Making it ‘cool to come home at night’ |

Making it ‘cool to come home at night’

Janice Kurbjun
summit daily news
Summit Daily/Janice Kurbjun

Twenty-five years ago, a backcountry lodge was an exception to the rule.

The Valdez World Extreme Skiing Championships had yet to begin, and snowboarding was starting to grow its punkish roots. Ski areas were opening bigger, badder terrain, and gates were an intriguing novelty for yesteryear’s skiers.

Today, these things are intrinsic to the snowsports world – “a whole new world” of skiing and snowboarding that is the foundation for the fastest-growing industry retail sector.

“What we were seeing is a market shift in the way people traveled the backcountry … The rules were being broken on a regular basis,” said Tom Murphy, representative with the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE). “Between what things looked like 30 years ago and what they look like now, what will it look like in another 30 years?”

While backcountry ski equipment sales skyrocket compared to other, more stagnant sales categories, enrollment in avalanche courses is not growing at the same rate, Murphy said. And because the discrepancy is such a concern, he was anchoring an entire booth dedicated to the cause at last weekend’s Snowsports Industries of America Snow Show in Denver.

In particular, Murphy heralded in a new initiative, Project Zero 2025, which is modeled after Sweden’s effort to minimize vehicular accident deaths in the Scandanavian country. An educational campaign dramatically reduced the number of traffic deaths at the same time traffic volume was increasing, Murphy said. The same concept is behind the avalanche safety version: As equipment floods the market, an educational campaign can help reduce fatalities related to ignorance and perceived safety.

To do it though, Project Zero 2025 needs industry buy-in. The same way Sweden needed buy-in from everyone influencing traffic impact – from the driver himself to fellow operators to officials with the department of transportation.

“It’s not just the driver who is responsible for an accident,” Murphy said, explaining that the industry as a whole can collaborate to deliver a message of safety to its consumer audience.

The message has to be cool. It has to be concise. It has to be delivered by shop owners, by athletes, by stars in ski productions, by peers the young guns in the ski industry know and trust.

A good example is Dean Cumming’s talk “The Steep Life Protocol,” which has been presented in Summit County several times and was featured at the Snow Show. Another example is Backcountry Access’ how-to videos on its website.

Summit County already makes avalanche safety information widely accessible, from affordable community college classes to community seminars hosted by Breckenridge Ski Resort and shops like Mountain Wave in Breckenridge. Industry sales representatives are by-and-large knowledgeable of the dangers Colorado’s snowpack poses, and can educate consumers in passing.

But that’s not the big picture in the United States.

Tim Gallagher, of Wave Rave Snowboard Shop in Mammoth, Calif., said he’s been in the ski retail industry 23 years and didn’t know AIARE existed or what its purpose was.

As an industry insider, selling backcountry gear to outsiders, Gallagher’s ignorance is indicative of the consumer market in that area.

He said he’s seen an explosion of backcountry sales. At the same time, he’s seen resistance to a $350 avalanche course.

“If you don’t have a splitboard and you’re not getting out there, you’re not cool,” Gallagher said of the mentality he sees at the shop.

“We need to stay above the curve because we are seeing explosive growth in Mammoth. I’m afraid,” he said. “It’s becoming cooler faster than its becoming safer. In my neighborhood at least.”

Robert Yuschak of REI shared the sentiment, telling a story of a customer who was in a rush to get alpine touring bindings mounted and skins cut so he could head up to Berthoud Pass to ski the new powder that had fallen.

Yuschak recognized his client had the equipment, but not the knowledge, so he spent 45 minutes trying to convey a message of safety.

“I’ve heard we have to stop scaring these people because they are our biggest growth in the industry,” Yuschak said. “But we do need to scare them, so they know they need to get educated.”

That’s exactly what Murphy is hoping for. Videos, stickers, kiosks, messages from sales representatives, a movie blurb that shows how a slope was determined to be safe enough to ride, and so on – all in an effort to make avalanches real and help people feel the power of them without being caught in one.

“We need to get rid of the posse, bravado mentality,” said Stephen Barnes of Mountain Lab. “We need to make it cool to come home at night.”

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