If the sales of backcountry gear are any indication, than the number of people heading off trails and out of bounds has grown exponentially in the past few years.
There’s no way to know just how many people are venturing out of bounds, but ask any seasoned backcountry skier and they’ll tell you they’ve noticed more bodies beyond the groomed runs and relative safety of resorts.
That increase in numbers hasn’t necessarily corresponded to an increase in avalanche knowledge — an imperative skill for anyone hoping to safely traverse the untamed slopes.
While interest in avalanche safety training has been growing — about 4,000 people take the first-level course each year nationwide, according to Brian Lazar executive director, American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE) — there’s no way to know if the expansion of backcountry sports is outpacing that.
“We don’t have any good numbers on the number of people doing backcountry,” Lazar said. But he suspects that those taking the avalanche courses represent just a fraction of backcountry adventurers.
Colorado Wilderness Rides and Guides owner Joshua Baruch thinks the outdoor industry ought to step up its efforts to educate more people.
“We’re sending all these people out to the backcountry, do we have a responsibility to educate them to potentially dangerous areas?” he said.
“Just shy of 30 die each year,” Lazar said.
The Colorado Avalanche Information Center reports that deaths from avalanche have held steady over the past decade at around 25 per year in the United States. However, on a larger scale, those numbers have steadily increased from the 1950s to the present day, keeping pace with the growth in popularity of winter sports.
Lazar said no matter what the numbers say, more bodies on more untested areas will almost always result in injuries or fatalities.
“We’re talking about life and limb associated risks,” he said. “If you’re unaware (of the condition of the terrain), you can’t make a sound decision and you are much more likely to get caught in an avalanche.”
“What the media and others consider “experienced” backcountry travelers is not what we would consider experienced, simply because their avalanche knowledge is limited, “ Lazar said. “Most victims are not highly trained. I think the sum total of your experience can’t be tallied by unexpected events. If you do the same thing for 30 years, it’s not relatively applicable.”
AIARE Level 1 courses, “Decision Making in Avalanche Terrain,” teach the fundamentals of what causes avalanches; how to recognize and avoid avalanche terrain and terrain traps; how to perform snowpacks tests; rescue basics and more.
CWRAG is offering two Level 1 courses, in cooperation with AIARE, Dec. 12-15 and Feb. 20-23. A more advanced Level 2 course will be offered Jan. 23-26.
For more information, visit http://avtraining.org/