This winter promises to be busier than ever in the backcountry. are we ready for the insanity in dangerous terrain?
We loved the outdoors to the breaking point this summer. Trailheads were packed, bikes were out of stock, and everyone who had planned to be away on vacation or was just fed up with staring at a computer screen and suffering through Zoom meeting after Zoom meeting headed to the hills. And it wasn’t just Coloradans. Carloads of tourists from every state in the U.S. came to the trails, crags, rivers, and park lands of Colorado to escape the drag of the pandemic.
The good news? More people—and many people who have been shut out of the outdoors in the past—are falling in love with outdoor recreation and the healing power of nature, and, hopefully, that means more people will want to speak up and vote to protect wild places and public lands. The bad? All these new visitors are overwhelming public lands and the underfunded managers who are tasked with protecting them. And far too many of them don’t have experience in outdoor ethics and safety. Some are leaving trash, blasting music, stressing sensitive ecosystems, and sometimes putting themselves in dangerous situations.
It’s not their fault. It’s ours. We need to be promoting education and finding ways to fund programs and staff to help mitigate crowds and encourage new visitors to have better experiences.
This winter has the potential to be an even bigger problem. With resorts operating on COVID-19 precautions, more people are primed to try new winter sports, and, with so much economic uncertainty out there, the backcountry is going to be crowded. That represents a real danger. Backcountry snow can be deadly, and skiing and riding beyond the safety of the resort requires the proper training, equipment, experience, and solid mountain judgement. I am not trying to discourage anyone from experiencing the joys of wild snow, but I do implore all of you—no matter your experience level— to be informed and safe out there in this upcoming, unprecedented season.
To that end, sign up for avalanche education classes and do not head out without the proper gear and partners you trust. Heuristic traps or the ways we justify accepting risks we know we should pay attention to can get us in deep trouble. Be willing to see beyond your fun-blinders. I always say that if one person in my group says no in a backcountry situation, it’s a no for the group. Leave dangerous terrain for spring days and stable snowpacks. Familiarize yourself with the Colorado Avalanche Information Center’s (CAIC) daily report (avalanche.state.co.us). And go to forecastpledge.org to take the Friends of CAIC pledge to check that forecast every time before you head into the backcountry (or every day).
I personally have had far too many friends and colleagues die in avalanches. I want you to stay safe and find joy in these uncertain times. And I hope to make turns with you one day.
Cover Photo: Friends of the CAIC executive director Aaron Carlson enjoys the perks of non profit work. Photo by Liam Doran