CAMERON PASS, Colo. — May typically marks the end of avalanche season in Colorado, but for Owen Richard, the Diamond Peaks Ski Patrol director, that sigh of relief may not come for another few weeks. Climate change has extended an already sobering season of 12 avalanche deaths in the state, doubling the previous year’s total.
One reason for the increase — an unreliable snowpack — keeps Richard and skiers like Mark Morehouse on the lookout for trouble. On this particular afternoon early in the season, I struggle to catch my breath as something flashes in the corner of my eye. A lean figure glides through the thin air below us, ascending just to the right of the skin track we left. Morehouse shouts down to the quickly approaching figure.
“Owen! What’s up?!”
At roughly 6 feet tall and about 160 pounds each, Richard and Morehouse aren’t the yeti-like mountain men you might imagine. Richard is a mechanical architect with Hewlett-Packard. Morehouse is a Fort Collins high school chemistry teacher and nationally recognized swim coach. Spend a day in the backcountry with them, though, and they’ll erase any false impression before you get to their secret whiskey stash.
Between pointed banter, the two exchange observations of snowpack, temperature patterns and which slope will have the best snow. Morehouse is eager to talk with someone who knows as much about the area as he does, considering that he has dragged along three backcountry-skiing beginners, myself included.
There’s a high barrier of entry to this type of skiing or snowboarding. You have to invest in the safety gear, which you can’t always rent, likely amounting to your monthly mortgage payment. Although expensive, the gear is the easy part. Much harder is finding a mentor to teach you how to break trail, pack your gear bag, dig a snow pit, efficiently ascend a steep slope, and so many of the other skills that are crucial for a successful day in the backcountry.
Most backcountry skiers don’t want more people crowding their coveted locations, stealing the good turns. But that’s what happened during the COVID-19 pandemic. The sport’s slow rise in popularity exploded as active Coloradans sought out new adventures away from civilization. They flooded into the Cameron Pass trail heads. Parking lots that had a few cars in them during popular Saturdays began to spill out into the narrow canyon road. Concerningly, many of these recreationalists were unable to attend proper avalanche safety courses due to the pandemic.
The ski community, facing some of the worst snowpacks Colorado has seen in a decade, began to receive report after report of fatalities. It made for an easy conclusion: backcountry beginners, lacking proper safety training, are setting off more slides.
Despite this apparent correlation, there aren’t that many more people skiing the avalanche-prone terrain, according to Dean Klingner, a Fort Collins resident who has called Cameron Pass his stomping ground since 1998,
“Selfishly, I don’t really want more people to get into the sport…fortunately, the full parking lots up at Cameron Pass haven’t yielded many more skiers in the backcountry,” Klinger says. “Most of them stay close to their cars. They snowshoe, nordic ski, really anything to get out of the house this year.”
Richard, the ski patrol director, agrees that while there appears to be more people skiing the backcountry, without a mentor most don’t have the abilities, or motivation, to get into much trouble. Klingner adds, “Hiking up a mountain, way up, multiple times for a long day, is hard. Most people aren’t that physically fit.” Even Morehouse’s best swimmers struggle to maintain his uphill speed. Lunging uphill with a backpack on for hours is something that only gets easier with time.
Climate change has had a number of effects on ski communities, whose residents rely on cold temperatures and sufficient snow to support their lifestyle and economy. A rising concern about unreliable snowpack spurred professional snowboarder Jeremy Jones to start the coalition Protect Our Winter (POW). Founded in 2007, the organization advocates for reaching carbon neutrality by 2050. Since then, it has sponsored members to lobby for new environmental policies in Washington D.C., where the Biden administration has rejoined the Paris accord and Congress is considering the Colorado Outdoor Recreation and Economy Act, which would safeguard 400,00 acres of public land and create a program to reuse methane.
Another reason for the increased number of avalanche deaths may be the safety infrastructure in Colorado. Search and rescue teams consist solely of volunteers and receive no state funding. In January of 2020, a Senate committee proposed a bill to investigate how much funding would be necessary to create a grant for search and rescue teams. It was postponed indefinitely last May by the Senate Appropriations Committee, leaving the volunteer groups to continue to scour for donations.
Richard’s Diamond Peak Ski Patrol is a one-of-a-kind organization, requiring all 50 members to be certified through the National Ski Patrol and sending teams out to regularly patrol the most remote areas in the Larmier and Jackson County regions at Cameron Pass. All of these patrollers work a day job, but when a call comes in from the emergency services center, they rush home, grab the thousands of dollars in gear they bought themselves, and speed up to where they are needed. By contrast, most search and rescue teams are dispatched by the Sheriff’s Department in each county, and they don’t require as much certification and training as the Diamond Peaks Ski Patrol.
Despite their unique qualifications, Richard’s group still doesn’t receive any more funding, or donations, than other search and rescue teams across the state. To cover some of the costs of certification courses for patrollers, the group hosts avalanche safety courses. Other than that, “We get a backpack with a logo. That’s pretty cool,” Richard says, laughing, “[but] you have to provide the rest of the gear yourself.”