More than five million backcountry skiers and snowboarders will venture into avalanche-terrain this season, a record surge that is mirrored by not only expanding backcountry gear sales but increasing numbers of avalanche-related fatalities.
The sudden growth - backcountry travelers spent $40 million last year on avalanche beacons, probes, shovels and skins despite less-than-ideal skiing conditions - is challenging both the retail and resort industry as more powder-seekers venture beyond boundaries.
What is the responsibility of a resort that promotes backcountry gates leading into publicly-owned yet unmitigated, avalanche-prone terrain? How about the gear maker who designs and sells equipment to help backcountry travelers mitigate the inherent risks of exploring wild, snowy landscapes? Or the star athlete whose cinematic and inspiring feats include charging through avalanche terrain or even outrunning a barreling snowslide?
A discussion at Denver's SIA Snow Show on Thursday - dubbed "Business of the Backcountry" - featured a panel with retail, resort and media players and athletes. They represented an industry grappling with the risk of the backcountry and the responsibility behind compelling more people to get out there and explore.
Bruce Edgerly, co-founder of Boulder's Backcountry Access and developer of the world's top avalanche beacon and a popular avalanche airbag backpack, said he works at "installing a culture of safety." That means his sales reps are actually ski patrollers, guides and avalanche experts who help educate retailers on the skills and awareness required to use his company's avalanche equipment.
Jeremy Jones, one of the most revered big mountain snowboarders in history whose movies showcase the very edge of his sport, supports avalanche forecasting centers and elevates snow safety content in each of his movies. His brothers' production company, Teton Gravity Research, every year provides training for production crew, riders and cameramen.
"We always put resources into avalanche priorities," Jones said.
Ethan Mueller, owner and operator of Crested Butte Mountain Resort, doesn't have backcountry access gates. But he's found way to encourage awareness of avalanche danger inside his boundaries.
Skiers who wore avalanche beacons and carried shovels and probes were ushered to the front of the crowd when patrollers dropped the ropes on Crested Butte's famed extreme terrain Friday morning. Mueller is mulling plans to develop intermediate, hike-accessed backcountry terrain on nearby Snodgrass Mountain. His mountain's uphill travel policy requires skiers to register for a pass and now the program sees as many as 130 people a day skinning up the mountain every morning before the lifts turn.
"It's an entry point to the sport and a way to ease yourself in, in a very safe manner," said Mueller, whose Snodgrass plan would allow uphill travel and downhill skiing in a somewhat controlled environment. "The goal is to give people a different entry into the backcountry experience."
More than 60 percent of the $40 million worth of avalanche accessories sold last year was done through the Internet. And backcountry.com handled a majority of those sales. Last year backcountry.com saw a 40 percent increase in sales of its avalanche safety equipment, compared to about 12 percent for all ski goods, said Hud Knight, the director of the Salt Lake City-based company's hardgoods division.
"It's a huge area for us. The thing we need to do better is to get people the educational resources they need," said Knight, noting that backcountry.com is now upping its safety content to include videos and other materials needed to help backcountry travelers develop at least an awareness of the risks.
The materials are out there. The message needs to be more concise, clear and easy to find, said Ethan Greene, director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.
"Most of the accidents we see, very simple pieces of information would have helped people," Greene said.
Education is one component of increasing avalanche awareness. And it represents an opportunity for the retail and resort industries to not just reach but engage new customers who are buying avalanche equipment without realizing that backcountry travel requires greater personal responsibility than resort skiing.
How this is accomplished remains to be seen but there is no single answer. It begins with discussions like "Business of the Backcountry." The mission involves better signs at resort backcountry gates - many avalanche incidents these days occur just outside resort boundaries. It includes leading retailers and gear makers designing programs to instill safety awareness into gear they make and sell. It includes resort operators recognizing the lure and danger of out-of-bounds terrain visible from chairlifts and working to educate lift riders about those dangers.
"It's a multi-tiered approach in terms of consistent messaging and pointing people to the right resources," Greene said.
It starts with the businesses connected to the backcountry but it also must include the skiers and snowboarders.
"Hopefully the consumer does push for more awareness," Mueller said.
Jason Blevins: 303-954-1374, email@example.com or twitter.com/jasontblevins