Backcountry beckons: County seeks to capitalize on adventure junkies flocking to backcountry
Gear you’ll need
Skis, a snowboard, snowshoes or a snowmobile
Colorado Avalanche Information Center avalanche reports
American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education course
Where to go
Rocky Mountain National Park
Grand Lake Nordic Center
Rabbit Ears Pass
Wolford Mountain Reservoir
Hot Sulphur Springs
Backcountry territory can be alluring for many skiers, riders, snowshoers and snowmobilers for its freedom, lack of crowds and beautiful views, and in Grand County there is no shortage of spots to check out.
A new website, grandbackcountry.com, created by the Grand Lake Chamber and the Winter Park – Fraser Chamber, hopes to introduce more people to the county’s backcountry and educate recreators before they head out.
“Our motivation for building the website was to make sure we’re giving people the opportunity to get info about having an adventure,” said Catherine Ross, executive director of the Winter Park – Fraser Chamber. “Also just to give people an idea that they don’t need to be afraid of it. We wanted people to understand that they could just try it.”
Ross said the new website was inspired by a recent increase in interest in backcountry adventures. According to the Snowsports Industries America, nearly seven million skiers and riders explored the backcountry in the 2016-17 season, up 15 percent from the previous season.
She said the goal is to “expose people to all of the other great things there are to do in the winter besides downhill ski.”
“The purpose of the grant was to get people to come and visit just for backcountry adventures or extend their stay,” Ross said. “To us this is an important part of what there is to offer here.”
The website includes information on multiple different ways to explore the backcountry, where to go and how to prepare. It was funded using two grants from the Colorado Tourism Office and the Grand County Colorado Tourism Board.
The website will continue to be updated and Ross said she hopes other experts or enthusiasts will add organic content.
Following the rising interest in backcountry activities, is the increased sales of backcountry gear. Snowsports Industries America found that alpine-touring equipment, which is often used for backcountry activities, saw sales grow 13 percent in the 2016-17 season.
Debbie Muenster, owner of Icebox Mountain Sports in Fraser, said her store has seen growth in their backcountry gear rentals. Muenster said the store recently expanded its fleet of rental skis to meet the demand.
“We used to bring in a fleet of solely backcountry skis, that would pertain more to the people going to Berthoud, but now we have a fleet of a couple different kinds of skis that a lot of people are using at the ski area,” she said. “So they’re not as wide underfoot, they’re a lot lighter, a lot easier to use.”
She also said bindings that can be used in both backcountry and resort activities have been popular.
While recreators are free to explore backcountry areas like Berthoud Pass, Rocky Mountain National Park, Jones Pass and more, many of the resorts in the county also allow guests to adventure in their backcountry terrain through uphill access.
For example, during ski season, Winter Park Resort allows uphill access, meaning hiking up the mountain on skis instead of riding the lift up, on all of the trails in its Winter Park and Vasquez Ridge territories and on limited trails in the Mary Jane and Parsenn Bowl territories.
“You’ll run into maybe one other person, two other people as you skin up on any given morning, but it is something that I think more and more people are taking advantage of,” said Steve Hurlbert, director of public relations and communications for Winter Park Resort. “We’ve got one of the more generous uphill policies of other ski resorts of the state.”
There are a number of possible reasons for the spike in interest in the backcountry, including wanting to avoid crowds at the resorts, a desire to explore and the influx of people moving to Colorado, said Brian Pollock, director of education for the nonprofit Friends of Berthoud Pass, which promotes backcountry recreation and education.
“There’s a little something for everybody,” he said. “It appeals to a larger market and the fact that there’s more gear out there and it’s a little more accessible, it’s increasing the number of people now travelling the backcountry.”
Regardless of why recreators are becoming more interested in the terrain, Pollock encouraged anyone getting into backcountry activities to educate themselves on the terrain and gear needed before going, including taking a Level 1 Avalanche class.
Friends of Berthoud Pass offers avalanche awareness presentations and on-snow sessions, but notes this is not a replacement for American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education classes.
“We like to refer to ourselves as a stepping stone into backcountry education,” Pollock said. “We’re getting a lot more requests for classroom sessions than we have in the past.”
In order to try and avoid the dangers of getting lost or injured, he said to be sure to carry a beacon, a shovel and a probe, check maps and avalanche reports before heading out and be aware of steep or dangerous terrain, particularly in the early season when snow isn’t as deep.
Pollock also suggested finding a mentor or guide who can show newer recreators the ropes when they go out the first few times.
“Try and find people that you trust and work with them with your ability,” he said. “I started touring with people who were already backcountry touring or ski patrol guides or tour guides and they took me under their wing and showed me the way.”
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