Resort skiing is fun. High-speed chairlifts and avalanche control allow skiers to get in many laps while feeling safe, regardless of the snowpack. But with sometimes thousands of people looking to take advantage of lift-accessed terrain, long lines and skied-out slopes have become a regular occurrence. The issue of overcrowding has encouraged many people to ski in the backcountry instead. While it often requires much work to ski in the backcountry—as expressed in the phrase “earn your turns”—more skiers find this work justified because the quality of skiing can be better than that found in a resort. But just how prepared are these new powder-seekers who want to find untracked snow in the backcountry?
Recently, ski resorts have become increasingly commercialized. Alta and Snowbird, two of the closest resorts to Rowland Hall, are no exception. In January of 2018, Alterra Mountain Company introduced the Ikon Pass, allowing people to ski a certain number of days at several different resorts, Alta and Snowbird included, which resulted in an influx of tourists looking to maximize their Ikon days. More recently, Alta Ski Area has announced that they will be requiring parking reservations, and parking in the boundaries of the town of Alta will cost $25. They also altered the terrain of a run called “Nina’s curve” to be more beginner-friendly to inexperienced skiers. Additionally and to the uproar of many local skiers, Snowbird announced that they will be selling “fast-passes” this year similar to those found at Disney, which allow wealthy customers to pay extra and cut the lift lines. There has even been a proposal to put in a gondola going up the canyon to streamline transportation for the increasing number of daily visitors to the canyon. All these changes seem to accommodate tourists looking for a fun couple of days of vacation at the expense of the outrage of local skiers looking to preserve the local feel of their home resorts.
Many locals, including Davin Grapentine, the Alta-Bird freeride team development director, acknowledged feeling crowded out of the resorts: “I would rather get a few less laps than spend a significant portion of my ski days in lift lines.” Grapentine, like many others, has been spending more and more time in the backcountry because of the long lift lines and has noticed others doing the same: “Selfishly I am sometimes annoyed by how crowded the backcountry is getting, but overall I think that it's good that more people are getting out and enjoying the mountains.” He hopes that the increase in the number of people who ski in the backcountry will raise awareness to preserve public lands and wilderness areas for everyone to use. But, as Grapentine continued, “it can be a fine line between people using our mountains and loving them to death.”
Many have found that line. According to Statista, there is an average of 25.5 avalanche-related deaths per season in the U.S. from 1990 to today. Last year, there were 37. Last year also broke the record number of avalanche deaths in the U.S. per season. While the main, uncontrollable factor in this is a poor snowpack that has a tendency to slide, resorts share responsibility too. As reported in the Salt Lake Tribune, of the 37 backcountry deaths in Utah in the past twenty years, almost half of those have occured in terrain accessed from ski resort lifts. Many of these are from people unequipped to be in the backcountry. “Almost every time that I ski I encounter someone lacking appropriate training/experience and/or making poor decisions,” said Grapentine. He continued, saying he thinks that “most of the people that I see have the appropriate gear, but they lack the experience to make good travel decisions in backcountry terrain.” Professional skier Julian Carr even acknowledged the problem in a recent Instagram post: “With more participation [in backcountry skiing], we’re seeing unprecedented numbers of accident-related incidents.” In the ski world, most have heard the importance of always carrying rescue gear including a beacon, shovel, and probe. But safe backcountry practices beyond that are discussed much less.
“From what I have seen, the resorts have done nothing to educate people,” said Grapentine. “They put up the warning signs at the resort boundaries, but that’s something that they’ve been doing all along.” Most skiers can say that they fell in love with the sport in resort boundaries. It is a natural starting point because of the safety and accessibility. But now as skiers are pushed by the high density of people in resort boundaries to the backcountry, resorts do next to nothing to manage the safety of this side of the sport. It seems that, because resorts introduce people into the sport and force them out by catering to the tourism industry, that they should be held more accountable for the safety of this next transition. “The number of un/underprepared people has significantly increased the past few seasons,” said Grapentine. This aligns directly with the increasing daily attendance at ski resorts. He thinks that “with the increase in accidents involving people accessing backcountry terrain through resort gates, [resorts] should probably be doing more.”
Hopefully ski resorts will soon take more responsibility upon themselves to educate their guests before they enter the backcountry, as the correlation between the commercialization of these resorts and the rise in backcountry deaths is becoming evident and may very well continue if nothing is done. Beyond ski resorts, the entire industry must step up and make changes. “Shops, magazines, media, and ski equipment companies are all selling backcountry skiing but are doing little to support and promote education,” said Grapentine. The industry needs to take action and stop being a bystander as their customers die.