Pandemic creates shift towards backcountry sports
When the pandemic hit Lake Tahoe last spring, most businesses closed, including ski resorts.
Many were upset, frustrated and confused to have the season cut short, especially with feet of new snow in the forecast.
However, along with snowmobilers and snowshoers, many avid skiers and riders turned to human-powered ways of getting their turns in on the mountain. Sales for backcountry equipment has skyrocketed and local shops are seeing a new wave of people wanting to get their hands on gear.
Lee Collins, owner of TahoeLab Boards, specializes in hand-making splitboards. Lee says that this summer they have worked more than ever crafting boards, specifically split boards. He says that personally he has seen a 30-50% increase in people interested in backcountry setups. Collins says that he’s even had trouble getting backcountry bindings and skins from dealers who are seeing this increase nationally and across the ocean to Europe.
While the influx connects more people to the real outdoors and nature, it also comes with additional pressure on land and resources, safety precautions and ensuring that the backcountry community remains strong.
People who are new to the backcountry and those experienced will both have to adapt to more populated recreation areas, more crowded trailheads and they also might have to search a little bit harder for untouched powder.
With the influx of people new to backcountry sports, outdoor education is dire.
David Reichel, executive director for Sierra Avalanche Center who previously taught wilderness education courses at Lake Tahoe Community College, says that the classes in the past would fill up the same day they opened.
“It was the busiest I’ve ever seen it in the spring,” he said.
Reichel said he’s been talking to guides who are saying people are very interested in taking these courses.
The classes when offered by a guide service can end up being very costly but LTCC makes these expensive classes more affordable.
While LTCC isn’t offering AIARE (American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education) classes for the fall, the classes will be available in winter term. But, Diane Lewis, marketing and communications director for LTCC, says the classes fill up very fast and those who want to register need to do so just as they open.
Dr. Clinton Culp is now the full-time faculty member in charge of the Wilderness Education & Outdoor Leadership program at LTCC and has redesigned the departments classes, certificates and marketing. In a typical winter quarter, LTCC usually serves about 150-250 students. Even with the COVID cancellations in March, it served 452 students last winter just in the wilderness education department.
Courses are imperative to understanding the basics of snow science and avalanche safety. In the 2019-20 season, there were 23 fatalities recorded from avalanches in the U.S.
“People need to get training somehow,” Reichel said and added there are different ways to get in the backcountry and it’s important to recognize the difference between snowshoeing on flat ground in a meadow versus someone going down steep-terrain. “If you are going down steep terrain, you need training.”
Reichel said people need to be extra aware of situations that can be exacerbated with more people in the backcountry, including traversing above and below slopes. Also, people who are new to the backcountry might not know that they need to check avalanche and weather conditions.
“If we have an increase of people in the backcountry, it can cause more triggers,” he said. “It’s going to be an adjustment for experienced users.”
SAC is a resource that helps backcountry-goers understand the conditions and dangers by creating daily avalanche forecasts and observations. Before the pandemic shut down events last year, SAC had over 2,000 at their in-person awareness talks at shops and breweries.
Reichel said that he’s heard that there has been substantially more interest than normal but doesn’t believe all the courses are filled. Links to avalanche safety courses are available under the “Education” tab on SAC’s website. SAC even offers some scholarships towards classes.
SAC also offers free Motorized Level 1, Level 2, and rescue classes. Reichel said that before SAC started offering these classes, there were no opportunities for snowmobilers to acquire avalanche training in the Tahoe area.
Some backcountry enthusiasts are also worried about the upcoming winter season with the influx of people and the potential issues that may arise.
“You can have all the avalanche gear, but it doesn’t help if you don’t know how to use it,” Collins said.
He mentioned that another potential danger is people going further into zones that they don’t normally go to to escape the crowds which could cause problems for search and rescue efforts.
Todd Walton, executive director for Winter Wildlands Alliance, said that while there’s been a steady increase of people interested in backcountry sports for the last couple years, this year with the pandemic, that interest really sparked.
“With the pandemic, more people are getting outside,” he said. “The ultimate thing with all backcountry users is responsibility and all of us working together, looking out for each other. Beacons turn on at the car and turn off at the bar.”
Walton stresses that backcountry sports are not a “walk on a golf-course.” Along with the dangers associated with avalanches in the backcountry other factors that are associated with more people is the increase of trash, land-use and conflicts between people. Walton said that while it’s great that more people are connecting with the outdoors and investing in equipment that gives them more freedom, it’s a “double edged sword.”
Walton says that the increase can inflame issues in the outdoors and at trailheads with traffic congestion, trash and even human-waste. In an open letter he wrote from WWA, Walton delves into how this shift is putting pressure on our wildlands and each outdoorist must be responsible for their impact.
Walton writes, “Love the backcountry without loving it into oblivion.”
WWA recently launched their SkiKind campaign to promote a backcountry responsibility code to ensure responsibility, safety and kindness on and off the mountains. Walton says that as a “20 something backcountry skier” he believes it’s important to provide knowledge in a kind way to those who are new to the sport to keep the backcountry community strong, safe and working together.
“You were new once too,” he said.
He also wants to instill that public lands are all of ours to enjoy, but stressed the importance of being respectful stewards.
Another part of the SkiKind campaign promotes leaving no trace by packing out all trash, human-waste and dog waste to keep backcountry areas pristine.
Walton encourages people to get involved with WWA.
For more information on SAC visit https://www.sierraavalanchecenter.org/.
For more information about WWA, visit https://winterwildlands.org/.
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