AVON — Doug Stenclik is stacking skis and lining up a new point-of-sale system at Cripple Creek Backcountry. He wasn’t planning on opening his Avon and Aspen Highlands ski shops in September, but skiers have been buying early and often.
“It’s not slowing down, only picking up. So it’s real,” says Stenclik, whose online sales of touring and backcountry skis, boots and equipment are up fivefold in August and September at his CrippleCreekBC.com site, which has spurred him to open three of his four brick-and-mortar stores earlier than ever before.
“It’s exciting, but it’s also challenging. There are a lot of people coming in who have never been in the backcountry. I think it’s going to be pretty frightening at the trailhead with how many people are showing up this winter,” he says, “but in the same breath, I have to say this is good. There are more people getting out and enjoying human-powered sports on their public lands and recognizing all the things we love about the backcountry.”
As ski resorts tinker with crowd management plans that will limit access to the lifts in the coming season, all signs point to another spike in backcountry travel — just as they did in March, when ski areas closed early in response to the pandemic.
Sales of uphill equipment and avalanche safety gear are soaring. Avalanche educators are ramping up campaigns to reach new backcountry explorers. Search and rescue teams are preparing for additional calls for help, and resorts are closely studying their uphill policies to accommodate what everyone expects to be a banner year for skiers venturing beyond the resort boundaries.
“This is the moment when BC skiing becomes mainstream. That’s good and bad but regardless, it is real,” says Kim Miller, the CEO of Boulder-based Scarpa North America, who has seen a record-setting surge in orders of touring ski boots this summer from skiers and retailers.
Sales of uphill ski equipment, which is a small portion of the overall ski and snowboard retail scene, have been climbing at a rapid rate in recent years. Sales of alpine touring equipment — boots, skis and bindings made for touring — climbed 15% in the 2019-20 season, marking the largest increase among sales of alpine skis, winter accessories and snowboards. That’s according to the retail-tracking NPD Group’s Julia Clark Day, who earlier this month updated outdoor retailers and manufacturers on trends that include growth in camping gear and backcountry ski equipment.
In the accessories category, sales of goggles and helmets declined in the 2019-20 season, thanks in large part to 50% drops in sales in March. But sales of backcountry accessories, like avalanche transceivers, skins, shovels and probe poles, climbed 53% in dollar sales compared to March 2019. Internet sales of skins, for example, climbed 156% in March.
“We heard from several retailers that everyone was scrambling to keep their ski season going,” Day says in the mid-September recent presentation.
Sales of alpine touring boots climbed 34% for the 2019-20 season, thanks to 60% month-over-month growth in the March 2020.
Miller called those alpine touring boot sales “a spike within a boom.”
The trend mirrors the explosion in bike sales this summer as Americans explored new ways to get outside during the pandemic. Bike shops across the country reported record sales and decimated inventories. Retailers and manufacturers expect similar scarcity for backcountry skis, boots and avalanche equipment.
“We’ve had a run on in-season orders from several of our big retailers,” says Bruce Edgerly, the co-founder of Boulder’s avalanche safety gear maker Backcountry Access. “Looks like it could be a banner year for us backcountry gear makers, assuming it snows.”
Stenclik says his talks with manufacturers seem to indicate dwindling inventories as the run on gear grows heading into winter.
“Our bottleneck this season will be getting more gear,” he says. “Talking with manufacturers, the overages they have are already spoken for. So what we have now is what we will have for the year. We will not be restocked.”
Waiting on an uphill resort
But unlike cycling, backcountry skiing requires a bit of education and training to avoid avalanche hazards in remote and snowy mountains. In recent years, manufacturers and retailers have shouldered some responsibility in avalanche education, offering clinics in shops and crafting online videos and tutorials. Ski areas also have helped, opening their slopes to a growing number of uphill skiers who not only get exercise, but hone skinning skills needed for efficient travel in the backcountry.
“The ski areas are like climbing gyms for BC practice,” Miller says.
Colorado’s resorts have long embraced uphill skiers, with policies that allow skiers to climb slopes in the morning and evenings after the lifts close or even during daytime operations. This year, with resorts managing access with reservations, limited sales of day tickets and other crowd-control measures during the pandemic, uphill policies could be adjusted as well.
“It is definitely on the radar for our members and has been the subject of some considerable, but still unresolved, discussion,” says Melanie Mills, the head of the Colorado Ski Country trade group who expects resorts will start releasing uphill policies in the next few weeks as operation plans take form.
The Forest Service is waiting for resorts to submit those final operating plans for the winter and is working with the state and other groups on education and awareness programs for backcountry users.
“Many of our popular backcountry trailheads were maxing out at capacity even before the pandemic so that’s a big challenge and it’s something we saw this summer for sure,” said Sam Massman, the acting deputy district ranger of the White River National Forest’s Dillon Ranger District, which includes all the Summit County ski areas and Vail Pass.
As more people venture onto snowy trails, Massman has seen trailheads swell with cars, challenging both land managers and police. In the winter, the cars spilling from constrained parking lots atop Berthoud, Loveland and Vail passes pose dangers to drivers, skiers and plow operators, he says, repeating a commonly heard plea urging late arrivals to go elsewhere if a parking lot is full.
