Of course there are differences in the types of gear people are purchasing for expeditions into unchartered territory: climbing skins and snowshoes, for example, are used to enter the backcountry; safety gear like beacons and shovels are about recognizing risks ” and maybe saving lives. Retailers say sales of these types of gear go hand in hand.
At the Ute Mountaineer, Aspen’s largest purveyor of backcountry equipment, brisk sales of skins (which are attached to skis for climbing uphill) and alpine-touring bindings speak to the popularity of the sport.
“Every year it seems like more and more people want to go to backcountry,” said Ute buyer Chris Macdonald. “I think that we’re selling more backcountry equipment than we ever have before ” to experienced people who have gone on huge expeditions, and to first-timers who need to get geared up. There are also locals who are trying to get into it.”
And for every pair of skins Macdonald reorders, it seems he also reorders probes.
“Sales of beacons, shovels and probes seem to be lock step with skins and bindings,” he said. “All of these things are backcountry-related, and sales are really increasing.”
At Bristlecone Mountain Sports in Basalt, however, sales of avalanche safety gear have flattened of late. Owner/buyer Susan Edmonds attributes the shift in business to the introduction of digital beacons a few years back, at which time people upgraded their beacons and have not yet had to purchase new ones. Plus, the shop gives beacon buyers a free probe with their purchase.
“I think we mostly cater to a local clientele, and most of these people have been in the backcountry for a long time,” she said. “We don’t see many novices in here.”
Nationally, though, the backcountry-buying trend is on an upward spiral. Last November, BackcountryStore.com reported that sales of their avalanche safety equipment had soared to a record high. According to Christian Gennerman, the company’s head buyer, the online retailer has seen as much as a 500 percent sales spike every year for the past few years. Started in 1996, the Heber, Utah-based business offers packages that include shovels, beacons and probes.
“There are a lot of people mimicking our packages ” and we’re seeing people get more aggressive on pricing,” Gennerman said. “It’s still a growth market, and I think [backcountry sports] are getting more mainstream.”
Here in the Roaring Fork Valley, the number of people in the backcountry appears to be increasing every year, noted a local U.S. Forest Service representative.
“Hut numbers from the 10th Mountain Division are increasing, and that’s a large part of our backcountry skiing in this area,” said Jim Stark, winter sports administrator with the Aspen ranger district. “We also see more people getting backcountry access from ski areas ” more tracks, and the ski areas witness it. It might be because it’s considered an extreme sport, and equipment is getting better.”
Of course having the appropriate gear doesn’t guarantee safety. Accidents happen, and when they do, it’s critical that everyone involved know how to use the equipment they have.
“Everyone needs to practice and use the gear. We give customers some insight, but it’s not enough,” said Bristlecone’s Edmonds. “You need courses, and knowledgeable friends.”
The forest service, for example, tries to put together a yearly forum to inform people of the “rules” of the backcountry, making skiers aware that they are on their own to make decisions once they leave the boundaries of a ski area.
And avalanche-awareness classes are gaining popularity, especially the annual introductory course given by Mountain Rescue Aspen each January. On Friday, Jan. 9, more than 110 people showed up to hear the course’s opening-night lecture at the St. Regis Aspen.
According to David Swersky, a local dentist who has organized the course for the past 16 years, attendance numbers first skyrocketed in the late 1980s, when three local backcountry skiers died in an avalanche near Castle Peak. Around 25 or 30 people had taken the course the year before, but after the deadly slide more than 80 people sought an introduction to avalanche safety.
The course is geared for people who wants to ski out of bounds, go on hut trips, or want to know how to cross avalanche paths safely, including snowmobilers, snowshoers and cross-country skiers.
“In the backcountry, you are your brother’s keeper, and if you have to call Mountain Rescue, it’s too late,” Swersky said. “We get people every year who have taken the course and want to come out and practice. You can’t learn to use your beacon when a friend is buried, when your adrenaline is going, and the wind is probably howling. These things need to be thought out and talked about before you go on a hut trip.”
Although instructors offer practice with beacons and decision-making in the face of an emergency, the course mainly focuses on picking a safe route to go skiing or boarding, paying attention to the quality of an area’s snowpack, and making decisions so as not to get involved in a snowslide in the first place.
“We’re basically all students of snow science, and it’s a lifetime endeavor,” Swersky said. “We want this to be a start to your education. You’ll learn a lot in our day-and-a-half course, but you’re not going to learn everything.
“Our beginner course is about safe decision-making, because we want people not to get caught.”