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Colorado’s winter tourism ad dollars will serve a new purpose this year: backcountry avalanche education

As a busy backcountry season looms, a first-of-its-kind collaboration corrals tourism marketing, avalanche education, land managers and outdoor recreation businesses to push responsible recreation this winter

Sam Wheelock, of Golden, from left, Kelly Dohn, and Jazz Allen-Perkal skin uphill in the backcountry on Friday March, 20, 2020, near Georgetown, CO. With many closures in Colorado due to the coronavirus pandemic, many more skiers and snowboarders opt for uphilling equipment to keep skiing in the backcountry and on ski resorts without chairlifts running. (Hugh Carey, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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In a normal year, late fall features Colorado ads enticing would-be vacationers from New York, Chicago, Dallas and Phoenix with images of powdery playgrounds. 

But in this anything-but-normal year, the Colorado Tourism Office isn’t peddling vacations to out-of-state tourists. The office is redirecting its winter budget toward state residents with a call for responsible recreation in the remote winter wildlands. It’s not a clarion call to adventure in the backcountry. It’s a plea for heads-up playtime.

“The message we are sharing is safety,” said Cathy Ritter, the director of the Colorado Tourism Office. “We are operating from a position that we believe plenty of people will be heading into the backcountry already and we don’t want to be adding to that number.”

Colorado’s outdoors was exceptionally busy this year. 

As more Coloradans turn to the mountains for respite, search and rescue teams are frazzled and land managers are stressed. They endured a record number of drowning in lakes and rivers this year and endless calls for help. And heading into what will be an extraordinarily busy winter in the backcountry, an alphabet soup of state and federal agencies are joining outdoor businesses and groups in a  winter-long campaign asking Colorado’s winter backcountry explorers to ponder risks, be responsible and show respect.  

The four-month Colorado Backcountry Winter Safety Campaign launches Monday, with a weeklong build toward urging all backcountry adventurers to take a safety pledge to “Know Before You Go,” “Recreate Responsibly” and “Care for Colorado.”

A skier skins uphill at Loveland Ski Area on Friday March, 20, 2020, near Georgetown, CO. With many closures in Colorado due to the coronavirus pandemic, many more skiers and snowboarders opt for uphilling equipment to keep skiing in the backcountry and on ski resorts without chairlifts running. (Hugh Carey, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The effort includes the Colorado Tourism Office, Outdoor Recreation Industry Office, Colorado Avalanche Information Center, Colorado Search and Rescue Association, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, the Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management and the Colorado Department of Transportation, which clears trailhead parking lots, making the plow driver the bouncer of the backcountry this season. 

(Watch for aggressive ticketing by police and Forest Service, too, as parking overwhelms mountain trailheads.) 

The state and federal agencies are joined by a couple dozen conservation and backcountry groups as well as businesses, guides and local governments in Colorado’s high-country. 

“It’s been just an incredible, blossoming partnership,” said Lauren Truitt, Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s assistant director for information and education. “This is something so brand new and so impactful, with all of us leveraging and lifting a similar core message through very different channels that allows our reach to go so much further.”

The effort was sparked by a meeting in Gov. Jared Polis’ office in early September. Search and rescue teams around the state, stressed by a busy summer, were fretting an equally frantic winter. Backcountry guides and avalanche educators were reporting record interest by a growing horde of skiers eager to explore beyond resorts. 

Read more outdoors stories from The Colorado Sun.

Ritter had her messaging machine at the ready. So she corralled the state agencies that help manage outdoor recreation and crafted the new campaign. 

“People are seeking the outdoors in unprecedented numbers this summer and the concern is that most people may feel the same call for getting outside in the winter, but may not realize all the risks involved,” she said.

Nearly 50 Colorado Search and Rescue teams conducted almost 2,900 missions in 2019, all driven by volunteers who spent more than 350,000 hours on rescues and training. And 2020 is shaping up to be even busier, thanks in large part to hordes of people visiting public lands this summer. 

Jeff Sparhawk with the Colorado Search and Rescue Association said those teams — made up of about 2,800 volunteers — are in a “prepare for anything mode,” right now.

They are watching ski resorts control crowds as state leaders clamp down on activities in an attempt to slow the spread of the coronavirus. As they wait for snow that will ultimately define the avalanche hazards in the backcountry, they are getting some rest after a hectic summer and hunting season.

Earlier this year, before the pandemic, bipartisan legislation wound through the statehouse that would have developed a plan to better support the state’s overworked search and rescue volunteers. The bill was lost in the summer’s COVID crush.

“Since that bill went down, the work for us has dramatically increased for most areas around the state,” Sparhawk said. “We essentially got no relief while the requests for our work increased.”

Search and rescue crews look for the body of Salvador Garcia-Atance after a massive avalanche Feb. 19, 2019, near Telluride Resort. (Provided by the Colorado Avalanche Information Center)

Alongside the safety pledge, the new backcountry campaign on Colorado.com encourages users to support the Colorado Search and Rescue Association, which represents the state’s dozens of volunteer rescue teams around the state. (A 5-year Colorado Outdoor Recreation Search and Rescue Card only costs $12.)

Sparhawk is hopeful that this summer’s record-setting traffic on public lands showed the value of a well-supported search and rescue community.

“People are becoming aware of the bigger picture. It’s inspiring to see how valued our mountains are. This is where people turn and we need to protect the mountains and the people who are there,” Sparhawk said. “The way we see it, search and rescue is a vital piece of Colorado.” 

And a single exposure to contagion can shut down a team, which could be disastrous. If the number of calls for help stays high through the winter, teams could be stretched thin, Sparhawk said. 

