Backcountry Skiing Faces a Steep Climb Ahead

OSWEGO, N.Y. — In the past few years, backcountry skiing has been on the rise.  Last season the highest number of avalanche deaths in U.S. history was recorded.  Skiers are making a resurgence to the past, but at the cost of both life and expensive equipment. 

Backcountry skiing, sometimes referred to as “ski touring” mainly stems from and gains its origins in history from practical uses, especially in military institutions.

The U.S. 10th Mountain Division is one of the most famous military institutions to utilize ski touring.  But ski touring, according to historians, dates to prehistoric times both in Nordic and Chinese culture. 

In the years before the pandemic, backcountry skiing was already on an upward climb. But with the onset of the pandemic and restrictions, many skiers turned to backcountry skiing to still be able to enjoy the recreation they love.

“Resort restrictions, high prices, caused people to turn to backcountry skiing, if you want to social distance backcountry skiing is the way to go,” said Tyler Falk, founder of East Coast Avalanche Education.

“Last year August 2020 to March 2021 alpine touring equipment sales such as skis, pin boots and pin/heal release bindings was up 115%,” said Colleen Nipkow of Snowsports Industries America.

With more and more people getting into the backcountry for recreational activity skiers are always looking for steeper, more exciting, and more adventurous terrain.  With this comes the natural risk of getting caught in an avalanche.

Many backcountry skiers specifically on the East Coast, ski assured that avalanches in the East are not as prevalent and dangerous. 

“All you need is snow and a steep enough slope to slide”

Tyler Falk, East Coast Avalanche Education

“All you need is snow and a steep enough slope to slide, it does not matter if you are in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming or New York, Vermont, or Pennsylvania,” said Falk. “All you need is that recipe for an avalanche.”

Avalanches here on the East Coast have claimed many lives in past years as close as the Adirondacks and Catskills to New Hampshire. 

An avalanche last season at Belleayre Mountain Ski Center in the Catskills crashed into the main lodge causing serious damage.  Although nobody was injured, it was a major wake-up call to New York skiers that avalanches do happen here and not even just in the backcountry.

Although with more people getting out in the backcountry Falk said “people have become more savvy.” He has seen an increase in attendance at his nationally accredited avalanche courses.

Nipkow said that from August 2020 to March 2021 “backcountry safety accessory sales such as beacons, shovels, and probes were up 87%.”

“Bigger picture, more people are aware, and people are more responsible in the backcountry, there has been a lot of deaths, there are so many people out there, but backcountry does not get enough credit,” said Falk.

Even with the risks at hand many people especially young skiers are eager to get into the backcountry. 

Quinn Ames, a student and member of the ski club at Oswego State and avid skier since he was 10 years old, has gotten more into backcountry skiing in the past season and is excited to even more this season. 

“Skiing at the mountain (resort) has become more and more commercial feeling,” said Ames.  “It is hard to find that old-school skiing feel.”

In the past years, not only with covid restrictions, but the immense consolidation of ski mountains into corporate companies, focusing more on “resort” aspects rather than skiing, many avid skiers have fallen away from “resort” skiing.

“…the close relationship with the mountain, nature and being out there secluded…”

-Quinn Ames

“Specifically, the close relationship with the mountain, nature, and being out there secluded, without the sound of snowmobiles, kids, or chairlifts,” said Ames. “You just can’t find that at a mountain (resort).”

Even though many skiers are turning to the backcountry to get away from resort costs, the cost of backcountry equipment is by no means cheaper. 

A complete backcountry touring setup can run up to $3,000 or more.  Pin boots, pin bindings, touring skis, skins, adjustable poles, beacons, airbags, probes, shovels, are just the start of the list of equipment required.  This is not even including basic avalanche courses which can run up to $400. 

People are doing it though; Ames is utilizing the equipment he already has but is still wary of avalanches and wishes he knew a bit more. 

“I purchased a pair of (Marker) baron bindings which allow me to use the boots I have but I still need to get a few more things,” said Ames.

From the summit of Smugglers’ Notch Mountain Jeffersonville, VT – “Smuggs” is a popular both in-bounds ski area and access point to many backcountry areas. Photo by: Joe Dolan