Wildfire Smoke Is Here to Stay

5 Jun

Burn we must. One hundred–plus years of wildland fire suppression and an ever hotter planet make this an ineluctable truth in the American West. From the shrublands to the subalpine forests, fire—an integral part of any healthy landscape—is now acting as an adaptation catalyst that’s rapidly reshaping entire ecosystems.

That adaptation is essential. Thanks to climate change, we are seeing record high temperatures and record low moisture levels in vegetation. Add the increasingly popular dream of owning a home in the woods (the fastest-growing land-use type in the country is the so-called wildland-urban interface), plus infrastructure risk factors like balky power lines, and we’re looking at a dire future of frequent catastrophic megafires from New Mexico north to Alberta and west to the Pacific. Some of us can remember the great Yellowstone fires of 1988, which resulted from a record hot and dry spell. “By the end of the century, in Yellowstone every year or every other year will be hotter and drier than 1988,” says Philip Higuera, an associate professor of fire ecology at the University of Montana.

Scientists have been warning for decades that the West is due for purging wildfires. Now that the blazes are here, we’re beginning to grapple with a harsh reality. If you live in the West, you’ve heard plenty about the need for communities to adopt fire-resistant building codes, bury power lines, establish evacuation routes, and remove fuel through routine clearing and prescribed burns. Meanwhile, policymakers—though not politicians—are coming around to the idea that we should stop spending our national treasure and risking the lives of firefighters to battle remote blazes, even if a handful of homes are at stake. The age of wildland fire suppression has to end.

Over a period of decades, controlled burning and fire-wise construction should dramatically reduce the impact of blazes on settlements across the West. But those measures, along with natural changes like the conversion of some forests to grasslands, won’t do a damn thing to protect us in the near term from what may be the greatest hazard to human health in our new climate: smoke.

wildfire
Smoke from large fires, like this one in Napa County in 2017, can affect populations thousands of miles away. (Michael Short)

Wildfire smoke has been a natural part of life on earth for at least 400 million years. In North America, Native people lived with the air pollution from lightning-sparked wildfires as well as the burns they lit on purpose. But in general, those regular smaller fires were far less intense than the infernos we’re experiencing now. In the West today, wildfires aren’t just burning grasses on the floor of a ponderosa pine forest or wiping out high-elevation stands of lodgepole every 100 to 250 years—they’re burning forests from weeds to canopy and covering vast acreages. They’re also burning longer, persisting for as much as seven months of the year in most of the West (compared with the four-to-five-month fire season that was typical 50 years ago), and producing more smoke.

In addition to hazardous chemicals that are released when structures ignite, wildfire smoke commonly contains toxic ingredients. The chief threat, however, is prolonged exposure to the fine particulate matter suspended in smoke. When inhaled, these particles, which are as small as 2.5 micrometers in diameter (a grain of table salt is 100 micrometers), can have serious health effects. Research has shown that wildfire particulate is associated with increased risk of respiratory infection and death. One study estimated that some 1,700 fatalities per year in the U.S. are linked to particulate from wildfires, and that number could double by the end of the century.

“The smoke we’re experiencing now is causing us to reevaluate how we live our lives,” says Tony Ward, chair of the School of Public and Community Health Sciences at the University of Montana. Unfortunately, he adds, there’s been little funding for studies that focus on the issue. “Very large populations are being exposed. We need to devote more resources to protecting the public.”

Last fall, during the deadly Camp Fire near Paradise, California, San Francisco was in the national news when it was estimated that wildfire smoke made breathing the city’s air for a single day equivalent to smoking ten cigarettes. As bad as that was, a more revealing case study is Seeley Lake, Montana. In the summer of 2017, several nearby fires caused smoke levels to reach hazardous levels on 36 out of 50 days. How nasty was the air? By the EPA’s standards, things start to get unhealthy when the pollution-borne particulate levels reach 35 micrograms per cubic liter of air. In Seeley Lake, the particulate levels were routinely in excess of 300 micrograms per cubic liter. Twenty times that summer, the hourly levels measured 1,000 micrograms or higher, effectively maxing out the devices that measure particulates.

