Long days, hot sun, shrinking snow ribbons clinging to north facing aspects of the high Rockies — I’m tempted to say we’re officially in the typical dog days of summer. There’s nothing typical, however, about this summer. Between Covid-fueled uncertainties and restrictions, the civil rights and social justice movement, and the general bizarre state of unrest in the U.S. and the world, we’ve found ourselves a little breathless and at a loss for words. We’re getting them back, though, and other parts of the ski industry are too. So here’s the latest in the backcountry ski world.
Ski resorts planning to open… so far
The ski industry soldiers on, despite that no one has the faintest idea of how next winter will realistically look. Vail Resorts and Alterra claim that sales are up for Epic and Ikon passes, but no one knows whether they will be able to actually use them. Both Ikon and Epic are adapting — they each have Covid clauses and insurance for pass holders in the event of major shutdowns during the upcoming season. By and large, though, resorts plan to open as detailed in this NY Magazine article.
Aspen Snowmass CEO Mike Kaplan sent an email in late July that said simply in regards to how the 20-21 season will look: “We don’t have all the answers yet, but we are doing everything possible to anticipate how to open on time and stay open all winter.”
One thing is for certain: Barring counties shutting down, USFS closing areas or other modes of unusual restrictions that were enforced last spring, the backcountry inherently will be open this winter. Backcountry skiers have long had the advantage of not needing resorts in order to ski. But if resorts do close, that could mean a lot more people want a slice of the ski touring pie.
More backcountry skiers = increased need for avalanche education
If the influx of new ski tourers that cleaned out touring ski shops and flocked to popular backcountry spots when resorts closed last spring is any indication, the backcountry could get more crowded this winter. Several ski shops in Colorado reported record sales of touring setups in the weeks following Governor Polis’s decision to halt ski lifts. Not only was there a marked increase in backcountry skiers, but many of those newbs couldn’t enroll in avalanche classes because course providers were shut down also.
In response, some providers are working to increase course accessibility in order to meet the growing need for education this winter. According to American Avalanche Institute co-owner and WildSnow contributor Sarah Carpenter, the AAI is making several curriculum tweaks including moving some course content online — including free Instagram seminars they started last spring — in an effort to offer foundational knowledge more easily and at less cost.
“I think a big hurdle when you are new to backcountry travel is understanding what you don’t know,” Sarah said in an email recently. “Using social media platforms to reach that new audience can be helpful, and offering fun, accessible online content is a start. I don’t, however, think that online learning is a substitute for an in person, field based course.”
In order to maintain the field elements of avalanche education while managing Covid-19 related risks, AAI is moving classroom portions of avalanche courses online trimming group sizes for field portions. Social distancing and masks will be standard protocol during in-person sessions.
“We’ve spent all spring and summer taking our curriculum and moving it to a different platform. It is an exciting project…and one that has taken a considerable amount of effort and creativity by our staff and a group of advisors. We’re really excited to showcase the next steps in avalanche education.”
Editor’s Note: Other avalanche course providers — have you adjusted your avalanche education to accommodate new users in a Covid world? Leave a note in the comments or contact us.
Some Colorado peaks might get new, less racially charged names
In light of the current civil rights and social justice movement, racially tuned monuments and memorials aren’t the only named landmarks under review in the U.S. Some of Colorado’s famous Rocky Mountains are too.
According to this Colorado Public Radio article, on the top of the list is Mount Evans. The popular Colorado Fourteener is named after John Evans, who was a key figure in the Sand Creek Massacre during which members of the U.S. Army massacred Arapaho and Cheyenne peoples, including many women and children, in Southeast Colorado. Other landmarks under petition include Mount Squaw, Chinaman Gulch and Negro Creek.
In early July, Governor Polis instituted a new board of bipartisan Coloradans (including Indigenous Tribal members) to process the petitions and propose replacement names. Once processed, petitions will go on to the national U.S. Board on Geographic Names, where name changes are officially approved or denied.
Urban exodus prompts mountain town real estate boom
Infection rates are not the only way COVID-19 is impacting mountain towns of the West. A real estate boom of unprecedented proportions is underway as urban dwellers with cash and jobs they’ve proven can be worked remotely flock to greener, less populated pastures. This surge in out-of-towners is popping up across the western states in already price-inflated towns like Jackson Hole, Aspen, Crested Butte, and more. According to the Colorado Sun, many new buyers are scooping up house in the $700,000 to $1 million range, which in some ski towns is unfortunately the low end of the market. Of course, the new buyers can’t access affordable housing lotteries, but the plight of the ski bum turned hopeful homebuyer just keeps getting harder, and that doesn’t look to change any time soon.
While much of the rhetoric around Covid has been oriented around getting ‘back to normal’, it’s becoming increasingly apparent that there actually won’t be a normal to return to. At least, if nothing else, we can go skiing. Hopefully.
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.