You’re right. The skin-track feels more crowded
If you have recently thought your favorite winter trailhead was getting busier, you are correct. More skiers, snowboarders and snowshoers are frequenting the backcountry, news that may sound wonderful to one enthusiast but terrifying to another. For some, it’s great that more people are seeking healthier recreational opportunities, especially in the great outdoors. For others, it’s also a bit nerve-racking to see so many new people use the backcountry as a means to “get away from it all.” Regardless of your stance, a 2013 article in the Denver Post called the backcountry “the fastest growing segment of the winter sports industry.”
P.J. Hildebrandt of The Alpineer says it’s an exciting part of the hard goods side of the ski industry. “The Alpine Touring [AT] market especially is seeing tremendous growth. Manufacturers are addressing this more and more and enhancing the gear available. A lot of binding options, boot options, and ski options have grown,” he said.
According to the Winter Wildlands Alliance, “During the 2013/2014 winter season sales of backcountry ski and snowshoe gear surpassed $44 million, continuing a trend of increasing each year. Ski touring gear alone topped $25 million. SnowSports Industries America (SIA) reported that sales of AT/Randonee boots increased by 60%, climbing skin sales by 10%, and sales of alpine/AT boots increased by 161% compared to the previous season.”
Hildebrandt has noticed local trailheads are seeing more traffic than ever. “More and more people with snowmobiles can get even farther and farther, more and more isolated. Even those places farthest out are seeing more traffic,” he said, adding that he’s noticed more resort skiers looking toward the backcountry but starting in safer terrain. “I’m seeing a little bit older crowd buying AT gear and many are using it in a controlled area like the ski area before or after work, for exercise.”
Are snowmobiles making much difference? Not necessarily. Colorado Department of Parks and Wildlife (CPW) provided statistics that show a decline in the number of snowmobiles being registered in Colorado over recent years.
In 2007 there were nearly 34,000 statewide snowmobile registrations, while in 2013 that figure was closer to 25,000. According to the Winter Wildlands Alliance, “A 2012 study released by the Physical Activity Council showed single-digit annual growth rates in human-powered snow sports, while noting a decline in participation in motorized snow sports.”
Gunnison County itself saw a drop from 1,303 registered snowmobiles in 2009 to 1,151 in 2013. So, if fewer snowmobiles are taking riders into the backcountry (presumably, based solely on statistics), what’s with the rise in foot traffic we’re seeing out there? Is it just another outlet for expression and adventure?
Last Saturday, at a public snowmobile registration held at Kebler Pass trailhead, Forest Service officials conducted a random sampling, asking 44 individuals a single, open-ended question: Why do you use a snowmobile?
Sixteen people said they use their snowmobiles strictly for the enjoyment of riding them. Sixteen others use them for access to other activities, like backcountry skiing or snowboarding. Another 12 commute to and from their homes around the Irwin town site via snowmobile. The Kebler Pass trailhead differs from other local trailheads because of the population at Irwin, and polls taken here would not necessarily align well with Washington Gulch or up the Slate River Valley, drainages that are more heavily used for recreation during winter months.
Tiff Simpson, general manager at Irwin Guides, has noticed differences in both the office and the wilderness. “I’ve been backcountry skiing for about 15 years now and yeah, there’s a huge increase in the amount of people I see at trailheads,” she noted.
Irwin Guides has been an American Institution for Avalanche Rescue and Education (AIARE) course provider since the beginning, when it was known to all as Crested Butte Mountain Guides. “Avalanche courses have been our bread and butter in the winter,” Simpson added. “Every year we’re adding more courses, we’re getting more students. We’re offering 21 courses this winter. That’s a mix of Level 1, Level 1 hut-based courses, Level 2 courses, Intro to Backcountry courses and Avalanche Refresher courses. Right now, three are already sold out and the others are close to selling out. I’m pretty confident that we’ll run every course on our schedule this season.”
Irwin Guides also offers private, guided skiing leading people out in the backcountry. Simpson claims the organization is “seeing significant growth in numbers there.”
As Team gOCb ski mountaineer Brian Wickenhauser put it, “It’s like the old chicken or the egg expression. Between gear manufacturers making better products that get you farther out there, like lighter skis, more applicable boots, and even splitboards, and the amount of people moving toward the backcountry, it’s almost hard to tell which came first—the people or the progressive gear?”
Jake Jones, executive director of Crested Butte Avalanche Center (CBAC), agrees the number of backcountry users in local mountains is noticeably increasing. “Anecdotally, the backcountry feels more crowded,” he said over the phone on Monday. Jones was unable to provide historical data from years past but said, “One way [the Avalanche Center] measures growth is through observations we receive from the public, and unfortunately the observations don’t accurately track the actual use the backcountry has seen over the past couple of years. Observations are critical to our operations.” Jones reminds local backcountry travelers that receiving public observations is vital because the forecasters can’t be in every drainage, every day.
To contribute, please visit cbavalanchecenter.org/submit-your-observations.
What’s the motivation?
Why give up the convenience of lift service for self-propulsion? Wickenhauser said it well. “We’re all endorphin junkies at this end of the valley. You eventually find a sense of comfort at the resort, but you can always find a sense of adventure and endorphins in the backcountry—from walking uphill, then again on the way down. And you have to live with the consequences out there,” he said.
There’s no fighting the flow of foot traffic, but you can prevent the ramifications of such a trend, particularly those concerning the safety of yourself and other backcountry travelers. Be aware of snow conditions and learn to properly interpret and analyze avalanche hazards. Be courteous to those around you—below you on the slope/skin-track as well as above you, potentially putting you at risk. Follow the storms. Not like they did in The Endless Winter, but for inconsistencies in snowpack left from ever-changing weather patterns. Check the avalanche forecast and do your part by submitting observations from the field. Follow CBAC on Facebook to benefit from their recent taking to social media, as lately they’ve been good about posting forecasts and observations there as well. As Jones put it, “Our forecasters are young enough to embrace that stuff at the appropriate level. They’re all very media and tech savvy.”
Local splitboarder Josh McEwen couldn’t put a number on it but admitted, “I definitely notice a lot more people out lately, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. People are getting off the couch and getting after it, and that’s great. But the way we like to ski, we like to go out where we don’t see anybody. That’s a lot tougher to find nowadays.”