In a normal year, Seeley Lake is an outdoor adventurer’s dreamscape, known for its lakes, rivers, and mountain trails, but that summer the town became a laboratory in the nascent study of wildfire smoke’s effect on human health. Respiratory-related emergency-room visits doubled in Missoula and Powell Counties. A team of researchers from the University of Montana scrambled to measure the impact of smoke on the residents, while air-quality specialists from nearby Missoula helped secure home air-filtration units for the most at-risk citizens. The responders were trying to keep people healthy in the short term, but as Ward notes, nobody in government knew what the long-term effects would be. Eleven months after the smoke cleared, we got an unsettling clue. Instead of recovering, 29 residents studied experienced a decline in lung function in the ensuing clean-air period. The researchers don’t have an explanation for this.

The dearth of science is a common theme with wildfire smoke. Which is why, until very recently, the advice for dealing with smoke typically amounted to: don’t exercise if your eyes feel itchy, and stay inside—which, it turns out, doesn’t offer all that much protection. Particulates seep in, and without a filtration system the air indoors can be almost as unhealthy as what’s outdoors.

Going forward, our schools, offices, and homes will need to be outfitted with filtration systems capable of capturing fine particulate matter. The costs will be steep. Faced with the crisis in Seeley Lake, Sarah Coefield, an air-quality specialist with the Missoula County health department, tapped into state emergency-preparedness funds usually reserved for infectious-disease outbreaks to buy air purifiers for schools and health clinics. Now, thanks to some grants and a bit of ingenuity on Coefield’s part—she had everyone in her department with a Costco card buy five units during a sale—the county owns 123 purifiers that it can dole out in times of need.

That kind of problem-solving should be applauded, but we need a better approach to address a health crisis that could affect half the country. As we’ve learned the hard way, mountain towns aren’t the only places at risk. Last fall on the California coast, hundreds of miles from any blazes, surfers were coughing in the lineup. In Seattle, smoke drifting south from summer fires in British Columbia caused kids’ soccer tryouts to be canceled and forced other activities indoors.

Among smoke’s many economic impacts will be a hit to tourism. As with hurricane season in the Caribbean, travelers are wising up to fire season in the West. Yosemite and Glacier National Parks, as well as the communities whose economies depend on them, have sacrificed untold revenue either to active fires or to unhealthy smoke levels in recent years. Oregon lost an estimated $51 million in 2018, while Montana lost an estimated $240 million the year before. Anecdotally, bike shops in Missoula report dramatic downturns in business whenever smoke levels hit unhealthy levels. Last summer, Outside published a story online recommending that eager backpackers should plan their trips in the West for no later than July, before smoke season amps up.

So far our collective response to all this has been to buy a lot of respirators—the models capable of filtering out smoke particulates routinely sold out last summer—and not much else. In January 2020, California will implement new air-filter guidelines for public buildings that include systems capable of eliminating wildfire particulates, but other states don’t appear to be following its lead. Meanwhile, we need to improve data models that predict where smoke will travel and launch digital platforms that warn downwind residents about unhealthy air conditions. In India, which has notoriously awful pollution, there’s an app that offers real-time updates on air quality and personalized recommendations regarding exposure. We need a similar tool, starting now.

Making meaningful progress will require investment in research. But as the scientists I interviewed were quick to point out, the federal government under its current leadership isn’t keen on funding studies tied to climate change. For the time being, our best tactic is to push policymakers to redirect resources away from fighting remote fires and toward securing buildings and homes from smoke.

In natural-history terms, as we learn to embrace fire—both wild and prescribed—losing many of the trees that defined the West is brutally disheartening. More selfishly, those of us who play outdoors are just going to have to get used to making a lot of painful compromises. In this new age of smoke, canceled runs, rides, and backcountry adventures are part of living on a hotter planet.

Trail Runners Are Lazy Parasites

22 May

No, that headline isn’t just for clicks. Trail runners really are lazy parasites. Deadbeats, even.

Allow me to explain.

