As sales of backcountry ski gear surge to unprecedented levels, providers of avalanche-safety classes in Colorado are scrambling to meet heightened demand. At the same time, experienced backcountry enthusiasts worry that ill-prepared newcomers will put themselves and others at risk this winter.
The Colorado Mountain School, an instruction and mountain-guiding operation based out of Estes Park and Boulder, has seen enrollment for its December Level 1 avalanche-safety training courses nearly triple that of last year. Simon Montgomery, a spokesman for CMS, said 633 people have signed up for its Level 1 classes in December, as compared to 215 in December 2019. CMS also has added a free online avalanche-safety awareness video.
The Colorado Mountain Club has added an Introduction to Backcountry Ski and Splitboard (for snowboarders) course, essentially a preparatory class for its Level 1 Avalanche classes. The CMC, which is more than 100 years old, also is making available an avalanche terrain avoidance class on its virtual platform “for those who want to know how to get into the backcountry but avoid that terrain,” said CMC spokeswoman Maddie Miller.
Both CMS and CMC teach avalanche classes in accordance with a curriculum established by the American Institute of Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE), the gold standard in the field, and are taught by AIARE-qualified instructors.
While COVID-19 restrictions are fueling the growing attraction of the backcountry, the trend was already underway.
“Backcountry skiing has been growing for a long time,” said Drew Saunders, the Boulder-based manager of American operations for Oberalp, a European company that includes Dynafit ski equipment and Pomoca climbing skins. “For ten-plus years, it’s been the main area within the ski industry that’s seeing growth year over year. What we experienced last spring when the lockdown hit and the ski areas closed, we had a big boom in backcountry skiing use, and also at retailers.
“We’ve seen a substantial acceleration in the growth of backcountry skiing last spring and going into the early fall/winter season. It’s sort of at a record velocity, a record level of interest.”
Learning how, where and under what conditions avalanches are likely to occur is a necessary part of safe backcountry travel. The risk can vary widely depending on slope angle, the direction the slope faces, the age of the snowpack, the addition of fresh snow, temperature, wind conditions and other factors. The same slope can be high risk one month, low risk the next.
That’s why backcountry enthusiasts consult avalanche forecasts posted daily by the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. The CAIC develops reports for 10 regions around the state and rates avalanche likelihood on a five-step scale from low to extreme. This week, for example, it said the risk of avalanche in the Front Range was 1 -2 on the 1-5 spectrum, rated low below treeline but moderate near treeline and above.
The CAIC summary for the Front Range this past Wednesday said: “Avoid steep and shady wind-loaded slopes. You can trigger an avalanche that breaks in wind-drifted snow, and if you do, there is a good chance it will step down to the ground.
“A skier triggered one of these avalanches (Tuesday) on the west side of the Eisenhower Johnson Memorial Tunnel. These avalanches aren’t large but they are big enough to injure you if you get swept off of your feet. Wind-drifted slabs can be identified by their rounded and smooth-looking snow surface, or a generally harder feel than sheltered terrain, or a drum-like sound when you travel over them.”
Most slab avalanches occur on slopes ranging from 30 to 45 degrees. One useful tool, which CMC teaches in its avalanche terrain avoidance class, is CalTopo, a free website and app that can help backcountry travelers avoid potentially dangerous slopes by using its interactive slope angle shading feature on topographical maps. When turned on, slope angles above 30 degrees are shaded in red.
“Then you can route your ascent or descent based on where those angles are not red,” Miller said. “Avoid red and purple slopes, and you can still have a really fun day on lower angle aspects.” But keep in mind: Even if you’re not on steep slopes, there could be one above you with the potential to slide.
In addition to backcountry skis, boots and bindings that can cost hundreds of dollars, avalanche safety equipment can add another $350 to $500. That includes a beacon — which emits a radio signal that can help find buried skiers in the event of a slide — along with a lightweight shovel and poles that can be used to probe for victims. Teaching people how to use beacons and locate avalanche victims is part of avalanche training.
Backcountry skiing actually spans a wide spectrum of adventure, ranging from ski mountaineering (which involves ascending and descending high peaks) to backcountry touring (which generally occurs on less steep terrain that is unlikely to slide). Safe ski mountaineering calls for full-blown classes that can cost hundreds of dollars, while a one-hour avalanche awareness class may be sufficient for touring. Those are usually free or minimal cost.
“If your goal is to spend a lot of time in avalanche terrain, high in the Colorado mountains, taking a class that has some field component is a really good idea,” said Ethan Greene, director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. “But for a lot of people, let’s say what you want to do is go snowshoeing or cross country skiing or snowmobling on groomed trails, you want to stay safe from avalanches but not be in avalanche terrain, a shorter class might be just enough. You don’t necessarily need to spend lots of money and lots of time.”
Avalanche awareness classes are often held at local mountaineering shops, although there may be fewer this year because of COVID-19 restrictions on public gatherings. They also can be found online, including the CAIC site under its education tab.
Backcountry enthusiasts will be hoping newcomers educate themselves this year before venturing into potentially dangerous terrain. According to the CAIC, there were six avalanche fatalities in Colorado last winter — three skiers, two snowbikers and one climber.
“I’m definitely a little worried about people, brand-new, going into the backcountry and all the extra impact people will have,” Miller said. “At a place like Berthoud Pass, you could have people above you, people underneath you, and you don’t know what their experience level is. You don’t know if they are going to send that 40-degree slope in the middle of winter and potentially trigger something on top of you. The more education people can get, and just awareness, will be really helpful for us all to have a really fun winter.”
Avalanche education offerings by the Colorado Mountain Club include:
Avalanche Terrain Avoidance (member price $30, non-member price $40): https://www.cmc.org/Classes/CMCClassesandSchools/AvalancheSafety.aspx (Registration coming soon)
AIARE Level 1 (member price $470, non-member price $515): https://www.cmc.org/Calendar/EventDetails.aspx?ID=51065
AIARE Level 1 Refresher (member price $185, non-member price $210): https://www.cmc.org/Calendar/EventDetails.aspx?ID=50831
Intro to Backcountry Ski & Splitboard Course (member price $95, non-member price $165): https://www.cmc.org/Classes/CMCClassesandSchools/IntrotoBackcountrySkiingSnowboarding.aspx
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