Avalanche gear has been flying off the shelves the past 6 years. Probes, beacons, shovels, skins, touring bindings, backpacks, you name it, we’ll buy it. It’s great that skiers and riders are buying backcountry gear. It’s wonderful that people are looking for new ways to connect with the outdoors. It’s unforgivable that we aren’t educating these new backcountry users to the dangers of what avalanches can do in a backcountry setting.
Backcountry has been the fastest growing segment of the skiing industry for years now. It’s been a huge boost to ski-industry numbers and retailers are rejoicing. The problem is that we aren’t properly educating enough of these backcountry users to the dangers and realities of deadly avalanches.
“…there are around 650-thousand backcountry skiers; conservatively half a mil, maybe more.” – Craig Dosite/wildsnow.com
The truly frightening part is that as backcountry equipment sales rise so do avalanche deaths. This may not be a 1 to 1 direct ratio, but there’s no denying that backcountry gear sales are up, backcountry use is up, and avalanche deaths are up.
“Before 1980, it was unusual to have more than 10 avalanche deaths in the United States each winter. There were 34 last season [2011/12], including 20 skiers and snowboarders.” – John Branch/New York Times
We got the gear part right. Now, we need to get the education part right. Should avalanche gear not be available to anyone who can’t show proof of avalanche education? No, but we do need to create a system where people can get educated about avalanche terrain more easily.
Currently, there are no reliable numbers on how many people have received avalanche training in the USA. I called up my Avy 3 course instructor, Colin Zacharias, and asked him if he knew approximately how many people have avalanche education in North America:
“That’s a very difficult number to come up with for a few reasons. There are so many different organizations offering classes in North America on top of the fact that some people are getting their education on other continents.” – Colin Zacharias, instructor technical director of the American Institute for Avalanche Research & Education
We’d love to show you a graph displaying avalanche gear sales next to avalanche education classes taken, but it just doesn’t exist. Even without the graph, it’s reasonable to estimate that the sales far outpace the education. It’s easy to throw down your credit card and buy a piece of shiny new gear. It’s hard to make time for a 3 day avalanche course.
The real question is: What do we need to do to fix the problem? How can we get more skiers, snowboarders, climbers, snowmobilers, and snowshoers to take an avalanche course? The media has tried scaring us with stories of horrible, deadly avalanches and it’s not enough.
“What we’ve inadvertently done is sell all this great gear to people, which pumped them into the backcountry in never seen before numbers, with no avalanche education.” – Avalanche course instructor
We need a simple system that makes avalanche education accessible, straightforward, affordable, and frequent. The classes that already exist are fantastic, we just need to get people into them & in much larger numbers.
I understand that creating a system to educate backcountry users about the dangers of avalanches will be difficult. Until one is created, people are going to continue to die in backcountry avalanches in ever increasing numbers. I know that avalanche education doesn’t keep everyone out of avalanches every time, but having some education is a lot better than having none at all out there. We’ve got to figure out how to balance the strong avalanche gear sales with even stronger avalanche education numbers.