With chairlifts closed, backcountry danger now extends to what is typically in-bounds terrain
Ski, snow experts agree 'everywhere is now backcountry'
DILLON — To longtime Summit County local backcountry skier Fritz Sperry, all skiers and snowboarders should be treating the ski areas and the backcountry the same if they choose to ski or ride during or after Thursday’s snowstorm.
“Everywhere is now backcountry,” Sperry said.
In recent days, all Colorado ski areas and resorts have closed to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. Combined with a winter storm, the peak spring skiing season is shaping up to be an interesting case study in snow safety across the state — especially in Summit County.
The ski area closures mean terrain — which in any other year would be in-bounds in mid-March — is now accessible only to uphill users. But that terrain, located on U.S. Forest Service land, is not being tended to in terms of avalanche mitigation, ski patrol, grooming operations and the availability of emergency medical personnel. That includes Breckenridge Ski Resort, Keystone Resort and Loveland Ski Area terrain, which is open to uphill users.
“It’s not inaccurate to say it’s all backcountry right now,” said Brian Lazar, the deputy director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, which provides avalanche information and education to the state.
“The snowpack that currently exists inside ski area boundaries is going to be a little bit different than the snowpack that exists in backcountry because ski areas have been managing the risk of avalanches,” Lazar added. “That being said, moving forward any instabilities that arise from blowing storm snow is going to be just as dangerous in bounds.”
Breckenridge resident and U.S. Ski Mountaineering Team head coach Joe Howdyshell and Sperry stressed the notion that backcountry skiers and snowboarders right now should be considering the risk of the terrain they choose. With hospital beds and search and rescue resources potentially in short supply, Sperry said putting one’s self at risk could increase the risk of others.
“Dial it back,” Sperry said.
The “dial-it back” notion is something Howdyshell said friends of his in Italy have focused on during the country’s COVID-19 outbreak. The skiers, who are now in a lockdown, said the focus in Italy is to not ski anything where there is a small chance of getting hurt and overloading the medical system.
Howdyshell said he thinks the best thing for uphill skiers and snowboarders to do right now is to stick to resort and ski area standard uphill routes. Howdyshell said most of Breckenridge Ski Resort’s standard uphill routes across Peaks 7, 8 and 9 are in good shape and on less-steep terrain, though without resort avalanche mitigation, there is always the chance of avalanche or snow safety danger anywhere. Howdyshell also singled out Breckenridge’s Pika as a trail to avoid.
Breckenridge and Keystone’s official uphill policy is that all access is at the public’s own risk without patrol, maintenance or services and with the possibility of encountering unmarked hazards.
While Breckenridge and Keystone are permitting the public to uphill, access is closed until further notice at Arapahoe Basin Ski Area and Copper Mountain Resort. Just outside of Summit County at Loveland, the ski area opened uphill access after it announced its closure for the remainder of the season Monday.
Loveland spokesman John Sellers said the decision is typical of Loveland’s approach of opening uphill access once ski area operations have closed for the year each spring.
“At this time, it’s not a ski area experience; it’s a backcountry experience,” Sellers said. “We don’t have any on-mountain services. People would be wise to practice safe backcountry travel techniques and to stick to mellower terrain, particularly when the avalanche danger increases.”
Reflecting on the past weekend, when the ski area closed its lifts, Sellers said the demand for uphill-access passes at the ski area became “quite problematic.”
It’s a sign to Sellers and others that the demand from locals is still there after the ski resorts closed. Howdyshell said he hasn’t noticed substantially larger crowds in Breckenridge, though he did note he’s observed more skiers and snowboarders uphilling throughout the day rather than only outside of normal operating hours, per ski resort rules when they’re open. Skiers and riders also can spread out more on the mountain now.
Lazar said it’s not unreasonable to think more people are going to be looking at the backcountry or uphilling at ski areas to blow off the steam of the coronavirus situation and get outside while practicing social distancing. With that notion, Lazar said it’s more important now than ever before for the state’s backcountry and uphilling “tribe” to help contribute observations to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.
“The more data we can get despite the loss of guiding operations and ski area operations will help out avalanche forecasting,” he said. “Share any and all information you see in the backcountry with us. You don’t have to be a professional snow or avalanche person to do so — just anything you see. And even if you’re out there and you didn’t see avalanches, you didn’t see drifting snow, all that kind of information is useful to us.”
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