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Pandemic Increases Popularity of Backcountry Winter Sports


January 8, 2021
Categories: Travel Tips

To maintain social distancing on the slopes, ski resorts are limiting the number of skiers on the mountain.

When ski mountains fill up, enterprising skiers will find other ways to get outside and enjoy the season. Those options might include heli-skiing or heli-boarding, backcountry skiing, splitboarding or snowshoeing.

In fact, when ski resorts shut down in March 2020, a record number of customers bought new gear at retail stores, crowded trail heads and then inadvertently triggered avalanches on the backcountry slopes.

The Utah Avalanche Center (UAC) reported 30 observations of human-triggered slides in just three days.

“More people in the backcountry increase the risk of human-triggered avalanches,” said David Keaveny, operations specialist at Global Rescue and professional ski patroller.

Backcountry Sports

Outside activities are less risky for coronavirus contagion than indoor undertakings. Remote locations are considered safer in a coronavirus world, adding to the allure of backcountry winter sports. Here’s an overview of a few popular winter adventure activities.

Heli-skiing/heli-boarding. Heli-skiing (and heli-boarding) is off-trail, downhill skiing (or snowboarding) reached by helicopter.

It’s been done since the 1950s, but Hans Gmoser, the founder of modern mountaineering in Canada, commercialized the activity in 1965. Experienced skiers enjoy the pristine slopes, challenging descents and the chance to push their skills to a new level. Some popular places to heli-ski are Alaska, Canada, Greenland, Iceland, Italy, Switzerland (a limited number of designated landings), Russia and New Zealand. It has been banned in Germany and France.

Today, people typically book trips with friends, or heli-ski tour operators match skiers by experience into small groups. Stoke Broker, a travel company cultivating unique and impactful adventures around the globe, requires background details on guest’s previous ski experiences to place them in the best terrain for their ability level.

“Stoke Broker only works with private trips which ensures groups of people skiing together are comfortable with one another and all approximately the same ability level. It’s extremely important to us that no one in the group feels undue pressure, whether it’s the sense they’re holding someone else up, they don’t feel comfortable speaking their mind if they feel unsafe, or want to head in early if they’re feeling tired,” said Alice Howell, vice president.

Stoke-Broker-Alice-Howell-credit-Daniel-Stewart-(1)

Backcountry skiing. With backcountry skiing, there’s no lodge, no lift and no ski patrol. You’re skiing in the wilderness.

One type of backcountry skiing is called alpine touring, a combination of mountaineering and ski touring. Skiers climb the slopes of larger mountains on skis with skins or boots with crampons, then ski down. The best places for ski mountaineering are the Alps, the Pyrenees, Scotland and the North American Rocky Mountains. The best time frame is typically March and April due to snowpack.

Another variation of backcountry skiing, happens off-trail in valleys and smaller mountains. Backcountry skis are designed for fresh and deep snow conditions. Some skiers find their own options for off-piste skiing: ungroomed hiking trails, fields or farmland, or backyards.

Splitboarding. Snowboarders can also explore the backcountry using a splitboard: a normal snowboard that splits into two halves — two mini skis — so snowboarders can climb up hills. At the top of the mountain, the snowboarder removes the skins, which provide traction for the uphill climb and joins the halves with a binding system. The original splitboard was created in the early 1990s by Brett Kobernik, founder of Voile, a Utah-based ski manufacturer.

Snowshoeing. Snowshoeing is a form of hiking, but trekkers strap special footwear over their boots to walk on snow. Snowshoes work by distributing the weight of the person over a larger area, allowing snowshoers to achieve “flotation.” Snowshoes were first developed in Central Asia around 6,000 years ago.

Less Coronavirus, More Safety Concerns

At a resort, ski patrol and first aid services are on site. In the backcountry, facilities and ranger stations may be closed due to COVID-19. This has made safety all the more important for backcountry sportsman. Why? More danger — avalanches, injury, fragile glaciers, extreme coldness, altitude sickness — and less help if you need it.

“Infrastructure has to be part of a backcountry consideration,” said Penn Burris, a senior advisor at Global Rescue and former president of the American Alpine Club. “What if you are injured in a remote location? Medical care may be a long way away.”

With fewer staff and resources from land managers to ranger stations and emergency services, a backcountry option may not be the best choice for everyone.

The Inyo County Sheriff's Office in California asked residents and visitors to avoid “backpacking, climbing, peak bagging, backcountry skiing or anything that puts you at risk for potential rescue. Your preventable backcountry injury will stress ambulance and emergency room services. It is highly unlikely helicopters are available to assist in your rescue.”

It will also take time for a local search and rescue group to reach you.

“If it took you four hours to get where you are and you have an emergency, you may be there for four hours or more until help gets to you — even in the best circumstances,” Keaveny said.

Suggestions from the Experts

Nothing beats training. “Education, training and experience,” said Harding Bush, Global Rescue associate manager operations. “Know when to call it – it’s getting too dark, it’s getting colder, I’m getting tired. You are responsible for your actions and you need to be able to make the right decision to be safe.”

Go with a tour operator or local guide. Not only do you need backcountry experience, you should go with someone who does. A ski resort has trails and maps, but you don’t in the backcountry.

A tour operator can help plan the safest trip possible. They have firsthand knowledge of the area — or work with local guides who do. Tour operators often offer travel protection services, such as field rescue in remote environments, by partnering with Global Rescue.

“If you are inexperienced and hoping to head into the backcountry this winter, you should always use a professional service to facilitate the trip,” Howell said. “As a tour operator, our strength is in the partners we work with delivering a high quality, safe backcountry skiing or heli-skiing experience. We vet our partners to ensure they operate at the highest standards, across the board. This inspires trust and confidence between guides and guests, allowing everyone to enjoy the magic of backcountry skiing safely.”

Watch the weather. “Be certain to monitor the weather and avalanche advisories and make your own observations to manage your risk,” Keaveny said. “Everyone in your group, including yourself, should have experience and have taken an avalanche course.”

Have the right equipment. Make sure you have cell phone coverage or a satellite device to signal for help. You'll also need someone to call for an emergency rescue, so it’s wise to sign up for a travel protection services membership. One Global Rescue member was injured on a holiday weekend climb in Montana and the ranger station was closed due to COVID-19. His friend was able to call Global Rescue who facilitated his medical evacuation.

It may take time before rescue teams can reach you and the National Park Service recommends you have navigation, insulation and nutrition, to name a few necessary backcountry items.

“Resort skiing has different equipment, different clothing and different risk management,” Bush said. “If you’re going into the backcountry, you have to carry equipment you may not bring with you when you ski at a resort.”

“Be prepared to shelter yourself and survive the night as a contingency,” Keaveny said. “Make sure you carry the 10 essentials and consider taking a wilderness first aid or first responder course to learn how to help yourself or someone in your group until professional help arrives.”

Select safer backcountry options first. Rail trails are marked, maintained and often open for skiers and snowshoers. The National Park Service provides a searchable map of parks open to the public. Local inns, such as New Hampshire’s Dexter’s Inn, offers groomed and ungroomed trails winding through forests, fields and rolling hills (1,350-foot elevation).

Some Utah mountains offer early access (before the mountain opens for the season) to uphill skiers; many require a private lesson first.

Resorts, like Colorado’s Bluebird Backcountry, are also offering new and safer experiences. The new ski area will welcome a maximum of 200 guests a day on the mountain, spread across 1,200 acres of terrain. For skiers and splitboarders beginning a backcountry journey, Bluebird offers a three-lesson program designed to welcome all experience levels. The resort is also an official American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education provider.


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