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Backcountry Skiing Isn't the Brilliant Idea You Think It Is Right Now

With resorts closed because of COVID-19, an unprecedented number of skiers are swapping their downhill gear for an alpine touring setup. And that's a problem.

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Ski season wasn’t supposed to end this way. Snow was still falling and resorts had weeks or months of good skiing to look forward to when the coronavirus pandemic hit the United States. It started on March 12, when Vermont’s Jay Peak announced it would end operations for the season. By the end of March 14, industry giants Vail Resorts and Alterra Mountain Company closed down their 49 ski areas and Colorado’s governor ordered the rest of the state’s operations shuttered. Now, every ski area of note in the U.S. has stopped its lifts. 

But instead of settling in at home for some Netflix time, an unprecedented number of skiers are trying to continue their season by heading into the backcountry. Shops in Colorado that sell alpine touring gear say they’re busier than ever, some of them moving twice as much product as they normally would.

I get it: I’m a skier too. During the winter, I plan my life around the snow forecast, and losing two or three months of prime spring conditions feels like irretrievably losing a chunk of my life. 

But here’s the hard truth: This is a risky time to go backcountry skiing, and if you don’t know how, this is the worst possible time to learn. 

On Saturday, an Twitter account run by Arapahoe Basin posted a nearly minute-long video taken at Loveland Pass, a popular backcountry area in Colorado. Dozens of cars are parked bumper to bumper, lining the road for a half-mile or more. They pack pullouts and parking lots for a closed resort. “Come on folks. Let’s be smart. This is not social distancing,” the caption to the video reads.


Reasonable people can disagree about whether backcountry skiers should be venturing out in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Some contend that it’s irresponsible to risk getting injured and needing medical attention when hospitals are preparing for a surge in coronavirus cases; Colorado’s San Juan County made that argument on Saturday when it banned backcountry access within its borders. When it comes to your chances of catching coronavirus, however, most experts say that heading outdoors on uncrowded trails is low-risk with proper social distancing.

But when skiers start packing in nose-to-tail at popular backcountry spots, that’s no safer than waiting in a lift line. The skiers in Saturday’s video would have been within six feet from each other the moment they got out of their cars. It’s the same story around BACKPACKER’s home state, where skiers have flooded well-known backcountry spots like Berthoud and Jones Passes over the past week.

Then there are the avalanches. Loveland Pass is popular with novice backcountry skiers because it’s easy to access: Skiers can drive to the top of the pass and then hitch a ride back up, no skinning required. But while it’s easier to get to than most backcountry spots, it’s no less dangerous; the area saw one of Colorado’s worst avalanche incidents ever in 2013, when a slide nearby killed five experienced skiers.

Many newly-minted backcountry skiers are likely heading out without any kind of avalanche gear or the know-how to use it—the video shows skiers and riders walking away from their cars with no backpacks to store shovels or probes in. More are heading out with no avalanche training, instead relying on the false sense of safety seeing 100 other people ski a slope gives them. (They couldn’t take an avalanche course now if they wanted to, as most guide services capable of teaching one have shut them down.) In some areas, like Taos, New Mexico, closures mean that skiers can’t even get avalanche forecasts anymore.

In a normal year, skiers who wanted to try touring could head to a resort and ski inbounds there. But even at those resorts that are still open for uphill access, there is no “inbounds” right now: With no avalanche control and no ski patrol, everything is the backcountry. Avalanche forecasters are already seeing an increase in incidents, with the Colorado Avalanche Information Center reporting on Sunday that human-triggered avalanches had increased due in part to “the sheer amount of people recreating in the mountains,” and that they expected that trend to continue. 

If skiers do get into trouble, they’ll be depending on volunteer rescuers who are under the same strain as other emergency services. Those rescuers will be using scarce masks to protect themselves, or none at all. And if it turns out you are sick, they’ll be in quarantine and unavailable to help anyone else for a week or more. It’s one of the reasons that Jeff Sparkhawk, the president of the Colorado Search and Rescue Association, urged skiers to “stay out of the high country” in an interview with Colorado Public Radio this week.

“It just doesn’t make a whole lot of sense right now,” he said.

If you’re already an experienced backcountry traveler, now’s a good time to be conservative and rethink whether you really need to head out. If you decide to go, head to less-popular spots and don’t ride at the edge of your ability. 

If you’re not? Give those skis one final wax and stick them in the garage: It’s time to call it quits on the season.

How to Pack for Backcountry Skiing

Get to know the winter safety gear you need in your pack.