A surge in backcountry skiing and snowboarding has been bolstering an otherwise flat snowsports participation bell curve for the better part of the past decade. And now with the global COVID-19 pandemic resulting in a spike in uphill-oriented equipment sales during 2020, experts are becoming increasingly concerned that a perfect storm of accidents and injuries is brewing this coming season when a glut of new enthusiasts seeking social distancing venture off-piste in unprecedented numbers.
The surge started in earnest last season when resorts throughout the country abruptly closed in March as a result of the pandemic. “People weren’t finished with winter yet … and we saw increased traffic and accidents in the backcountry,” said Nick Sargent, president of Snowsports Industries America, which hosted a virtual Town Hall discussion, “Selling the Backcountry Responsibly,” in October. “There was a significant spike in backcountry traffic, which was great, but there are also a lot of areas where we need to really be cognizant and aware.”
The discussion was moderated by Vermont native Adam Howard, a freeski coach at Smugglers’ Notch Ski and Snowboard Club who also is president and CEO of Height of Land Publications, which produces Backcountry Magazine, among others. Mike Donohue, owner of Outdoor Gear Exchange in Burlington, Vt., and Kim Miller, CEO of Scarpa North America, were joined on the panel by Nikki Champion, avalanche forecaster at Utah Avalanche Center; Katie Ertl, senior vice president of mountain operations at Aspen/Snowmass; and Brendan Madigan, owner of Alpenglow Sports in Lake Tahoe, Calif.
SIA put the discussion together because the numbers are telling. Over the past three seasons, sales of backcountry skis, boots and bindings increased 137 percent, with accessories (beacons, shovels, poles) rising 69 percent, according to market research by The NPD Group. Since COVID-19, those numbers have spiked even more.
While overall participation in snowsports is likely to remain flat this season as a result of COVID-19, significant consumer activity in “off resort” sectors of the sport indicate a clear appetite among enthusiasts for getting outside to participate in activities like cross-country skiing, backcountry skiing and snowshoeing. This according to a survey of about 1,200 highly active participants conducted over the summer months for SIA by Corona Insights (important to note that this business management consultant name was established 21 years ago, long before it became a buzz word for a world pandemic).
“It’s kind of a golden age in backcountry skiing right now,” said Donohue, whose Outdoor Gear Exchange got started in the ski business through the backcountry with a focus on telemark before evolving into alpine touring equipment and finally emerging into the full snowsports shop that it is today. “The gear has gotten so good. More and more resorts are allowing uphill travel so you can practice more safely, and price points have come down here and there through used gear and consignment.”
As a year-round outdoor outfitter, Donohue said OGE has seen the massive surge in interest in people getting outside. “It’s a great way to be socially distanced right now; it’s a great way to get exercise; it’s a great way to destress … so there’s massive benefits for people being able to be outside.”
Consumers need to take personal responsibility to participate in the backcountry safely, but Donohue said everyone in the industry, from manufacturers to retailers to media to resorts, must take on the obligation of sharing knowledge. “(We’re making sure that) every staff member, whether they have backcountry experience or not — most of them do — are well aware of the education needed to give every skier who’s getting a freeheel setup, whether it’s touring or tele or splitboarding, what they need to be in the backcountry safely. We feel our job is education as much as anything else.”
The brick and mortars have a leg up on online retailers because this is where the conversations are taking place. Historically, the obligation for safety in the industry has fallen primarily on resorts. Through a well-trained infrastructure of instructors, guides and ski patrol, resorts have been providing a safety net for skiers who are participating in an inherently dangerous sport. But now as the resort and backcountry cultures begin to blend, Howard suggested that a new value system needs to emerge in which every sector is contributing to safety.
“(Scarpa’s) values really aren’t about selling our boots,” Miller said. “Our values are really about health and wellness, getting people into nature, doing things outside that are adventurous with people we really care about. We also think one of those values is to be really responsible about how we do it … through sustainability, inclusion and equity, education.”
Miller said it’s not easy to learn everything you need to know about being in the backcountry. “It’s a progression and most of what we learn comes from mentors. When we nurture and guide, that is where the real opportunity comes. We don’t want to become a cop when we’re out there.”
But the risks are real. After resorts closed prematurely last spring, sparking a tenfold increase in backcountry traffic, Champion said the Utah Avalanche Center reported 100 human-triggered avalanches in the Wasatch. “During one period, April 16-18, we had 50 human-triggered avalanches,” she said. Sobering numbers like those are among the reasons UAC is one of many resources to promote the free online “Know Before You Go” awareness program.
