The Backcountry Will be More Crowded Than Ever This Winter | Get Educated Now

Martin Kuprianowicz | BackcountryBackcountry
This photo shows Loveland Pass in Colorado packed with backcountry recreationists. Scenes like this may be increasingly prevalent this season as people exile from ski resorts to the backcountry. | Photo courtesy SNEWS

So coronavirus made you a backcountry skier? Guess what: you’re not the only one.

This winter will almost undoubtedly be the busiest winter the backcountry has ever seen. Unless a meteor comes before 2020 is over or Yellowstone erupts and wipes us all out, which you can’t say you’d be that surprised about.

SnowBrains interviewed backcountry professionals over the phone on what to expect this season when it comes to recreating in the backcountry, and they all agreed on one thing: the backcountry will be busier than ever.

Thus, backcountry users will need to be safer than ever. 

A look inside Alpenglow Sports in Tahoe City, Calif. | Photo courtesy Blister Review.

Brendan Madigan is the owner of Alpenglow Sports, a ski and snowboard shop based out of Tahoe City, Calif. which has sold more backcountry gear this year than ever before. Madigan elaborated:

“Sale are up five, six, seven-hundred percent from where they normally are this time of year. And we saw that same trend in March, when ski resorts closed and we got that six-foot storm — people lost their minds. Everyone who was even considering backcountry skiing or heard the words backcountry skiing really took a hard look and tried to get involved in the sport.”

Madigan said that boots have been the biggest seller in this backcountry-panic, but also that backcountry gear sales of all kinds are way up. He said that gear shortages are a real concern this season because of how popular backcountry touring has become and how much COVID-19 has stressed the global supply chain.

According to Madigan, a lot of people are coming into the store who’ve never owned backcountry gear before — or even skied in the backcountry — but are looking to get into it this season. 

“Even before COVID, backcountry touring was booming in popularity. Everybody knows that it’s the only growth segment in snow sports when alpine skiing and snowboarding are flat or down, and a lot of people are assuming that they aren’t going to be able to get resort days so they’re turning for backcountry touring for that drug.”

Madigan stressed his anxiety about new users in the backcountry who haven’t spent time in it before. He said that customers are coming into the store with zero experience but a thick wallet and are ready to drop thousands of dollars on top-of-the-line backcountry gear. “With the sheer increase in people and popularity, we feel a big responsibility to do more than sell them the gear,” Madigan said.

Alpenglow Sports works closely with Alpenglow Expeditions, a mountain guide company based out of Lake Tahoe, whom Alpenglow Sports sends customers to for avalanche training. Sean Kristl is the marketing and sales director of Alpenglow Expeditions, and he essentially calls the backcountry his office during the winter. Over the phone, Kristl shared his thoughts on what the backcountry experience might look like this season across North America.

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A day at the office at Alpenglow Expeditions | Photo courtesy Alpenglow Expeditions

Kristl started by saying that backcountry gear sales as well as AMGA course registrations are at all-time highs. Shops in Tahoe have been selling “above pace for backcountry gear,” since early September, he said. Alpenglow Expeditions offers a variety of courses ranging from basic avalanche safety to advanced ski mountaineering, and Kristl said they are seeing a lot of early registration and enthusiasm from the public when it comes to getting ready to ski the backcountry this year. But he has a warning for these same people.

“Getting educated is the bottom line. What we fear is people saying things like, ‘Hey, I have a buddy that’s been skiing the backcountry for a couple years and he’s going to go ahead and show me the ropes.’ But if that buddy knows any better, he’s going to absoultely reccommend avalanche safety courses,” Kristl said.

Kristl also said more people in the backcountry is not necessarily a bad thing, and that it’s just about educating people, using avalanche resources appropriately, and being kind to others on the skin track. So, he recommended new backcountry skiers and riders check out the Sierra Avalanche Center’s resources on their website. 

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A quality guide will help you learn along the way. Here Tim Dobbins teaches his clients about avalanche search and rescue. | Photo courtesy Alpenglow Expeditions

David Reichel, the director of the Sierra Avalanche Center, said in a phone interview:

“Our biggest concern at the SAC is related to anticipated increase in users in the backcountry along with crowding and trailhead access. Some ski areas won’t be selling walk up lift tickets anymore and that’s a big change for how the ski world has operated forever, so who knows how that’s going to impact everything. My personal assumption is that there will be more backcountry skiers and that some of those people won’t be particularly experienced. This big wave of inexperienced skiers could be a challenge for us and avalanche centers everywhere.”

Reichel put a big stress on avalanche education, especially for people who are new to the backcountry or will be recreating in the backcountry for the first time this season. For new users, Reichel urges everybody to take their Level 1. Reichel said that this year, because of the pandemic, virtual resources will be available on the Sierra Avalanche Center’s website and that this is an excellent place to get started when it comes to educating yourself on how to recreate safely in the backcountry.

So enjoy the backcountry this season — especially if you are new. But as a way to be kind to others touring in the mountains with you, educate yourself as much as possible — and practice it. Take it slow. Respect those touring above and below you. Because the only way we can all recreate in the backcountry happily and safely is together, sharing it.

“Getting educated is the bottom line.” | Photo courtesy Alpenglow Expeditions

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