CultureOpinion

The Case for Avalanche Control in the Backcountry

It’s time we made America’s prime backcountry skiing and snowboarding terrain safer and more accessible. First step: bombing slopes in the way-out-of-bounds.

Brian Hall, Forrest Coots and Silvia Moser ski touring at Hankin-Evelyn, a ski touring destination near Smithers, British Columbia, Canada. (Photo: Mattias Fredriksson)
backcountry snowsports

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Life used to be hard, so skiers created chairlifts and made skiing easy. Today life is easy, so skiers want to skip the lifts and make skiing hard again.

There’s more to it than that, of course—touring gear has gotten way better, for one—but backcountry skiing and snowboarding are booming while resort numbers are flat. According to research by the Snowsports Industries of America, some 1.4 million Americans skied or snowboarded in the backcountry in the winter of 2017–18. That’s a healthy jump from the 650,000 participants in 2010, estimated by the website Wild Snow (the approximation considered the most accurate at that time), and it’s matched by a surging market for backcountry gear. During the 2017–18 season, sales of alpine-touring equipment exceeded $24 million—a 30 percent increase over the previous year. Meanwhile, sales of backcountry equipment like beacons and shovels now top $20 million per season. What’s more, the Forest Service expects that backcountry winter sports will continue to grow deep into this century, despite a warming climate and diminishing snowfall. According to a recent study by the agency, between 2008 and 2060 the U.S. will see up to a 106 percent increase in “undeveloped skiing,” which includes nordic skiers and snowshoers, due in part to fitness trends and population growth.

Apparently, 137 years after Ralph Waldo Emerson laid down his pen, we’re figuring out that self-reliance is fun. Other benefits of backcountry skiing include endorphin highs, smaller carbon footprints, lower-cost recreation, and—yes, yes, yes!—something that science has shown lights up our neurons as much as sex: powder turns.

The only downside to this orgasmatron of self-sufficient shredding? The threat of murderous avalanches. Essentially all the terrain in the western U.S. that’s fun to ski—the slopes that would be labeled with blue squares and black diamonds at resorts—is avalanche country. Roughly 27 Americans a year die in slides, and the nearly constant threat is keeping participation numbers from multiplying even faster. Many parents and life partners remain—understandably—reluctant to introduce their loved ones to backcountry snowsports because they’re inherently dangerous. Avalanches also constrain experienced veterans, who wisely stick to resorts when nothing fun to ski off-piste is safe. This is a shame, especially because it’s entirely possible to create environments where human-powered backcountry adventure can be much safer for everyone.

So here goes: to open up the backcountry to many more newbies and minimize the danger for everyone, we should bomb the hell out of avalanche terrain.

All right, that’s intentional hyperbole, but first let me explain why it’s not such a crazy idea. The science and profession of avalanche mitigation began in the 1940s in Utah’s Little Cottonwood Canyon (home to the steep and deep Alta ski area) and accelerated in the fifties and sixties when U.S. Forest Service snow rangers began testing avalanche theories with explosives. Early Utah backcountry powder skiers were delighted to take advantage of that work, making turns on terrain controlled by the federal government.

Though the Forest Service canned that program in the seventies, the government is still heavily invested in backcountry slide control. It just happens at the state level now. Throughout the West, transportation departments control the slopes above roads. I once boot-packed up Glory Bowl on Wyoming’s Teton Pass with Rod Newcomb, founder of the American Avalanche Institute, to report a story on why the pass was so popular with skiers. Newcomb wanted to show me the answer: a 15-foot-tall faucet-shaped device known as a Gazex Exploder. If you ever accidentally ignited a gas grill with the cover down (ah, college), you get how they work. A remote operator floods the faucet with natural gas and oxygen, an igniter lights it up remotely, and the resulting explosion triggers an avalanche. The Teton Pass Gazex is operated by Wyoming’s Department of Transportation. Similar blasting—sometimes with World War II–era artillery or charges dropped from helicopters—plays out above Colorado’s Berthoud Pass, British Columbia’s Rogers Pass, and Little Cottonwood Canyon, all of which are among North America’s most popular backcountry-skiing destinations. A hard-charging Teton Pass skier once told me that avalanche-control work on Glory Bowl had created a de facto backcountry hub.

