The backcountry is heating up and it’s not even Thanksgiving. Avalanches have been triggered in high regions of the Rockies and full trailhead parking lots have been reported from snowy zones in Washington. Covid is spiking and shutdowns are rippling across mountain regions, prompting at least a little late-March PTSD.
In response, ski touring is truly having a moment in the limelight. In the past week alone, more than a dozen articles have emerged on impending danger in the backcountry, ski shops running out of gear and even a lawsuit between a guidebook author and a powder cat operation. CAIC released a study about experience levels of those involved in avalanches last spring. COSMIC skimo races got indefinitely postponed. Oh, and BMW took flight.
Here’s the latest.
Ski touring featured far and wide
From national news to local outlets, from California to Colorado and beyond, the impending ski touring season is a subject of great speculation and concern. Professional mountaineer and founder of Alpenglow Expeditions Adrian Ballinger issues his warnings on Fox news, Tahoe Daily Tribune calls on Cody Townsend and Nick Russell for their take and High Country News rounds out the coverage by highlighting how Washington-based rescue organizations are preparing for what will surely be a busy season ahead.
An impressive volume of backcountry safety oriented articles and PSAs that have flooded the interwebs this fall. Will it have the intended positive impact we all hope for? Only time will tell.
Who causes the most avalanche incidents?
On the subject of backcountry safety, a study released this week by the Colorado Avalanche Information Center offered some surprising insights into the Covid backcountry bump last spring: Experienced skiers, not newbs, were most often involved in avalanche incidents. The study looked to data gathered during the 2019-20 ski season, with March 13 (the day ski areas shut down) as a demarkation point to isolate pre- and post-Covid trends. The goal was to examine education and backcountry experience levels of people involved in avalanche events.
In order to conduct the study, authors Ethan Greene and Spencer Logan developed an Avalanche Education Level scale to categorize educations levels, and Inferred Avalanche Experience Level Scale to rank experience in avalanche terrain. They examined 88 accidents that occurred in the 2019-20 season that involved 126 people, 88 of which were caught and carried by the slides including six buried and six killed.
The results are indicated in this graph posted on CAIC social media channels.
The authors stated: “Most people involved in avalanches had intermediate or advanced levels of experience, which is consistent with previous research (McCammon 2000, Tase 2004). McCammon (2002) found that avalanche education did not reduce avalanche exposure. Instead, our results suggest people were using their training and experience to spend more time traveling in avalanche terrain, or traveling during more avalanche-prone conditions.”
Backcountry retailers foresee gear shortages
If you’re thinking of buying some Pomoca skins this winter, you may want to get them now. The Swiss climbing skin brand is projected to sell out in the US by the end of November, according to this article in Colorado’s Post Independent. Once the season is underway it may be more difficult to reorder gear also, due to production slowdowns during the Covid outbreak in spring and the fact that factories are struggling to keep up with demand.
Some gear shops have been stockpiling as soon as manufacturers release new shipments. To meet the increasing demand, Cripple Creek Backcountry even opened a Front Range location, as detailed in 5280 Magazine.
Steamboat Powdercats sues guidebook author
In other ski touring related news, the conflict between powder seekers on public land is raging in the northern stretches of the Colorado Rockies. Steamboat Powdercats, who’ve been operating on Buffalo Pass north of Steamboat Springs for nearly 40 years, filed a lawsuit against former employee, Stephen Bass who is publishing a guidebook on that same area.
Like many backcountry zones, Buffalo Pass has seen a massive spike in users over the past couple of decades. Characterized by rolling forests and meadows, much of the ski terrain is accessed by sleds, or the powder cats.
On the one hand, Steamboat Powdercats claims that the guidebook gives away “trade secrets” the company has developed over decades of operating in the area.
On the other hand, the guidebook author claims that information on public land should be public, and that universal approach to naming of route, pick up locations etc will assist in rescues and simple coordination among users.
Is a small business coveting the powder stashes at the cost of the public being left in the dark? Are guidebooks a form of exploitation that only serve to make the ‘undiscovered’ discovered? Anyone whose skied on Buff pass in recent years knows that the area is blowing up. Will a guidebook fuel the flames, or establish order amongst increasing crowds?
Read the full article here and offer your take in the comments.
COSMIC Skimo Races on hold
In a Facebook post on Tuesday, organizers of the Colorado Ski Mountaineering Cup race series announced the following:
“The 2020 – 21 COSMIC Ski Mountaineering race season has been put on hold indefinitely. Out of respect for the mountain communities and medical services the additional stresses put on by competition is an undue burden we cannot place on these resources. We will be working on additional programming, exploring potential race opportunities, and potential virtual race ideas.”
Bummer news, but skimo racers shouldn’t hang up their spandex just yet. Our local Sunlight Mountain is planning to host their annual Heathen Challenge, and Aspen Ski Co is expecting to run the Power of Four. The Grand Traverse, which was cancelled last spring for the first time in 20 years, announced its 2021 race dates (March 27 – 28) last week. Whether any of these races actually happen is of course in question, but they’re something to look forward to, at the least.
Electrified wing suit comes to life
If all this talk of ski touring has got you itching for other adrenaline pursuits, how about flying? BMW has at last achieved its ultimate greatness with its electrified wingsuit which reached 186 mph on its maiden flight. According to an article in the Robb Report, the “chest-mounted rig offers 15 kW of grunt and can produce thrust for up to five minutes.” Sounds thrilling. Watch the video here.
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.