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An evolution of increased winter backcountry use

The why behind increased use and what that means for safety in the backcountry

By Cayla Vidmar

Whether via two-stroke or two feet, there has been a noticeable uptick in the number of people, snowmobiles, and cars at the trailheads surrounding Crested Butte. What does this mean for avalanche and backcountry safety, and what caused this increased use?

Ian Havlick and Steve Banks of the Crested Butte Avalanche Center weigh in on the evolution of backcountry use they’ve witnessed, and what that means for the people playing in the abundant backcountry surrounding Crested Butte.

“You can’t dispute the increase in backcountry use. It’s evident and interesting to watch,” says Banks, International Federation of Mountain Guides Association (IFMGA) mountain guide and avalache forecaster for the Crested Butte Avalanche Center (CBAC). “When I got into backcountry skiing, it was self-prohibiting, the equipment wasn’t very good, and you had to be able to telemark ski because alpine touring stuff didn’t exist,” Banks says.

Havlick, CBAC forecaster, agrees that use is increasing, and attributes this to a variety of factors, including “improved equipment, lower equipment cost, and social media is a huge player.” Havlick also says, “There’s been a shift in ski movies looking more toward the backcountry, and people are being exposed to Hollywood-style shots of people skiing and riding in the backcountry.”

Havlick also attributes an increase in backcountry use to the availability of knowledge online. “I remember graduating from high school in 2006 and wanting to telemark ski so bad, so I went and bought all the gear and read and YouTubed how to do it,” he says.

This is quite different from Banks’ experience in the early days of backcountry exploration. “We didn’t have snowmachines, or they weren’t that prolific, and they definitely weren’t deep powder sleds … so you had to seek out mentorship to show you how to do it,” he recounts.

Banks says, “Previously, getting into the backcountry required a lot of work on less than desirable equipment,” and, he says, “If you wanted to get into the backcountry with someone more experienced, you had to prove yourself before anyone would take you.”

Despite an increase in backcountry use, both Havlick and Banks say avalanche-caused deaths in the United States have flatlined. Havlick attributes this to better avalanche forecasting and better equipment, and Banks credits avalanche education. “When I started [backcounty skiing] AIARE [American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education] was a brand new thing and there was one course offered in Crested Butte. Now there’s roughly 20 to 25 courses offered here and hundreds of courses offered on the Front Range.”

AIARE offers a standardized curriculim for a complete program of avalanche courses for students of all levels, and adheres to the American Avalanche Association “recommended guidelines.”

Travis Tucker, general manager of Irwin Guides, explained the steady rise in demand for avalanche education. “We are offering 10 more courses this year than last year, and we’ve increased our enrollment from 12 to 18 people on our level one courses,” Tucker says.

But for some, Banks says, this education is more like a box to check than an opportunity for life-saving education. “You can see it right away,” he says. “There’s people that are there and really want to learn, and there’s other people that are just there going through the motions.”

The increase of avalanche course offerings is to Havlick a demonstration of “people acknowledging that they need formal education, and people are less ashamed to say they have to go take a class.”

One of the risks associated with increased backcountry use comes from groups dropping into avalanche terrain above other groups, which puts the group below at risk for avalanches triggered by the group above. “It’s a much bigger risk on the Front Range—I don’t see it as much around here [Crested Butte]. In general we do a good job in communication out here and watching each other’s backs,” says Banks.

One solution to the lack of communication while in the backcountry is using the FRS radio channel 7-0 on any two-way radio, as Banks explains. “It was something started by a guide and avalanche specialist in Telluride named Matt Stein because they have an off piste area that hundreds of people ski a day, and it’s pretty big vertical, so you can’t really see if people are down below you.”

Many people in the backcountry use two-way radios. Guides and those in the backcountry circle are spreading the word about tuning into radio channel 7-0 when out in the backcountry to communicate to other groups in the area, as well as for communication with search and rescue in emergencies. It’s something Banks says the Crested Butte Search and Rescue is trying to get more people to adopt, before a lack of communication between groups in the backcountry becomes an issue.

The CBAC has brought “Fireside Chats” into the mix this winter to gather the community once a month to talk about what’s happening in the backcountry and about snowpack, and to give people a chance to interact with avalanche professionals and ask questions. “The forecasters are a bunch of geeks who like to talk about this stuff, so it’s a way to get other people into our little geekdom,” says Banks.

The Fireside Chats also echo the glory days of backcountry skiing, when snowmachines didn’t have as much power, and if you wanted to get into the backcountry, you had to ask questions, find a mentor, and get firsthand experience in the elements. The Fireside Chats offer an opportunity to create an educated community and to “keep a pulse on what the issues are in the backcountry,” says Banks.

For all things backcountry and avalanche-related in the Crested Butte area, including daily avalanche forecasts, recommendations, and warnings, visit CBAvalancheCenter.org. Make sure to signup for the CBAC daily forecast email to get up-to-date avalanche information delivered to your inbox. The CBAC also strongly encourages the community to submit observations through the website, anonymously if you wish. For updates on Fireside Chats and other events follow CBAC on Facebook and get updates online.

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