Backcountry snowboarding and skiing is considered any type of riding done outside of a patrolled ski area or resort’s boundaries. The backcountry has an allure to experienced riders – it gives those who are ready to take their sport to the next level new challenges and benefits: untracked terrain, deeper snow, location variety, freedom and openness to choose how and where they want to ride, the ability to skip long lift lines and traffic, and so on.
That untracked terrain and fusion of adventure and skiing are what make Cynthia Johnson so passionate about the backcountry. Johnson grew up in Denver and began skiing as soon as she could walk. She skied for different clubs in Vail and eventually became a freeride athlete where she participated in Big Mountain competitions for around six years. During that time, she was inspired by the guide safety crew at competitions to become a guide herself.
In order to ride safely in the backcountry, individuals take The American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE) 1 and 2 courses. These courses are three days long and teach snowboarders and skiers how to manage risk in avalanche terrain and the necessary gear to take out on the mountain. Following the recreational courses, Johnson continued with a pro 1 course at the American Avalanche Institute at Jackson Hole, an instructor training course and the American Mountain Guides Association (AMGA), which all set her up to become a guide and instructor for Paragon Guides in Vail.
Taking the AIARE courses is crucial when riding backcountry, as there are many risks involved when being off of a resort – avalanches being the most obvious hazard. Colorado is the deadliest state in the country for avalanches, according to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC), with 312 fatalities from 1950-2022.
However, avalanches are not the only safety concern. It is possible to get lost or turned around while riding with no ability to navigate due to a lack of cell service on the mountain. These scenarios can get dangerous very quickly. If you’re stuck or lost for a prolonged period of time, the risk of hypothermia and frostbite increases.
There are many gear elements that can prevent an unfortunate situation from worsening. Some basic, essential tools would be avalanche rescue gear, which includes an avalanche transceiver, shovel and probe. Johnson stated that it is important to always have these tools up to date in case of an emergency.
In addition to that gear, if you plan on traveling to known avalanche terrain, it is helpful to carry an avalanche airbag to create buoyancy for yourself during a slide. Before Johnson rides backcountry, she asks herself what possible bad things could happen and packs accordingly.
Sometimes search and rescue groups can take hours to find an individual, so in case Johnson does get lost, she will pack and prepare for otherwise unplanned nights in the wilderness. She always packs extra layers for warmth, a fire starter, some kind of shelter and extra navigation tools like a compass or paper map.
Colorado Search and Rescue Association (CSAR) is a non-profit corporation that works closely with State of Colorado departments, including the Colorado National Guard, the Civil Air Patrol, and others to assist in the approximate 3,000 incident responses that are reported annually.
“In Colorado, sheriffs have an unfunded statutory mandate to provide backcountry search and rescue services, and they generally opt to do so through the use of volunteer teams,” according to CSAR. “Some sheriffs delegate almost all of their duty to the non-paid professionals; some have paid sheriff positions overseeing SAR; and others combine fire, EMS, and SAR personnel.”
Because of this, there is an extensive list of search and rescue groups in Colorado that must do their own fundraising and respond to 911 dispatch. Two other organizations include the Summit County Rescue Group (SCRG) and Colorado Rapid Avalanche Deployment (C-RAD).
The SCRG is an all-volunteer, non-profit organization and the sixth mountain rescue team created in Colorado. The SCRG receives calls through 911 dispatch and determines what level of response is needed. If an “all-call” is received, an incident with confirmed burials, the entire SCRG team of about 73 people will respond.
In 2022, the SCRG had a total of 18 avalanche calls — two of them were all-calls with fatalities and one was an all-call with someone caught but not buried, according to SCRG Public Information Officer Anna DeBattiste.
“There is no charge for our services,” said DeBattiste. “Sometimes people delay calling us because they think it’s going to cost them money and they can’t afford it, then when they finally call, maybe things are worse: now it’s dark, now it’s colder.”
C-RAD is another growing organization with nearly 100 members across Colorado, Wyoming and Idaho. “C-RAD exists to cultivate, inspire and produce dog teams for successful avalanche search and rescue in the mountains of Colorado.” Volunteers work day jobs as ski patrollers, guides, or other outdoor professions, in addition to their work with C-RAD, President Doug Lesch said in a statement on the C-RAD site.
In order to avoid needing the help of a search and rescue team, education and awareness of the potential consequences of decisions are vital.
“I don’t think people understand how detrimental the potential for death is. I think people understand that there are avalanches, but I don’t think people understand what avalanche terrain is or the impact of their consequences,” Johnson said.
Johnson’s key takeaways in understanding avalanches are “know where to go and where not to go, know when to go and when not to go. This knowledge comes from understanding the terrain, the weather, and how the state of the snowpack is affected by both. You need 3 things for an avalanche to happen: terrain (a slope steep enough to slide), instability in the snowpack and a trigger (a.k.a. a human).”
While weather, snowpack and people can be changing conditions, terrain stays the same. A slope steeper than 30 degrees is considered avalanche terrain, and most avalanches are triggered between 30 and 45 degrees. To detect the angle of a slope, consider purchasing an inclinometer.
While you may be tired of lift lines, traffic, or congested runs on the resort, it is in everyone’s best interest to put in the proper effort to be educated on avalanche safety and preparation before taking snowboarding or skiing to the next level in the backcountry.