“So we have the educational piece and the operational piece, with parking in general at our trailheads,” Massman says. “These are going to be extra important issues this winter.”
As resorts script plans for managing not just lift-riding crowds but uphill traffic, search and rescue teams and avalanche educators are planning for growth at popular backcountry playgrounds.
“We are definitely expecting a large influx of users this year. I think what we saw last spring was a precursor to what we will be seeing this winter,” says Aaron Carlson with the Friends of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, which helps support and amplify the center’s forecasting message and the need for avalanche education.
Carlson’s group last week released the Forecast Pledge, which asks backcountry skiers to formally promise they will check the center’s daily, regional forecasts that detail avalanche hazards and risks.
“The pledge came out of our efforts to get people to check the forecast every time they head into the backcountry. It’s really the most important thing someone can do before heading out,” Carlson says.
This isn’t just about skiers either. With off-road motorcycle sales up more than 50% in the first half of the year and federal land managers across the West reporting significant increases in the numbers of people camping in dispersed zones, snowmobile groups are anticipating a big uptick in motorized backcountry users this winter.
“I’m expecting a bumper crop this year. I think when people start thinking about snow, snowmobile use is going to come hot and heavy,” said Scott Jones, the executive director of the Colorado Snowmobile Association.
Jones and his group have been installing beacon checkpoints at motorized trailheads for the past several years around Colorado as the number of snowmobilers pursuing motor-specific avalanche education has climbed. Jones fears fresh arrivals to the snowmobile world might need specially tailored messaging to make them aware of avalanche hazards and teach them how to use safety equipment.
“We saw it this summer with people simply thinking the backcountry was like an amusement park,” he said. “That can be a very dangerous mindset in winter.”
Avalanche educators casting a wide net
Ethan Greene, the executive director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, says his team of forecasters is exploring what additional messaging they can put out to reach as many skiers as possible — and not reach just the expected wave of first-timers but also veteran backcountry travelers who sometimes skip the fundamental but essential steps.
In casting a broader net to capture the growing ranks of backcountry skiers, the CAIC is working with the Utah Avalanche Center to create more online safety content based on the national Know Before You Go campaign. The idea is to build a library of short videos that can build awareness of avalanche hazards and safety strategies.
“We just want to provide as many hooks as we can to get people in the habit of checking the forecast,” Greene says. “We are trying to broaden the message so we can capture the most people. We want people to have good information so they make good decisions.”
Search and rescue teams across Colorado’s high country are bracing for a big year. They already saw record traffic at popular zones like Loveland Pass, Vail Pass and Berthoud Pass last spring after resorts closed early.
Last year’s wave of backcountry travelers came in late March and April, when Colorado’s notoriously fickle snowpack can stabilize with warming temperatures. The potential of crowds in December, January and February is disconcerting to avalanche experts. That’s when a persistent weak layer of sugary snow crystals close to the ground can unleash powerful avalanches that are difficult to predict. Colorado leads the country’s grim tally of avalanche deaths, averaging about six a year, with accidents often attributed to the dangerous layer of rotten, weak snow lurking deep in the snowpack.
“We are really anticipating seeing the same thing this season, only instead of just one or two months in the spring, it’s possibly going to last all winter,” says Charles Pitman with the Summit County Rescue Group. “We are certainly going to have our antennas up and (be) checking out those places where people tend to go in the backcountry.”
This year Summit County Rescue Group is expanding its free beacon park, where backcountry users can test their transceiver skills. The old wired beacon park in Frisco is being retired and the group is looking for a sloped, snowy area to set up a wireless park where skiers can practice searching for buried, beeping beacons.
The Friends of Berthoud Pass group has been offering avalanche awareness clinics and on-snow training at the wildly popular, easily-accessed backcountry ski zone above Empire for more than 15 years.
The group has spent the past two months developing an online curriculum that will use their volunteer instructors to present clinics and seminars using Zoom. The group is already seeing growing interest among skiers eager to refresh their avalanche safety skills or prepare for first-ever trips into the backcountry.
“We have been full blast on this,” says Brian Pollock, the group’s director of education who recently joined a call with search and rescue teams and federal land managers discussing the challenges expected for the upcoming season. “We will hopefully have classes of 100 and break our normal presentation into segments. We would like to do it in person, but obviously that’s a challenge right now.”
Most of the search-and-rescue teams in the Colorado mountains are expecting an increase in calls this winter, just as they have seen this summer, says Jeff Sparhawk, president of the Colorado Search and Rescue Association.
Teams have joined with retailers, guide services, federal land managers and other emergency service providers to prepare for changes this winter, with a focus on using traditional media and social media to reach backcountry users, Sparhawk says.
The list of concerns for search-and-rescue teams is long. Overcrowded trailheads could delay emergency response. Winter rescues require a lot of work and time for volunteer teams and back-to-back calls can quickly exhaust a team. More people in avalanche terrain means a single avalanche could impact more than one party, further challenging rescuers.
“We are hearing about the number of people purchasing backcountry gear and, while having that gear is essential, I’m concerned that people are going to say, ‘Well, I have the gear, I’m safe,’ but they haven’t practiced with their beacon or used their probe or practiced strategic shoveling techniques,” Sparhawk says. “We are dealing with an unprecedented situation, so we are making projections and trying to prepare for the worst and hope for the best.”