Virus Outbreak Backcountry Skiing

Cameron French, from White Pine Touring, wears an Ascent 40 AVABAG avalanche backpack on Dec. 18, in Park City, Utah.

DENVER — On March 14, Colorado’s governor issued an executive order shutting down ski resorts across the state. The Coronavirus had arrived and was spreading rapidly in small mountain communities that were attracting hordes of spring break revelers. 

The next day, with chairlifts and gondolas hanging idly overhead, a large group converged on Aspen Mountain, passed a closure sign and “skinned” up the slopes under their own power to get in a few hard-earned turns. 

In the following weeks, skiers and snowboarders with nowhere else to go were increasingly lured by the untouched powder of the backcountry. In the nine weeks after resorts closed, 32 people were caught in avalanches, including two who were killed, according to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. During the previous four months, 65 people were swept up in slides.

Now, with another ski season getting underway, avalanche forecasters and search-and-rescue groups are concerned that large numbers of skiers and snowboarders will again turn to the backcountry to avoid crowds and reservation systems at resorts.

“Pretty much everybody’s worried about that,” said Ethan Greene, director of the avalanche center, which has already recorded four backcountry skier deaths in Colorado this winter. “A lot of that is because of what we saw in the spring and then definitely what search-and-rescue saw over the summer, which was a dramatic increase in search-and-rescue calls.”

The situation was similar in neighboring Utah, where avalanche forecasters recorded more than 100 human-triggered slides across the state from mid-March through the end of April, including 50 during one 48-hour period, according to Nikki Champion with the Utah Avalanche Center.

“(Backcountry) users increased tenfold during April and COVID in general. ... We’ve had a lot of new users traveling with techniques that kind of suggested that they haven’t spent a lot of time in the backcountry,” Champion said during a virtual forum in October that was organized by the trade association Snowsports Industries America.

In August and September, sales of alpine touring equipment — including bindings, boots and skis — and backcountry accessories such as avalanche shovels, beacons, probes and skins increased 46% compared to the same period in 2019, according to Snowsports Industries America and The NDP Group, a large market research company.

Sales of backcountry split boards — snowboards that separate into halves resembling skis and can be equipped with climbing skins — increased 191%, and snowshoe sales were up 221%, according to the study. A similar increase was seen in Nordic equipment, which includes cross-country skis, boots, bindings and poles. 

“We’ve definitely seen an uptick in backcountry gear and that includes everything — beacons, shovels, probes, airbag systems,” said Christopher Poepping, who works at White Pine Touring in Park City, Utah.

He said the outdoor retailer quickly sold out of its remaining backcountry gear when resorts closed last spring. That spike has continued into the fall and winter months, and the shop has at least doubled what it normally sells this time of year. 

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