Opinion: The skin track can wait

Brayden Stephenson, Editor

It seems like each day mountain towns across the nation are devastated by the news of a new fatal incident in the backcountry. An accident list compiled by the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, shows that 28 people have died in avalanches this season with 18 of these deaths occurring in February alone. This isn’t a record high yet – the 2009-2010 season ended with 36 fatalities as of June of 2010 – but there’s still a lot of skiing and riding to be had this season with the unfortunate potential for more deaths.

There are two components to this dilemma that need to be understood: there are too many unexperienced participants in the backcountry, and the snow this season continues to be unreliable and variable.

According to a study done by Forbes, backcountry travel (skiing, snowboarding, snowshoeing, etc.) is up 57% this season. Amidst the global pandemic ski resorts have been forced to limit the number of people on the mountain each day, causing eager snowsports enthusiasts to look elsewhere for their fun, and leading them to the unregulated and untracked snow of the backcountry.

“This season’s been pretty low-tide, all the little snows have skiers looking for low-angle spots that won’t have any unseen hazards, so you see more skiers in places where you wouldn’t normally. Generally there’s just more skiers in the backcountry this season.” Said Katie Zanto, Chair of the Interdisciplinary Studies program at Sierra Nevada University and an experienced backcountry skier. “If you look at the enrollment in AIARE [American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education] courses and all the new vendors that are completely full or waitlisted, it shows that there are more and more people taking it seriously but there are still people out there who have no idea.”

The issue of safety in the backcountry continues to become more complicated as participants become harder to predict. Zanto pointed out that especially in Tahoe, local rescue teams have become stronger at responding to incidents and injuries, but the numbers continue to soar. It’s an overwhelming call for crowd control.

“The interesting thing about this season is the limited parking at trailheads. And COVID is causing people to avoid carpooling. The parking lot may be full but it might only be four or five people,” Zanto said.

Higher demand for access into the backcountry increases the need for more education and conversation around the subject. It seems at least most people are aware of the risk involved. Big names in snowboarding like Volcom, Baldface Lodge, and Jones Snowboards have jumped at this opportunity to spread awareness. Jones Snowboards in particular has been hosting a live “Avy-Talk Series” throughout the season where team riders and special guests talk about the severity of safety in the backcountry. In their most recent video Jones Snowboards owner Jeremy Jones hosted author Jon Krakauer.

“In the backcountry too many people are looking for reasons to ride, looking to convince themselves it’s safe. I might be old and paranoid but I’m always looking for reasons not to ride,”

Krakauer said.

It’s okay to turn around, in fact it’s a cool thing and it should be celebrated. Perhaps the most effective approach to safety is a shift in perspective. It’s easy to get “over-stoked” and overlook or even miss red flags that are important to safe decision-making. It’s kind of like a toxic relationship, don’t wait for the worst case scenario to break things off and it’s certainly not giving up its self -preservation and living to ride another day.

So what’s the solution? There really isn’t a clear answer. This season’s avalanches have taken the lives of beginners and seasoned veterans alike, showing that the mix of unpredictable riders and unreliable snow is something that’s incredibly hard to mitigate. The best thing to do is to build a safe space that surrounds the backcountry. Point each other towards the local avalanche research center, make showing off pre-tour beacon checks a new Instagram story trend…whatever it takes. Too many lives have been lost and it’s time for things to change.

Avalanche forecasts for the Tahoe area can be found at sierraavalanchecenter.org, and for the

Eastern Sierra at esavlanche.org, and for the rest of the country check out avalanche.org.