A big growth opportunity exists in meeting and mentoring backcountry enthusiasts on the snow. Guide culture is evolving. Gone are the misperceptions of decades past that hiring guides meant you were largely helpless and inexperienced. Today, guides are gaining new appreciation for all that they bring to the table as mountain managers, forecasters, teachers — everything rolled up into one. It’s not only about maximizing safety, but also about maximizing fun.
Donohue said OGE often provides its customers with information about how to find high-quality guiding, whether they’re planning trips to the Chic-Chocs, the White Mountains or destinations out west. “Their buddy told them they need a beacon and a shovel. That’s great, yes, but there is so much more.”
Resources to help you ‘Know Before You Go’
Acadia Mountain Guides | In addition to AIARE-certified avalanche courses, this Bar Harbor, Maine-based resource offers wilderness medicine training, skills training for backcountry skiing and mountaineering, and guided tours. acadiamountainguides.com
Catamount Trail Association | Based in Burlington, Vt., CTA brings together a community of backcountry skiers and outdoor enthusiasts to steward a growing network of world-class backcountry terrain in Vermont. In addition to offering single- and multi-day tours, CTA protects access through conservation easements and public land acquisition, as well as offers programs to expand equitable access to skiing so that everyone can enjoy our sport, regardless of their income or background. Catamounttrail.org
East Coast Avalanche Education | Offers Avalanche Level One and Avalanche Awareness courses that are certified by the American Avalanche Association. Courses in 2021 are offered online and in Gorham, N.H., Williston, Vt., Portland, Maine, and Montpelier, Vt. eastcoastavalancheeducation.com
Granite Backcountry Alliance | With a mission to advance backcountry skiing in New Hampshire and western Maine, Granite BC provides educational opportunities for ecological awareness, avalanche and general winter safety, including publishing a backcountry skiing ethics handbook and guidebook, as well as drives conservation efforts for partnerships with key landowners (USFS, state, private, land trusts, etc.). granitebackcountryalliance.org
International Mountain Equipment | Based in North Conway, N.H., IME offers scheduled courses, clinics and trips for backcountry climbers and skiers of all levels of experience. Instructors have years of backcountry experience from locations throughout New England and North America. ime-usa.com
Kingdom Adventures Mountain Guides | Based in East Burke, Vt., Kingdom offers training and certification in mountaineering, avalanche awareness, wilderness medicine and international trekking. kamountainguides.com
Know Before You Go | A free online instructional program that shows the destructive power of avalanches and what you need to know to stay safe in avalanche terrain. kbyg.org
Maine Huts & Trails | A gateway to backcountry experiences in western Maine, MHT maintains trails catering to many different modes of travel between huts, from fat bikes to nordic to snowshoes and an increasing number of alpine touring setups. mainehuts.org
Mooney Mountain Guides | From Concord, N.H., MMG provides a variety of educational courses and offers expert-guided tours on the cliffs, crags and alpine terrain of New Hampshire, New England and beyond. mooneymountainguides.com
Mount Washington Avalanche Center | Provides winter forecasting and virtual Eastern Snow and Avalanche workshops from its website and social media channels. Interactive tutorials cover forecasting, gear, training, recognizing red flags, identifying terrain, traveling safely and more. mountwashingtonavalanchecenter.org
Northeast Mountaineering | Specializes in guided mountain adventures for beginners and novices of all ages with programs built on education, mentoring and investing time and energy in the development of each backcountry enthusiast. nemountaineering.com
Petra Cliffs Mountaineering School | Located in Burlington, Vt., this outfit provides backcountry skiing courses for all levels and guided backcountry and sidecountry tours in Smugglers’ Notch, Mount Washington ravines and Adirondack slides. petracliffs.com
Synnott Mountain Guides | The year-round guide service in the White Mountains of New Hampshire is run by AMGA/IFMGA Mountain Guide and The North Face Athlete Team member Mark Synnott. Private and custom backcountry skiing excursions are available for booking, as well as intro and advanced backcountry skiing courses. newhampshireclimbing.com
Tips for Beginning Backcountry Skiers
A new book is available to help those who are new to backcountry ski touring sort through many of the decisions that they’ll have to make in beginning the sport. It covers safety, gear, technique, trip planning and group management. Written by New England backcountry skier Brett St. Clair and Craig Evanoff, certified ACMG guide and owner of Dezaiko Lodge in British Columbia. “Tips for Beginning Backcountry Skiers” is available as a free, downloadable, 32-page PDF file at https://www.dezaiko.com/ski-tips-book.