Backcountry skiers urged to use extra caution |

Backcountry skiers urged to use extra caution

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times
Snow slides in the backcountry are a concern as spring snows hit, and lifts are closed prematurely due to the COVID-19 outbreak.
CAIC courtesy photo

Coronavirus-induced cabin fever plus fresh snow plus growing interest in backcountry skiing could be a recipe for trouble if people aren’t educating themselves and preparing for risks, experts warned Friday.

“The avalanche danger jumped to considerable in the Aspen-area zone Friday after 8 inches of snow fell on the ski areas and up to 2 feet fell in the Upper Crystal River Valley.” More snow is in the forecast.

“It’s still prime avalanche season,” said Brian Lazar, deputy director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.

Lazar said backcountry travelers might be paying closer attention to keeping themselves safe from coronavirus and not paying enough attention to avalanche risk. People are eager to feed their need to get outdoors.

“Mother Nature doesn’t alter the avalanche danger based on those needs,” he said.

Avalanche forecasters around the state have encountered more activity at backcountry trailheads. One factor might be more people are driving separately to maintain social distancing, he said. But there also appears to be more people engaging in backcountry skiing and snowboarding, particularly with so many workers laid off, he said.

There has been a surge in the number of skiers and split boarders putting on climbing skins for the uphill journey at the closed ski areas in the Roaring Fork Valley.

Cripple Creek Backcountry, which operates shops in the Roaring Fork Valley and one in the Eagle Valley, reported in its newsletter Thursday it has been “absolutely buried by gear drop-offs” for tunes and mounting bindings.

Mountain Rescue Aspen member Greg Shaffran said the uptick in backcountry skiing in the Aspen area has been obvious since the ski areas were ordered closed by executive order by Colorado Gov. Jared Polis.

“People are getting a little cabin fever, a little antsy,” he said.

Shaffran said Mountain Rescue is stressing to people to be careful even in the ski areas. Terrain they are familiar with under typical circumstances during winter might take on different snow characteristics with no ski patrol and no snow safety measures. Therefore, he recommended extreme caution on tougher terrain in the ski areas.

“It’s not unheard of for avalanches in ski resorts,” he said.

Lazar also advised caution in the ski areas. “It’s all backcountry right now,” he said.

Caution is needed not only for the safety of skiers but also because the health care system cannot handle extra stress of caring for someone with a broken leg when the expectation is for all attention needed for coronavirus victims, Shaffran said.

The message from MRA is to enjoy the backcountry and uphilling at the resorts — but be smart and safe.

MRA also has been affected by the need to prevent the spread of coronavirus. It gave up its headquarters by the Aspen Business Center to the Pitkin County incident management team for the coronavirus crisis. MRA has suspended its trainings and meetings to avoid large gatherings.

When called out on a mission, members drive directly to trailheads or staging areas rather than mobilizing at the headquarters or another location.

“Generally, the Mountain Rescue Aspen response has been to throw big numbers on it,” he said of an incident. Now a more calculated approach is required.

Recommendations suggested by Shaffran and Lazar included check conditions with CAIC at, make a plan in advance, implement that plan effectively, let someone know about your plan, carry a beacon, probe and shovel and know how to use them.

Shaffran’s final piece of advice was, “Chill out a little bit.” It’s not a time for taking chances. “Uncertainty is high right now. Dial it back,” Shaffran said.

The forecast for the Aspen zone Friday said the new snow created dangerous conditions, particularly where the highest snow levels fell.

“Only two days ago most slopes were safe from avalanches,” CAIC said on its website. “That’s not the case today. It would be easy to assume that following a spring storm with dense new snow, the new load would settle quickly and the avalanche danger would trend down quickly, too. That may or may not be the case with this event.”


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