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Morris: Wave of new backcountry users need education

Halsted Morris
Valley Voices

My favorite backyard squirrel is in full-on pinecone gathering-mode. It will not be long before the aspen trees start to change, and our minds turn to thinking about skiing and riding.

The American Avalanche Association — a 501(c)(3) nonprofit whose mission is to keep people safe in avalanche country through education, professional development, outreach, and research — oversees professional avalanche education in the United States and sets recreational avalanche course guidelines. A3 should be considered a resource for all backcountry users and encourages everyone who recreates in avalanche terrain to pursue life-saving education and training.

With COVID-19 threatening to disrupt the North American ski season, thousands of new backcountry users are expected to venture into the backcountry — many with little experience or avalanche training. On average, 27 people die in avalanche accidents each year in the United States, and avalanche professionals worry that multiplying usage coupled with many new and inexperienced and untrained skiers, snowboarders, and snowmobilers, could lead to a sharp increase in backcountry accidents. We are asking for your help this fall to get the word out and keep people safe in the backcountry this winter.

After the 201-20 ski season ended abruptly in March with resorts across the United States and Canada shutting down, backcountry gear sales and usage soared. For example, in San Juan County, Colorado, trailheads became so crowded with skiers, snowboarders, and snowmobilers, that backcountry recreation was officially prohibited at one point, due to insufficient emergency services.

Backcountry gear sales continue to be strong, and the glut of backcountry usage is expected to continue this season. If mountain resorts are able to operate at all, they will operate at limited capacity, and with restricted amenities. This, combined with the already rapidly growing popularity of backcountry recreation, relative ease of social distancing in the backcountry environment, and widespread need for healthy outdoor activity, means that more people than ever are expected to spend time skiing and riding in the backcountry.

Closed ski areas are not completely avalanche-free. Skinning up closed ski areas is just the same as going into the backcountry since the ski patrol is not performing any avalanche mitigation work as they would during a regular season.

As a result, avalanche education has never been more important. Recreational courses include Avalanche Awareness, Avalanche Rescue, Level 1, and Level 2 Avalanche curriculums. Unguided backcountry users are strongly encouraged to pursue all educational avenues to become more proficient in avalanche risk assessment and terrain management. Avalanche course providers exist in virtually all mountain communities, and course providers approved by A3 instruct using the most current educational guidelines. A list of approved course providers is available at http://www.avalanche.org.

The Colorado Avalanche Information Center issues free daily weather and avalanche forecasts. CAIC is the great resource that all Colorado backcountry riders should use daily.

Please contact A3 today with questions about avalanche education, the projected growth in backcountry usage this winter, or other related topics. Thank you for helping us spread the word and keep the backcountry safer this winter!

Halsted “Hacksaw” Morris lives in Avon and is board president of the American Avalanche Association.


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