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Avalanche education is expanded ahead of anticipated surge in backcountry interest

Colorado Adventure Guides leads an American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education class on snow.
Photo from Abe Pacharz

DILLON — With winter approaching, guide businesses and avalanche educators across the state are drafting and finalizing plans on how to host instructional programming ahead of an anticipated surge in winter backcountry recreation.

Guides like Abe Pacharz, owner of Summit County-based Colorado Adventure Guides, are discussing how to host programming during the pandemic. After holding out hope that the guide company would be able to run out of a classroom like normal, Pacharz is planning on a model where program participants in American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education courses learn via Google Classroom for the first two days of programming before joining small groups for two days of on-snow instruction.

Pacharz said he had trouble finding clear information on the number of people he’ll be able to have in a classroom because a business like his running an educational program doesn’t neatly fit into a county or state classification for COVID-19 guidelines. What complicates things more is that Pacharz and Colorado Adventure Guides staff instruct and operate programming in various counties with differing rules.

“We’ve had to kind of figure it out and come up with our own designation,” Pacharz said. “(The county and state) are sort of giving guidelines for outdoor recreation, but the guidance isn’t super clear. … For us, the classroom thing is the big gray area.”

Pacharz said the first day of coursework for a Level 1 avalanche course will be conducted with a one- to two-hour session where participants can ask questions about information assigned to be read in advance of the course. It’s also an opportunity to meet instructors and be introduced to those you’ll be working with throughout the week.

When heading out in the field, groups of fewer than six people will engage in exercises such as companion rescue and snow pit analysis followed by a student-led tour.

“We want to give them the opportunity to interact,” Pacharz said about the hybrid approach. “I felt it was an important aspect of the learning process. We’ll still hit all of the information.”

Pacharz described the demand for avalanche courses and backcountry programming for his business as “unreal.” The owner and lead guide said the company sold out spots for avalanche courses in the spring after they launched a special promotion during quarantine. As of now, he said Colorado Adventure Guides is pretty much booked through mid-February for avalanche education courses, though the company might open up a couple of December courses.

Pacharz said he and others in the backcountry community are expecting as much as a 300% increase in backcountry use this winter, and he feels his company needs to play a part in meeting the demand.

Especially among new backcountry recreationists, Pacharz said the company has expanded to operate in more zones within the U.S. Forest Service’s Dillon Ranger District. The company also is offering programming geared toward backcountry newbies, pairing a Level 1 avalanche course with a course meant to serve as an introduction to backcountry gear and how to use it.

As guides like Pacharz prep for the season, the nonprofit Friends of CAIC organization and the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, the state’s agency devoted to avalanche forecasting and snow safety, will launch a Friends of CAIC membership program this season.

Aaron Carlson, the executive director of Friends of CAIC, said the majority of educators across the state doing Level 1 avalanche courses are doing an in-person virtual combo like Pacharz. At the same time, the Friends of CAIC has been transitioning all of its education, such as the annual Colorado Snow and Avalanche Workshop in Breckenridge, to virtual.

That said, Friends of CAIC and the Avalanche Information Center are looking at the COVID variable as a growth opportunity. That includes the membership program, which Carlson said is a major fundraising shift for the organization.

“My hope is that this shift gives us funding to continue to support avalanche forecasting and education in Colorado for many years to come, really,” Carlson said. “With the loss of (in-person) efforts and the macroeconomic climate … we are expecting a reduction in our revenue budget. We feel by launching this membership program and asking the backcountry community to invest, we hope we can launch ourselves into a much larger organization once events come back and once the economic climate turns around a little.”


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