Transportation departments are careful to avoid saying that avalanche-control work is done for skier safety, but the point is that backcountry skiers take advantage of avalanche control when it’s available. For more evidence, look to the rising popularity among skiers of seeking out terrain beyond the chairlifts but within the boundaries of a handful of North American resorts. Such “in-bounds backcountry” at places like Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and Bridger Bowl, Montana, are controlled for slides, but to be granted access you typically need a shovel, a probe, and an avalanche beacon. At Washington’s Crystal Mountain, patrol director Peter Dale says that growing interest in the resort’s in-bounds backcountry terrain is one reason the patrol now prioritizes getting that terrain open after big storms.

Which brings me to my vision: a handful of 1,000-to-2,000-acre, lightly managed backcountry ski areas that offer avalanche control and not a heck of a lot else. These projects could be developed as nonprofits, ideally in conjunction with municipalities keen on boosting the recreation economy. Such an operation might employ a seasonal mountain manager, four or so avalanche mitigators, a couple of drivers running shuttles from the nearest town, and possibly some backcountry patrollers in case of emergencies. The main costs, other than staffing, would be explosives (between $10,000 and $100,000 per season, depending on which techniques are employed), insurance, and the initial permitting and environmental-impact statements. A small user fee or membership—similar to what you’d pay at, say, a community rec center—would likely cover the costs.

Skiers dropped off at the base would get debriefed on hazards and conditions, then be directed toward low-angle acreage while staff runs control routes and blasts slopes as needed with small hand charges, which have a much lower environmental impact than classic avalanche artillery. (Ideally, the operators would assume management of a state-operated Gazex Exploder or two.) Over the course of the day, skiers would have access to steeper terrain, assuming a bit more risk in exchange for a bit more fun. Snow-safety patrollers would follow the same kind of strategic approach to avalanche control as heli- and cat-skiing outfits, bombing here and there to test the snowpack versus detonating every inch of the area like a resort.

For a sanity check, I bounced my idea off Dave Hamre, former snow-safety director at Alta and a recently retired professional avalanche mitigator. (Through the end of last year, he blasted remote slopes in Alaska using artillery.) He didn’t laugh me out of the bar in Whitefish, Montana, where we met last October. Nor did Sean Wetterberg, the Forest Service’s National Winter Sports Program manager, ridicule me when I floated the concept during a phone call. “There’s nothing about any of this that’s inherently dead on arrival,” he said. In fact, both men seemed genuinely excited by the prospect. Hamre’s hope was that the controlled backcountry areas would double as avalanche-education and research centers. Wetterberg thought the biggest obstacle would be making the finances work out, but he also suggested that “it would be easier to win approval” for the operations because there’s very little infrastructure.

A helpful case study here is Colorado’s Silverton Mountain, which founders Aaron and Jenny Brill envisioned as a lightly managed backcountry ski area back in the winter of 1999–2000. Their initial plan was to allow experienced backcountry skiers to simply head out with their partners after a morning briefing. There wouldn’t be any avalanche control—just snow-safety checks and reports. They erected a lone double chairlift and intended to run the place as a modest lifestyle business. Then the Bureau of Land Management, which has jurisdiction over most of Silverton’s terrain, insisted that blasting and guiding be part of the program. Fast-forward to today and Silverton is run as a guided-only outfit in the winter, when it does a small amount of bombing. In the spring, though, the mountain offers unguided skiing for several weeks while amping up avalanche control enough to satisfy the BLM.

Hybridize a lift-free version of Silverton with the 9,000-acre Hankin-Evelyn backcountry ski area just outside Smithers, British Columbia—trails on safe low-angle terrain below tree line for beginners, steep alpine slopes for veterans, three beacon-checking stations, one warming hut—and you have a working model of my concept. There’s no bombing at Hankin-Evelyn, but founder Brian Hall has achieved his dream of creating an inviting playground for adventurous skiers to congregate. As it happens, he recently received some phone calls from Colorado. “People are asking us how they might start something similar,” he told me. “The idea was always about opening doors for others.”

Which means I’m not only entirely sane in my thinking, but I’m at least a step behind the type A skiers who are probably securing funding for a U.S. backcountry area even as you read this. I sure hope they pull it off. Establishing places for skiers to explore terrain that’s free of chairlifts, slopeside espresso huts, and manufactured mountain villages will fuel the next growth spurt in human-powered winter sports—and probably shorten the lift lines at your local resort. That’s something we can all get behind. We just need to get used to starting our backcountry mornings with a few explosives. Boom!

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