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Pandemic could lead to record-busy backcountry this winter

Many could be ditching the chairlifts for the wide-open Colorado backcountry this season.

COLORADO, USA — The Colorado backcountry may become busier than ever this winter season, as some people may try to avoid busy ski resorts during the pandemic. 

There is some concern that may lead to more beginners in the backcountry before they are ready.

“There is concern that people are not going to take the risk seriously," said Mike Leighton, a backcountry snowboarder from Breckenridge. "Especially with people that may have moved here and are working remote, that don’t know what happens with a continental snowpack.”

A fresh coat of snow on Loveland Pass Tuesday highlighted the desolation of the Colorado backcountry. It might be those wide-open spaces that convince some to leave the chair lifts behind during the pandemic, 

"I usually split time with the resorts and the backcountry, but this year I will probably lean towards more backcountry stuff," said Leighton. 

There is no way to measure exactly how many more people are using the backcountry but record sales in backcountry equipment may be one sign that this will be a very busy winter. 

Snowsports Industries America is estimating that certain backcountry equipment could sell out as early as the middle of November. That's partly due to ski resort restrictions this season, but also because the trade association says the industry is playing catchup after things started shutting down in the spring.  

Another indicator that this may be a busy backcountry season, is an unexpectedly high interest in the new Bluebird Backcountry, an avalanche-controlled ski area near Kremmling with no chair lifts. Their focus is on learning backcountry safety. 

“We've seen at least twice as much interest as we thought there would be," said Jeff Woodward, cofounder of the Bluebird. "We've already sold out of season passes, and we've had very high interest in our reservation system for day passes."

The reservations already in place for Bluebird Backcountry can also be used to gauge the backcountry interest among beginners.

"Roughly a third of our guests have never tried backcountry skiing before, and a third have done it just a couple times,” said Woodward.

Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

The Colorado backcountry outside of the Bluebird boundary is generally public land, so there is no rule about how experienced or knowledgeable you have to be to use it. 

"It's a code of ethics among users. A kind of honor system," said Woodward. "You need to know what you are doing before going into the backcountry because you impact other people by the decisions you make."

Woodward recommends that everyone take a backcountry survival and avalanche safety course before switching from the chairlifts to the backcountry. 

The Colorado Avalanche Information Center recommends taking a course with instructors that have been certified by the American Avalanche Association (AAA) or trained by the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE).  

Those courses are offered by many Colorado organizations including the Bluebird Backcountry. The classes for this season are filling up fast. 

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