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Last winter was full of new records for the backcountry skiing community.
Sales for necessary equipment like alpine touring gear, splitboards, beacons, shovels, and probes increased 76 percent in the U.S. during the opening months of the 2020 snow season, according to market research group NPD. Attendance at Colorado’s avalanche-safety courses also skyrocketed. The Denver Post reported that the Colorado Mountain School’s Level 1 enrollment more than tripled. Irwin Guides, based in southwest Colorado, increased their lineup of recreation courses by nearly 40 percent for the upcoming season to accommodate the growing demand.
However, the jump in popularity also led to some grim stats. Colorado recorded the highest number of avalanche fatalities for a single season, as was the case nationwide, too, with 37 total lives lost—a dozen of which were in the Centennial State.
With the surge in interest unlikely to diminish, Lou Dawson, the Colorado-born author and first person to ski all of the state’s 14,000-foot peaks, decided to update his definitive resource for backcountry beginners. The new edition of Light Tours of Colorado highlights the best low-angle, avalanche-safe terrain across the Centennial State. Here, we talked with Dawson about the key aspects of the guide and how backcountry skiing has changed in Colorado over the years.
5280: What type of skier or rider is this guide intended to assist?
Lou Dawson: This guide is for anybody that doesn’t have a lot of avalanche terrain experience or doesn’t want to deal with the game of avalanche forecasting and risk assessment. You can evaluate the safety of these routes by using the slope angle and looking at the Colorado Avalanche Information Center forecast. If the forecast is moderate to low, these low angle routes are relatively safe.
Why is it important to spotlight beginner terrain?
Ski tour guidebooks tend to heavily focus on couloirs, steep mountain faces, and big-mountain skiing because that’s exciting. Studying guidebooks is as much about dreaming as it is reality. As my life progressed, I found myself gravitating more to these [easier] routes, because I wasn’t out there for the rush of steep powder, which is totally valid and super cool.
After getting caught in an avalanche myself and the tragedy of avalanche deaths–the list of those I know who’ve died is very long—this guide is a public service. My motivation is to give back to the backcountry skiing community, especially to newcomers.
What specific updates were made to this second edition of Light Tours?
We’ve doubled the number of routes and removed the resort uphills that proved difficult to detail [but left the others] because of closures or ever-shifting resort policies. We also improved our format: It’s simpler and has only the information that you need.
What are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen to backcountry skiing in Colorado since you started doing it?
Today’s equipment and avalanche safety gear is way better—I backcountry skied before beacons existed. That gear has caused some people to engage in more risk. But for most people, they are careful, and the gear has only increased their safety.
Forecasting and the education system have improved immeasurably. Now you can take recreational pedagogy and get yourself dialed with risk assessment and decision making. Pioneer guidebooks were revolutionary because there was no internet. The information available now, combined with GPS on a smartphone, is a highly evolved method of doing routes.
What are some of your cardinal rules for maintaining safety while backcountry skiing?
Taking a first- and second-level avalanche safety course is mandatory if you’re going into the backcountry on skis or a snowboard. If you’re really new to this sport and don’t live in the mountains or have only skied at a resort, you might not be that good at spotting avalanche terrain, and the courses really help.
Some apps like onX Backcountry are attempting to have detailed, preconfigured backcountry ski routes, which is extremely helpful—with the caveat that using GPS well is a skill. You need to know how to read your screen, the direction you’re going, how to operate the app, the phone’s battery system needs to be reconfigured so it doesn’t run out, plus a water resistant case. You better have several phones with GPS in your group and a good idea of where you’re going. This new guide also easily lays flat in your pack, or you can grab a page with a copy machine.
What steps can recreationists take to build their backcountry skill sets?
You could pay a guide that’s personable and a good educator to go out and learn a huge amount in a day of skiing. Friends that are guide-level qualified aren’t always good educators and may have a different level of risk. For learning progression, use the internet to study blogs and read about the sport. You can also go to avalanche forecasting fundraiser events or volunteer for local rescue teams.
(Read more: So, You Want to Try Backcountry Skiing?)