As ski areas open and COVID-19 cases continue to rise, even the most diehard snowsports fans among us are starting to ask: Is it responsible, or even safe, to snowboard or ski in a pandemic? What’s safer—ski resorts, or the backcountry? Or, for that matter, a backcountry ski area like Bluebird, which is a hybrid between the two?
Competing Safety Concerns: Avalanches and COVID-19
From an avalanche perspective, it’s hard to beat the thorough mitigation and avalanche bombing that a traditional ski resort can provide. And crowding at popular backcountry trailheads is certainly a concern, says Anna DeBattiste with the Colorado Search and Rescue Association. That’s one reason that resorts—and their mandatory reservation systems—could look particularly appealing to skiers and snowboarders this year.
“We have last March as a barometer [for the way this ski season could look],” DeBattiste explains. “We saw a lot of crowding and lack of basic etiquette at trailheads.”
She also notes that the COVID-19 pandemic has brought on a surge in interest in backcountry skiing and splitboarding this year. That could exacerbate crowding problems. It’s also possible that more users could result in more human-triggered avalanches. This is especially true in a state as notorious for its unstable snowpack as Colorado.
“The number of human-triggered avalanches we have is based on the avalanche conditions and the number of people out there,” explains Ethan Greene. Greene is the director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, or CAIC. “If we have normal conditions [for Colorado], and we have more people in the backcountry, you’d logically expect that we’d have more human-triggered avalanches than we do in a typical year,” he says.
Why Resorts Might Not Be Safer in a Pandemic
Even the resort solution isn’t a COVID-19 failsafe, says Bob Tierney, a patroller with over 20 years of experience at resorts. He currently manages avalanche mitigation at Bluebird Backcountry.
“At the resort, people are used to restrooms and getting a hot meal,” he notes. Because of that, Tierney predicts that there won’t be much change in the way people congregate at traditional ski areas, even with resort reservation systems in place.
“Even if you make the choice to avoid the lodge and ride the lifts only with members of your household, you can’t escape the lift lines,” DeBattiste adds. “We’ve been promoting uphilling at ski resorts [as an alternative], though some resorts have made their uphill policies more restrictive this year.” (You can find more information about specific resorts’ policies on their websites.)
How to Safely Backcountry Ski in a Pandemic
The third option: heading to a controlled backcountry ski area. At these locations, avalanche professionals help mitigate natural hazards, and reservation systems and spaced-out bathrooms prevent crowding bottlenecks. Plus, no lifts means no waiting in lift lines. (As of writing, Bluebird Backcountry is the only backcountry-specific ski area in the US.)
“We have it set up so you just don’t have a lot of people breathing down your neck,” Tierney says of Bluebird’s base layout. “‘Space not speed’ is our mantra here.”
More experienced skiers and splitboarders can also escape the crowds in the unpatrolled backcountry by opting for weekday laps, driving to more remote trailheads, or skinning deeper into the wilderness.
Greene urges these users to keep in mind that, though it might be COVID-safer, the backcountry poses the same issues this year as it does every year.
“The people who are more experienced are just as susceptible, or in some cases more susceptible than beginners. because these are people who tend to go into avalanche terrain a lot,” Greene adds. “On top of that, they’re just as susceptible as other people when it comes to making decisions in high-stress environments. That could mean whiteout conditions, or getting into an argument with your significant other as you walked out the door that day.”
Pile on the stresses that come from living during the COVID-19 pandemic, and you’re dealing with a lot more human factors in your decision-making.
Backcountry skiers and splitboarders need to have their winter navigation skills, avalanche awareness, and outdoor self-sufficiency dialed before venturing out on their own.
“The first thing you need to do is get the education,” DeBattiste recommends, urging backcountry skiers and splitboarders to take an AIARE course (or at minimum an avalanche awareness course) and practice beacon drills until they’re rote memory.
Gaining Backcountry Experience
However, education alone isn’t enough to make you a backcountry expert. The other critical piece is getting out and accruing backcountry experience under the supervision of an experienced mentor, says DeBattiste. She adds that skiers and splitboarders should make sure their mentor understands the particular hazards of the local snowpack. (Snowpack hazards can vary widely between states and regions of the US.)
You can hire a professional backcountry skiing guide through your local guide service, or, at Bluebird, sign up for a guided day or lesson with backcountry experts.
If any year is the year to invest in your education and play it safe, this is it, says DeBattiste.
“It’s great for people to get out into the backcountry as long as they’re doing it responsibly,” she says. “This year, be part of the solution.”