season due to COVID-19 safety concerns, we can only expect the harder-to-access terrain in more remote areas of the county will become even busier this winter. That means Routt County Search and Rescue and public land managers are preparing for record numbers of people in the backcountry, and we are encouraging those venturing out to be smart and be prepared to help ease the pressure.
As proof of the backcountry’s increased popularity, look at the amount of money people are spending on equipment. During the 2019-20 ski season, sales of alpine touring equipment increased 15% on top of rapid growth in previous years. But once Colorado’s ski resorts closed early last spring, retailers, including our local ski shops, reported another brisk uptick in sales.
In a Colorado Sun article on the spike in backcountry gear sales published this fall, it was reported that the sale of backcountry accessories, including avalanche beacons and probe poles, jumped 53% in dollar sales compared to March 2019, and internet sales of skins rose 156%, according to Julia Clark Day with retail-tracking firm NPD Group. And it is anticipated that this trend will only continue.
As more people venture into the backcountry, more pressure is placed on public lands. Even before COVID-19 hit, popular areas, such as Rabbit Ears Pass and Buffalo Pass, were overflowing with users, and parking was an issue. Now, it is common to see people parked on the side of the highway or roads outside of designated parking areas, which creates safety hazards for drivers and plow operators and can make it harder for emergency responders to stage rescues.
As part of our plea for smart backcountry behavior, we ask people to park responsibly in designated areas, and if trailhead parking lots are full, it’s best to leave and find another place to play.
Ski areas, such as Steamboat Resort and Howelsen Hill Ski Area, provide great terrain to allow new backcountry skiers to learn the sport on more accessible slopes. With access more limited this season, that means those with less experience will most likely be venturing out to explore more difficult, remote terrain. This presents a serious safety risk because every time anyone travels into the backcountry, they need to realize that avalanches are a real risk.
At issue: Backcountry skiing is becoming more and more popular and is expected to put a strain on public lands and search and rescue teams.
Our View: No matter your level of expertise, be smart, be responsible and be prepared, especially for avalanches, when you venture into the backcountry.
• Logan Molen, publisher
• Lisa Schlichtman, editor
• Kevin Fisher, community representative
• George Danellis, community representative
Contact the Editorial Board at 970-871-4221 or lschlichtman@SteamboatPilot.com.
For those beginners in the backcountry, we suggest they hire a guide or go with someone who has experience. We also advise people to take advantage of avalanche education and learn about the risks before venturing out to snowy trails. Classes are offered through Colorado Mountain College Steamboat Springs, and we also know the Bluebird Backcountry operation south of Rabbit Ears Pass offers classes and also could be a good place for a beginner to learn the ropes.
The Colorado Avalanche Information Center offers a wealth of lifesaving information on its website at avalanche.state.co.us. Here you can access daily regional forecasts along with educational programs, including the Know Before You Go educational campaign that promotes the basics — get the gear; get the training; get the forecast; get the picture; and get out of harm’s way.
This fall, The Friends of CAIC, an organization that supports the center, introduced “The Forecast Pledge,” which urges skiers, boarders and snowmobilers of all experience levels to formally promise to check the center’s daily avalanche risk forecasts before heading out for a day in the backcountry. This pledge can be taken at support.friendsofcaic.org/pages/forecast-pledge.
And knowing that avalanche risk exists, anyone who plans to spend time in the backcountry should have some avalanche training and pack avalanche gear, including a beacon, shovel and probe.
Another group that will be impacted by the surge in the number of backcountry users is search and rescue. All across the state, these organizations are getting ready to respond to more calls, which will put a huge strain on these mostly all-volunteer organizations in a state that leads the country in the number of avalanche deaths.
As part of the uphill access policy changes at the ski area, people will now have to purchase a $20 season pass to access the mountain at times outside of normal operating hours, and half of that revenue will be donated to Routt County Search and Rescue.
The funding will help, but we also are encouraging people to consider donating to the nonprofit on Yampa Valley Gives Day. These volunteers routinely risk their lives to respond to people who find themselves lost or injured in the backcountry, and now is the time to support them. Donating is as easy as clicking on this link — coloradogives.org/yampavalleygives/routtcountysearchandrescue/overview.
Lastly, even if all backcountry enthusiasts commit to winter safety and education — and we are fortunate enough to have a well-funded local search and rescue organization — our forest access will still be subject to disorganization and improper use if the U.S. Forest Service does not dedicate the resources to properly staff and maintain their parking lots and trailheads. This summer we saw visitor traffic at some of the most popular locales increase greatly. Let’s not allow the same problems this increased use caused this summer to persist through the winter.
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I would like to express my gratitude and appreciation for assistance the Howelsen Hill staff has received from Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp. in recent weeks.