Despite the early winter snow dumps that buried Turnagain Pass, avid outdoorsman Dana Drummond drives by the packed parking lots.
Instead of stopping at the popular winter destination in the Kenai Mountains south of Anchorage, Drummond and his friends head for more remote locations — and fewer people.
Chalk up another lifestyle change prompted by the coronavirus pandemic: Places like Turnagain Pass are crowded with skiers, snowboarders and snowmachiners hitting the backcountry as COVID-19 complicates the usual indoor activities like visiting coffee shops, movie theaters or restaurants and bars.
The additional pressure is prompting concerns about avalanche safety even as the recreation community welcomes the newcomers.
“You have a lot of new people that are potentially hazardous to themselves,” said Drummond, a veteran skier and guide who owns the Hoarding Marmot consignment store in Anchorage. “But also just by nature, (with) that many people out there, it’s just hazardous to everybody else.”
Trailheads, day-use areas and campgrounds within the Chugach National Forest logged record numbers of visitors over the summer and similarly big numbers are expected through the winter, officials say. Those were Alaskans. The usual tourist traffic barely materialized with cruise ships halted.
The local push into the backcountry has “definitely translated into the winter season as well,” said Graham Predeger, a former avalanche forecaster who works as recreation operations supervisor for the Glacier Ranger District on the Chugach National Forest.
Mountain bikes started selling out in mid-June, Predeger said. Now friends who sell backcountry-ski setups or snowmachines say they can’t keep up with demand. The Alaska Avalanche School typically gets a couple dozen people signed up the first day classes open in mid-November. This year, they got more than 150. Classes for both snowmachiners and skiers are full, with wait lists, through the winter.
“To me, that points toward a lot of novice users,” he said. “Fortunately, they’re taking the time to invest in themselves and get this critical training to recreate in the winter backcountry safely.”
People who spend time in the backcountry say they’ve spotted signs that there are more people getting out, and at least some of them seem fairly new to winter recreation.
In Haines, where heavy snow that turned to lower elevation rain triggered deadly landslides in early December, Jeff Moskowitz said he’s hearing about more people in the backcountry without the kind of gear they’d carry if they knew “where they were and what exactly they’re doing” — avalanche beacons, shovels, probes.
Moskowitz, a forecaster and educator with the Haines Avalanche Center who also works with the Alaska Avalanche Information Center, said he saw an example over the weekend at a popular summer hiking trail.
“Now that there’s enough snow, it’s become avalanche terrain,” he said. “There were people hiking and they were going through the snow. That’s the kind of stuff that’s spooky.”
Winter safety experts say they can’t say for certain that more visitors with less backcountry savvy will lead to more accidents or avalanches.
But they’re mounting public information campaigns to educate new users, urge experienced ones exercise care if they seek out new, unexplored terrain to escape the crowds, and make sure everybody stays off the slopes right after a good storm.
“Our messaging is not only for the new folks that are just learning about being in the backcountry, but it’s really going to try and hit hard for people going further out,” said Wendy Wagner, who directs the Chugach National Forest Avalanche Information Center.
Less experience doesn’t necessarily translate to higher avalanche danger or more people ending up in potentially risky avalanche zones.
More experience, more risk?
A study published last month by the Colorado Avalanche Information Center found instead that more experienced backcountry users were the ones who tended to trigger dangerous avalanches.
The study by the center’s director and accident database tracker looked at avalanches last winter into the spring, when pandemic restrictions shuttered ski areas and pushed more potentially inexperienced people into the backcountry. There were 86 avalanches total involving 126 people — skiers, snowshoers, snowmachiners, climbers — including six caught and killed.
“Most people involved in avalanches had intermediate or advanced levels of experience, which is consistent with previous research,” according to the study, citing 2002 research that found avalanche education did not reduce avalanche exposure. “Instead, our results suggest people were using their training and experience to spend more time traveling in avalanche terrain, or traveling during more avalanche-prone conditions.”
Interestingly, people with more experience got into more trouble after the pandemic kicked in.
More advanced backcountry travelers and not beginners were more likely to be involved in avalanches after mid-March when the pandemic shut down ski areas, the researchers found. Anecdotal evidence indicated more easily accessible areas got crowded and tracked up, pushing people with more skills to try less familiar terrain. Other indications showed those March avalanches happened when forecasts warned of considerable danger.
“Some observers reported an ‘increase in risky behavior’ or people ‘taking more avalanche risks,’” the study found. “These are very subjective observations, but consistent with research on increased risk acceptance in stressful situations ... The uncertainty of a global pandemic is certainly a stressful situation.”
Alaska’s backcountry isn’t as accessible as Colorado’s, though. Few roads run into the mountains here.
Unfamiliarity with avalanche safety combined with eagerness to explore can add up to a potentially troubling equation, especially where people are concentrated in a few prime spots and may not be familiar with recognizing avalanche terrain.
Drummond suggests a possible scenario: Say you’re a skier finishing a run. You’re coming down a valley that’s tapering into flatter terrain. Above you, another possibly less experienced skier is getting ready to drop into the same run but up high, where the terrain is steep. They’re watching several other groups climbing toward them and feeling the pressure to go.
That scenario, with multiple parties in the same avalanche terrain where triggering a slide could put others below in jeopardy, is a “huge concern,” Wagner said. “Be patient. Know where other groups are. That’s the rule.”
That can get complicated when the backcountry is busy and people might not understand that the 25-degree slope they’re may not necessarily be avalanche terrain, but the 35-degree slope they move to could be.
“It’s not very easy to eyeball that difference,” she said.
What to do
Alaska averages 3 1/2 fatalities a season, Wagner said on a “Talk of Alaska” program focusing on the effects of pandemic backcountry use in November.
Chugach National Forest forecasters were predicting moderate avalanche danger over the long holiday weekend. At Hatcher Pass in Mat-Su, where there’s less snow, avalanche forecasters warned of hard, stiff slabs created by wind in late December that could wait to exhibit telltale fractures until someone travels onto the slope.
There were reports of several large avalanches this week at Turnagain Pass and an ominous one Tuesday at Hatcher Pass, where a skier triggered a persistent slab avalanche on the south face of Microdot Peak, according to the Hatcher Pass Avalanche Center: “Skier reported triggering the slab on his 2nd turn, then proceeded to duck behind a large boulder for protection, realized his safe zone was not safe . He then saw the avalanche coming towards him and pointed it downhill, fortunately able to outrun the avalanche.”
Snow safety experts recommend taking steps to stay safe, whether you’re a backcountry veteran or newbie.
Avalanche danger can change quickly, so check websites including the Alaska Avalanche Information Center, Chugach National Forest Avalanche Information Center or Hatcher Pass Avalanche Center for the most updated information. Bring basic avalanche gear — probe, beacon, shovel — and know how to use it. Practice rescue techniques in the yard.
Be a mentor “or seek out mentorship,” Predeger advised in an article he dubbed “Pandemic Pandemonium.”
Try to build some flex into your schedule; maybe take advantage of a midweek work break to fit in some runs and avoid the weekend crowds, he wrote. Develop what he calls parking lot protocols that include avalanche forecast familiarity, a plan for the day and checking to make sure avalanche transceivers are on. In the backcountry, be aware of nearby groups, communicate with them before dropping in, clear out of avalanche runout zones and be ready in case rescue is needed.
Remember, too, that the pandemic is already stressing the state’s health care system, Wagner said. There’s always the chance of exposing search and rescue crews to risk when they’re called out, but now there’s an additional layer of exposure to the virus itself.
“It’s not the year to push it,” she said.