Backcountry skiing was on the rise. COVID-19 accelerated it.
BY HENRY HALL
When the snow is deep in March, Big Sky Resort is usually packed with locals and tourists from around the globe. Every tram is usually full from open to close while skiers and snowboarders try to shred every last inch of powder on the mountain. Usually.
On March 16, 2020, however, the lifts stood still. Spring breakers were told not to come and the Mountain Village at the base of Big Sky remained silent during normal peak hours.
While the resort’s parking lots were empty after the resort closed on March 15 due to concerns over the COVID-19 coronavirus, the Beehive Basin trailhead lot across from the resort was stuffed with Subarus, Sprinter vans and pickups with license plates from all corners of the country. Beehive has some of the most accessible backcountry ski and snowboard terrain in the Gallatin Valley, and is a favorite among backcountry enthusiasts.
Earlier that same month, New York Magazine ran an article: “Everything You Need to Start Splitboarding.” The list: splitboard, bindings, skins, poles, backpack. Conspicuously absent was the safety gear one actually needs to start splitboarding: an avalanche beacon, shovel and probe. And the know-how to use it. The article illustrated one major beef that backcountry regulars have with some newbies: you don’t know what you don’t know. And that can be deadly.
Ski touring and splitboarding have been gaining in popularity for years due to accessibility and affordability, but 2020 was different. Last spring brought with it COVID-19 and nobody could’ve predicted this backcountry onslaught before the pandemic.
Unable to hop on Big Sky’s chairlifts, some newcomers to avalanche-prone areas that aren’t controlled, such as Beehive Basin, prepped with the right gear and learned about avalanche conditions and tendencies before heading out. But others shirked safety for themselves and others. They were uneducated and ill-equipped for backcountry terrain. And it pissed off off-piste skiers and riders who know the rules and follow them.
There is little doubt that backcountry ski areas in the near future will be shared by many. Trailheads will see more traffic, demand for gear will be higher and folks will have greater access to the terrain. But silver linings can exist.
“Because of COVID, there are tons of people who want to go backcountry skiing—more than usual—and it’s part of our mission to educate as many of them as we can.”
On February 15, 2020, when only 14 cases of COVID-19 had been reported in the U.S., Erik Lambert and Jeff Woodward’s yearslong dream came true when they opened America’s newest ski area, a Kickstarter-backed campaign they started just two weeks before opening day. Located just 30 minutes from the small town of Kremmling, Colorado, Bluebird Backcountry is a ski area like no other.
Lambert learned to ski at age 1 in the mountains of New England and has spent the past decade working in marketing for various outdoor entities. Woodward is a Dartmouth grad who fell in love with backcountry skiing after becoming a ski patroller at Dartmouth Skiway and exploring the backcountry terrain in New Hampshire. The duo had a vision of a resort with no chairlifts, no fixed lodge and no grooming; the first uphill- access-only ski area in the world.
Bluebird, says Woodward, is backcountry area that’s safe for everyone. “An explicit part of our culture is to be as welcoming as we can,” he told Mountain Outlaw last August. “Because of COVID, there are tons of people who want to go backcountry skiing—more than usual—and it’s part of our mission to educate as many of them as we can.”
After a successful two-week trial period in February 2020, Bluebird Backcountry is back this year for a full season with social distancing rules in place and a max of 200 customers a day. This year, Bluebird will be an official AIARE provider—short for American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education— which licenses them to offer courses and certifications in avalanche rescue, as well as Level 1 and 2.
As a precursor to the AIARE licensed courses, Bluebird also offers three levels of lessons that teach the ins and outs of backcountry touring and prepare customers for the avalanche courses to follow. And Bluebird has cadre of snow-savvy instructors and guides that will provide beta about terrain and daily avalanche conditions.
“We make sure that everyone we hire is willing to be as welcoming as possible and will answer any question,” Woodward said.
“Getting people outdoors, taking care of their health, being with friends and not [being] on the internet is going to be good for everyone. It’s also going to give everyone a good perspective of protecting our public lands and how important they are.”
When the coronavirus outbreak put the country into lockdown, the small town of Cooke City, Montana, was isolated from the rest of the state due to the closure of Yellowstone Park’s entrances. The pandemic shut down Beartooth Powder Guides, a Cooke City-based backcountry guide operation, for the season.
“It was a bummer for business and we lost about six weeks of our season, but I got to be on lockdown in Cooke City and pretty much have the place to myself,” said Ben Zavora, who founded and operates Beartooth Powder Guides. “I think Cooke City is going to be busy this year, based on current trajectories of people trying to get out.”
While growing numbers of backcountry skiers and riders can be concerning, Zavora is embracing the heightened level of activity in the area. “There is a lot of space to spread out,” he said. “I think it will be a good opportunity to educate people, and it’s good for the guiding business and the local economy in Cooke City.”
With headquarters in Cooke City and two backcountry huts in the surrounding forests, Zavora and company will be running avalanche education courses as well as guided hut trips this coming winter. Classes will be limited to groups of friends and families maxed out at six people. They will also offer a COVID-19 cancellation policy which allows people to get credit for a future class or trip.
Zavora likes his solitude when he explores the backcountry but sees benefits to the growth. “Getting people outdoors, taking care of their health, being with friends and not [being] on the internet is going to be good for everyone. It’s also going to give everyone a good perspective of protecting our public lands and how important they are.”
A prerequisite for any avalanche course is to have the right gear. Bruce Edgerly, cofounder and vice president of Backcountry Access, has established his company as one of the top sellers of backcountry equipment in North America. In January 2020, Edgerly announced a new avalanche beacon to the famed BCA Tracker series: the Tracker4.
“What we’ve done is combine the robust design of the Tracker2 with the elegance and sophistication of the Tracker3,” Edgerly said. In the Tracker4, BCA has created one of the most reliable, user-friendly avalanche transceivers in the industry, a redesign of the tried-and-true beacon that guides and ski patrollers have trusted for decades.
Backcountry equipment—beacons, shovels and probes—are critical hardware for skiers and riders heading off-piste, but these are only the first, most basic tools for being safe in the mountains, say industry pros. Knowledge, they say, is power. And power is safety.
Edgerly emphasizes keeping manageable group sizes. Woodward and Zavora say education and finding experienced partners are key. “Take an [avalanche] class, pick your partners carefully and don’t be afraid to question people when it comes to their knowledge in the backcountry,” Zavora says.
Education is the first step to entering the backcountry. Finding elbow room comes next. You just might need to go a bit farther.
“If you like people, it’s not a problem,” says Edgerly. “If you like powder, it’s time to get a snowmobile.”
Woodward echoed the sentiment. “Get a map and go explore. There are miles and miles of terrain and no one is out there.”
Backcountry terrain will inevitably see more and more traffic. For those frustrated about the growth, plenty of untouched terrain exists if you’re willing to find it. For everyone else, look at this as an opportunity to meet new people and to share your knowledge to make this a safe winter.
Henry Hall is an aspiring sports and outdoor journalist who graduated from the University of Denver last June. He recently moved to Bozeman, Montana, where he hopes to continue to grow as a writer, outdoorsman and skier.