“We are just trying to get away from the people,” said a woman who was shopping for a pair of backcountry-specific boots for her daughter. “But everyone else is also trying to get away from the people too,” she added with a shrug.
I overheard this comment, which most succinctly summed up the big headscratcher of the coming winter, at Truckee gear shop Tahoe Sports Hub. (Of note, the shop was bustling — on a weekday in mid-November before any significant snow had fallen.)
A bevy of factors is putting the community on high alert for the safety risk from potentially very high backcountry user numbers. Resorts operations may be limited, people may prefer to avoid ski area crowds, and they may yet be closed down again. Also, there’s the strong uptick in full-time residents at Tahoe as people move toward working remotely, and many people are out of a job altogether.
Same-Same, but Different
“The backcountry is most likely going to see significant increased use this winter, and within that, an increased use on the beginner end of the spectrum,” said Dave Reichel of Meyers, executive director of the Sierra Avalanche Center. “But the backcountry trend has been going up for decades, so COVID is not reversing any trends.”
How everything will turn out, and how much it will differ from previous years, remains an unknown, but many are making educated guesses.
“I remain an optimist. I think the agencies and local community will adapt and friction will be minimal,” said Geoff Quine, president of the Tahoe Backcountry Alliance. “But, I’m aware of reality, and there also may be increased conflict, both in the parking lots at trailheads, on the skintrack, and on the mountain.”
If local sales of backcountry gear are any indication of the state of things to come, they support the notion that this could be an unprecedented season.
Scott Perkins, a manager at Tahoe Sports Hub, has been working pretty much full-time since the pandemic began, and has seen massive increases in sales compared to previous years. “In March we rapidly sold out of just about every piece of backcountry gear we had; skins, backcountry bindings, and more.” Perkins said. “We couldn’t keep up.”
He says it has barely let up since then, if at all. Summer remained unusually busy, with bicycles in very short supply, and this October and November were also steadily above average, most notably for backcountry gear. Splitboards are already all but gone, and despite having ordered more than usual, he predicts the shop will remain slammed until the gear sells out.
Well, What’s a Community to do?
It may, and likely will be, a junk show out there at times. Don’t expect to find a parking spot at Jake’s on the West Shore at 9 a.m. after fresh snow, for example. But despite so many factors that are uncontrollable, local backcountry groups are taking action.
The Sierra Avalanche Center, long the primary source for all things avalanche-related, is working to increase its presence. Despite striving with about a quarter less of a budget after having been unable to hold fundraising events, Dave Reichel says they are not cutting any programs, but rather figuring out ways to enhance them.
In lieu of its annual avalanche conference, SAC posted a series of videos on its website and ramped up the education portion. Avalanche classes focused on motorized transport are being continued, as there will likely be an increase in snowmobiling as well.
SAC is also upping its social media presence and is working on ways to share more field work and observations with users. As is the case around the world, it is adapting to a more virtual space for learning. The SAC website, for example, experienced the most traffic of any April last spring (with roughly 150,000 unique visitors per year).
Additionally, SAC is partnering with a consortium of local agencies and groups to hold the Backcountry Safety Awareness week, to take place virtually Dec. 14 to 18. The five-day event will feature presentations from professional athletes, safety tips catering to the motorized community, a live Q&A panel, and much more.
The Tahoe Backcountry Alliance, a nonprofit focused on human-powered winter recreation, is actively looking for solutions to the issues that overcrowding may bring.
Its newly created Backcountry Tips and Etiquette page provides concise and critical safety info. In collaboration with Alpenglow Expeditions, these 12 tips will be brought to a video format and showcased during Backcountry Awareness Week.
New this year will be a trailhead ambassador program, to help facilitate some of the main friction points at popular backcountry spots, from parking lot mayhem to skintrack etiquette. Details and locations are still being sorted out, but a partnership is in the works with the Tahoe Backcountry Ski Patrol, a volunteer organization that has had people in the field for years, who are trained to interact with the general public.
The alliance is also improving on a project to count the number of backcountry users at several frequently used trailheads. Currently, the trackers — similar to game cameras — are set up at Tamarack Peak in the Mt. Rose area and Castle Peak on Donner Summit. The backcountry skiing world is commonly said to be a fast-growing industry, yet precise numbers for how many people are out there on a given day are rarely, if ever, known. Quine and the TBA hope this will help change that and provide vital data.
Access has also long been a hot-button issue that plays directly into usage and safety, as many Tahoe “trailheads” are little more than pullouts off the highway, or sometimes even private property. Crowded lots create traffic issues, not to mention an incubator for potentially feisty disagreements.
To help ease this tension in but one corner of the area, legal parking on the west end of Donner Lake for the popular “lake runs” off Sugar Bowl resort this winter has been procured. The TBA has also agreed to be responsible for signage at the trailhead that will offer handy information such as current avalanche conditions and property boundary information. Such signage is not currently planned at other trailheads but may be considered in the future.
But Really, What’s a Community to do?
While the reality of the 20/21 winter is beginning to unveil itself, we do have last spring to learn from, when, starting mid-March we saw a bizarre aligning of the stars when the region experienced its first significant snowfall in months, an economic shutdown, and no resorts open whatsoever.
“It was as crowded as I’ve ever seen it. Some of the lesser known spots were completely packed,” Reichel says. Many people just continued skiing as the pandemic ramped up, even as concerns of over-burdening the health care system —should injuries occur — were widespread.
Reichel gratefully notes Truckee/Tahoe did escape the spring with no fatalities or significant catastrophes, but that doesn’t ease his concern, or desire for the highest vigilance regarding safety for this year, noting there were indeed some close calls, and that others likely went unreported.
Increased resources and education, whether online, in person, or at the trailhead, are virtually unanimously supported as being helpful in upping safety. However, the balance of providing this information — knowing that it may entice more people into the backcountry — while also making it abundantly clear that the backcountry is a beautiful but deadly arena, is forever a tightrope to walk.
“We do feel responsibility for safety in the backcountry at the TBA, but at the end of the day, it’s up to the individual to account for their own safety, and to find the resources to get educated,” Quine says.
At the Sports Hub, Perkins says his staff has had conversations about how to talk with and educate the clientele well before the pandemic, but that it’s been extra important as of late. “It’s mostly been an issue with rental gear in the past after huge dumps with people wanting to go hike to random places. Who you’re selling gear to is always a consideration,” Perkins stated.
He often recommends courses — and not just the widely popular Avalanche I course — that customers can take to help them learn how to use their gear and that also cover the rules of the backcountry.
Despite the chaotic picture that the image of shops being rapidly bought out of all their gear and people rushing to the mountains invokes, Perkins says it’s very rare that customers will push back on staff recommendations, and that many are genuinely interested in learning, being responsible, and taking things seriously.
His bottom-line message to those seeking out the backcountry experience? “Always listen to the dude at the shop.”
Sierra Avalanche Center: sierraavalanchecenter.org
Tahoe Backcountry Alliance: tahoebackcountryalliance.org
Alpenglow Expeditions (offers a variety of courses): alpenglowexpeditions.com
Backcountry Awareness Week: takecaretahoe.org/backcountry