Shuttered uphill, plentiful avalanches, stay home campaigns
I’ve lost track: was the past week an entire month? With the ferocity of coronavirus news developments and subsequent impacts on communities across the world, it’s easy to mistake a day for a week, or a week for a month. I’ve been starting to wonder if March will ever end. Last week, Colorado got an official statewide “stay at home” order which fully confirms self quarantine as the new normal at WildSnow HQ. Under the order, people can leave their homes for exercise once a day and for the weekly grocery run but that’s about it. Across the state and the country it seems the running theme is ‘shut down’ but that’s not stopping people from getting out.
Plenty of folks are still venturing into the hills in Colorado, both the backcountry and closed ski areas. So many in fact that our local Sunlight Mountain Resort put the kibosh on skinning altogether. Sunlight joins an increasing number of Colorado ski areas that have closed the slopes to uphilling, including Loveland, Eldora and Winter Park. Just yesterday, several ski resorts joined forces with the National Forest to issue a plea to keep people off of closed ski runs and prevent visitors from traveling to mountain towns to recreate. Apparently social distancing is harder to apply to ski touring, or at least that’s one concern. Safety is of course the other big one.
Safety is becoming increasingly worrisome for backcountry newbs and novices venturing into the wilds. In the brief time between March 20-26 the Colorado Avalanche Information Center reported 34 human-triggered avalanches. Slides of varying sizes have been catalogued in the peaks around the state but especially in Gunnison County and in the San Juans where a snowboarder was caught, carried and badly injured, instigating a helicopter rescue. And while human-triggered avalanches aren’t uncommon throughout the winter months, 34 in a week is notably bad, especially during a time when folks are encouraged to minimize risk.
No doubt, there’s been an uptick in backcountry traffic around the state. Social media images of cars sardined at popular backcountry ski trailheads have been popping into the newsfeed. Backcountry ski shop owners saw a short-lived but frenzied run on uphill gear before being shut down by the ‘stay at home’ order this week. Ideally new users could take avalanche and other in-person backcountry safety courses before heading off piste, but most of those have been cancelled by order of public health concerns. It’s all adding up to stormy weather: free time + cabin fever + new backcountry setup + plentiful backcountry = trouble. Just hope it doesn’t snow. Oh, but that’s in the forecast too.
In light of all this, various efforts to keep folks at home are increasing. Snowsports Industry America launched a social media campaign on Friday called #curbyourturns, encouraging people to share posts of them recreating responsibly and close to home. Friends of CAIC, the fundraising non profit for the Colorado Avalanche Information Center issued a letter on Friday calling backcountry skiers to stay close to home or not venture out at all. And in San Juan county, cars with out-of-county plates parked along the popular backcountry access corridor of Highway 550 will be ticketed and fined as the county seeks to limit recreation.
But all backcountry access is not lost if you’re stuck at home. The American Avalanche Institute is posting free backcountry travel webinars on Instagram, Mountain Sense is offering deep discounts on online courses. BCA has long hosted free, plentiful backcountry travel resources. And of course, WildSnow has a deep archive of avalanche safety material as well.
Of course, in light of debilitating effects of coronavirus in other parts of the country — New York City, for instance — ski touring should be the least of our worries. It does seem that there’s a collective feeling of ‘out of sight, out of mind’ in some mountain regions though. How much longer that is sustained before more shut downs occur is an inevitable question, to which the answer is — as to so many things right now — we’ll just have to wait and see.
Readers: what does backcountry recreation look like where you live? Leave a comment to share the status of your situation.
Manasseh Franklin is a writer, editor and big fan of walking uphill. She has an MFA in creative nonfiction and environment and natural resources from the University of Wyoming and especially enjoys writing about glaciers. Find her other work in Alpinist, Adventure Journal, Rock and Ice, Aspen Sojourner, AFAR, Trail Runner and Western Confluence.