So he’s hoping the state’s innovative safety campaign will spur more responsibility among backcountry users. Use a guide or find a mentor, Sparhawk said. Take a class and check the forecasts. Help those in need and be mindful of other people in the backcountry. Be respectful. 

“While we are maybe trying to get away from people … we are all pretty much like-minded in the backcountry and we have to watch out for each other,” he said. 

Ritter is quick to point out that the safety campaign is not, in any way, intended to push people into the backcountry. 

“We are being very careful not to promote backcountry activities,” she said, describing a flood of national media inquiries pouring into her office from out-of-state reporters eager to write about “all the things to do in the Colorado backcountry.”

Where do I find the resources? There’s an online guide for that 

Nathan Fey, director of the Colorado Outdoor Recreation Industry Office, tapped his lengthy list of outdoor business partners to create an online resource of guides and outfitters. He also helped compile a roster of online and in-person avalanche education opportunities, from speaker series and awareness clinics to more formal avalanche courses

Fey likes the way the campaign is organized, with a focus starting before people head into the backcountry, then attention to how to behave while in the backcountry and finally a spotlight on how to minimize the impact of recreation. 

“Before, during and afterwards,” Fey said. “We want people out there to be safe, aware and respectful of their surroundings.” 

Fey’s office has spent several years bringing together businesses and groups that all work within the broad realm of outdoor recreation. Colorado’s outdoor recreation office was among the first in the nation, sparking a growing recognition of the economic, cultural and political power of conservation and recreation. 

Skiers led by avalanche educator Abe Pacharz skin toward Mosquito Peak above the North London Mill last December.(Zach Mahone, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The partnerships formed in the Colorado safety campaign could linger beyond this season, Fey said, perhaps as a vehicle for protecting public lands and improving access to the outdoors. The new Colorado Outdoor Regional Partnerships Initiative — signed by Polis on Oct. 30 at the opening of the new Fishers Peak State Park — aligns state agencies in a mission to balance recreation and conservation. 

And Fey hopes the safety program galvanizes the winter backcountry community around a common message of education, safety and preparedness.

“We have all these agencies doing really complementary work and this illustrates how strong our shared strategies can be going forward,” Fey said. “I hope this becomes a standard for how backcountry users prepare for their trips and prepare themselves personally, and really step up and represent the best of their industry.”

The U.S. Forest Service also has been involved in shaping the messaging for the new campaign. 

“This is not just a Forest Service issue. This is a Colorado issue,” said Don Dressler, who manages the Forest Service’s ski resort program in the Rocky Mountain Region. “Really, this is all hands on deck.”

Dressler is working with resorts on revised uphill policies that allow skiers a chance to climb on snow without exposure to avalanche risk in the true backcountry. He’s working with outfitters and guides to accommodate increased avalanche education. For example, Dressler said, the agency is expanding permits to allow midweek education classes as well as weekends and looking at “non-traditional” locations for avalanche educators to host clinics and on-snow events. 

“Everything is on the table,” he said. 

Changes to uphilling at resorts could shunt skiers into the backcountry

In March, when Polis ordered all ski resorts to close, skiers scoured backcountry ski shops and started earning their turns, many flocking to the snowy slopes of the shuttered resorts. As crowds grew, most ski areas quickly closed down uphill access. 

“So much was unknown in March and April,” Dressler said. “We were building the plane as we were flying it. Now we know a little bit more and we recognize that outdoor recreation has a lot of benefits for mental health and physical health during the pandemic and we are looking for ways to maintain access to the outdoors in partnership with our resort partners.”

Resorts are beginning to announce uphill policies and most are asking users to pay a fee. Some resorts, like Steamboat and Winter Park, are donating portions of that fee to local search and rescue teams. Resorts that have long-established uphill rules with designated routes and a robust community of climbers — like Aspen Snowmass — are continuing to allow pretty much unfettered uphill traffic. But most resorts are limiting uphill access with new rules that prohibit skinning during operating hours and often requiring special passes.  

A pair of skiers skin uphill at Loveland Ski Area on Friday March, 20, 2020, near Georgetown, CO. With many closures in Colorado due to the coronavirus pandemic, many more skiers and snowboarders opt for uphilling equipment to keep skiing in the backcountry and on ski resorts without chairlifts running. (Hugh Carey, Special to The Colorado Sun)

It’s hard to have a one-size-fits-all uphill policy for ski resorts, Dressler said. 

“It’s very site specific,” he said. “Uphill access and downhill at a busy ski area does not mix well. But we have heard the public and we understand they are looking at opportunities to get outside and use the national forest so we want to work with permit holders to make sure we can do it safely.”

Even modest restrictions on uphill travel are being warily eyed by search and rescue teams. Skinning on groomed runs helps skiers develop technical skills before venturing into riskier terrain. Skinning at a resort is like a climbing gym; a safe place to practice.

“Maybe one of the unintended consequences of the limitations is that it might send more people into the true backcountry,” said Andy Wiener with the Routt County Search and Rescue, where Steamboat ski area last week announced a new uphill policy that prohibits skinning during operating hours and requires users to obtain a $20 pass. “I understand it could potentially avoid problems with people skiing down, but it’s going to drive more people over to Buff Pass and those other areas where it’s easier to get into trouble.”

Colorado Parks and Wildlife counted record traffic at its state parks this summer, which is reason to celebrate, Truitt said. But at the same time the state’s parks saw a record 32 drowning deaths, up from the previous high of 24 last year.

And winter recreation in Colorado’s mountains carries greater risks than summer play. 

“There are so many downsides to 2020 and the pandemic and what it’s done, but one of the really positive things that I hope we continue to see is people connecting to the outdoors. In our darkest hours, nature showed up,” Truitt said. “Our hope is that if we can get people to just take some small steps, we can really reduce the potential danger and increase their outdoor enjoyment.”