Snowmobiler organizes Vail Pass event to improve avalanche safety, connect recreation groups
VAIL PASS — It was years ago, while filming marketing campaigns for Polaris snowmobiles, when Jon Miller decided all he wanted was for his clients to come up to Vail Pass on a Saturday.
At the time, Miller, a native of northwest Colorado, wanted them to understand the market potential of using snowboard stars to promote snowmobiles.
“To see how many skis and snowboards were attached to snowmobiles,” Miller said, speaking Saturday afternoon during the Avy Savvy Rally & Fundraiser at Vail Pass. “So they can understand.”
As the years have progressed, Miller’s desire for what he wants the snowsports world to understand has shifted to two things.
One: that backcountry skiing and snowboarding’s popularity is growing in tandem with snowmobiling, with people riding motorized vehicles into wild locations like the Vail Pass Winter Recreation Area to ski and board.
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Two: Miller, who is both an avid snowmobiler and snowboarder, sees avalanche and snow safety as a possible way to bridge what he sees is a division between the state’s more blue-collar snowmobile community and wilderness-first advocates who believe much backcountry access should be off limits to mechanized means.
“Where they combine, I don’t know yet,” Miller said. “That’s the big mystery, and that’s what we are trying to figure out, you know? And I think the best way to do that is to get people together. It’s not a social media battle.”
That’s why Miller felt the popular trailhead off of Interstate 70 at Vail Pass was the perfect spot for Saturday’s event, where he and the foundation he founded, Backcountry United, joined up with the Friends of CAIC, the U.S. Forest Service, Never Summer Industries and other companies and agencies to interact with recreators. Both Miller and Mason Davey of Backcountry United felt it was also important just to have these different agencies interact with each other.
They wanted a kind of event where officials from the Forest Service or Colorado Parks & Wildlife could chat casually with some of the biggest influencers in the state’s snowmobiling scene.
Beyond those interactions, Miller and Davey hope the nature of the demographic traffic at Vail Pass — what they say is the most recreated upon winter recreation area in the Forest Service’s nationwide inventory — showcases to everyone the common spirit and goal for avalanche and snow safety among everyone from long-distance backcountry tourers to more novice snowmobilers. That’s why having it at Vail Pass this year — as opposed to the much more remote Red Cliff on the other side of the recreation area like last year — was so important.
The event attracted locals like Summit County freeskiers Pat Goodnough and Trent Jones. The two avid backcountry skiers rode up around noon to the groomed snow where Backcountry United, the Forest Service and other agencies and companies had their tents set up.
Sitting back in camping chairs while eating hot dogs cooked up by Davey, Goodnough and Jones shot the breeze about how Saturday’s pristine, sunny and warm bluebird conditions were affecting the snow out on the recreation area trails.
In a way, Jones and Goodnough are two Summit County locals who embody what backcountry recreating has become: wild senders on steep and deep powder lines that they access via motorized means.
With that level of fun comes avalanche and snow danger that Miller knows all too well. In 2013 a friend of Miller’s, Mark McCarron, died in an avalanche, snowboarding out of the same Vail Pass trailhead Miller was at Saturday.
With the crowds the Vail Pass Winter Recreation Area sees, avalanche danger persists, especially after a month like February. A couple weeks ago a pair of timbersledders from Gypsum, Dillon Block and Cesar Almanza-Hernandez, died after being buried in an avalanche on Muddy Pass near Vail.
The avalanche danger will always be there, even if thanks to agencies like the CAIC avalanche knowledge has improved exponentially across the state. Colorado has come a long way since back in the 1990s when Miller remembers he and his friends viewed avalanches, “like getting struck by lightning, or something, when the man upstairs wants you to die.”
Now, thankfully, he and many others know better. But there is still a long way to go, especially among the hybrid recreator population prevalent at Vail Pass.
“When we were setting up,” Miller said, “I watched a dozen people with mountain sleds go up that trailhead with no backpacks on. So, I would imagine — I don’t know — could they save each other in an avalanche?”
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