Nationally, nobody keeps a good tab on exactly who turns out on volunteer trail-work days to install water bars, build steps, reroute switchbacks, and replant vegetation. But here’s what we do know: trail running is booming—its number of participants more than doubled from 2007 to 2017. According to the Outdoor Foundation’s 2018 report, there are now more trail runners—nine million and counting—than there are off-road bikers. A million more. We also know that in Colorado, where a whopping 92 percent of residents recreate outdoors, as many as 40,000 hikers and runners can be found on the trails of the more popular fourteeners each month of the summer.

Based on this shear volume alone, trail advocates know that trail runners are having a major impact. Every time one steps around a puddle to keep their shoesies clean (mountain bikers tend to ride through puddles), they’re widening the trail. This happens a step at a time, multiplied by tens of thousands of steps, until it turns singletrack into a six-foot-wide sidewalk. With every edging action around a curve or skid on a steep descent, trail runners are moving dirt and extruding roots and rocks. Hell, every time they take a leak—again, when multiplied by thousands—they’re killing native plants. Solo trail runners—like solo cyclists, hikers, and even the occasional horse—are low impact. Nine million trail runners are a different story.

In other words, trail runners are now just like the rest of us. But anecdotally at least, when compared to mountain bikers and hikers, trail runners are the least likely to volunteer to build and maintain trails. Anna Zawisza, director of community relations and strategic partnership with Volunteers for Outdoor Colorado (VOC), the state’s oldest and largest organizer of trail crews, ranks trail-runner turnout right down there with public-trail-riding equestrians, which, to be fair to the horse people, constitute a niche group compared to the scrawny Forrest Gump set. Even in the few communities where trail runners are active with trail work, they routinely show up less than other groups. You can see this if you ever work on a trail. I’m no star volunteer, but in the half dozen or so times I’ve gotten out and swung a McLeod or a Pulaski, I haven’t met a single trail runner. But among the throngs of mountain bikers, I have met hikers, horse folk, dog walkers, and bird watchers on Colorado’s multi-use trails. Even the trail-running boosters I talked to bemoaned the lack of turnout of their own kind.

Part of the reason for this is that trail runners don’t have a national trail-advocacy group. There’s no equivalent of the International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA) organizing chapters and funneling resources and bodies—700,000 volunteer hours in 2016—at projects. Well, to be precise, there was one. A mysterious outfit called Run Wild launched in 2017 with lofty goals, but now it’s a dead site and its Instagram page hasn’t been updated in two years. That’s too bad, because the trails need it. Though three out of four Coloradans identify as conservationists, only 1 percent of Coloradans volunteer with stewardship organizations (another study claims 3 percent, but that’s dubious). In a typical year, VOC counts 5,000 volunteer work days. That might sound like a lot, but even if that number portrayed 5,000 individuals (and it doesn’t; lots of folks volunteer for multiple days), it would represent less than a thousand people for every million Coloradans that recreate outdoors. It’s not enough. “We have 39,000 miles of trail in Colorado,” says Zawisza, “and we’re adding to that total every year. On a good year, VOC touches 30 miles.”

As a former Coloradan, I’m not picking on the state. Colorado’s volunteer turnout is likely better than the national average. Nor, despite my ribbing, am I hating on the blister-adverse trail-running crew, with its weird little utility belts and tank tops. I may have to revise my calculations after this column comes out, but I count a number of trail runners as friends. I’ll admit, though, that I am a bit mystified by trail runners. And I’m not alone. IMBA executive director Dave Wiens, who founded the nondenominational Gunnison Trails group long before taking the helm of the association, says that for mountain bikers, trail work “is a social experience that ends with brats and beers. But from what I can tell, trail runners aren’t into the beers-and-brats part.” It’s also true that one maniac trail runner allegedly attacked a mountain biker in Golden, Colorado, in 2017, and more recently, another choked out a mountain lion. But I won’t paint them all with the crazy brush.

To really understand why mountain bikers are gung ho volunteers and trail runners are lazy parasites, it helps to look at the origins of the two sports.

Mountain bikers came on the scene in force in the 1980s. Castigated and labeled as outlaws, they were banned from many existing trail networks. Only later did research prove that bike tires don’t destroy trails any more than shoes do (and that both shoes and tires are way less destructive than horse hooves). Still, it took decades of advocacy and trail work to change the public’s opinion and prove that mountain bikes belong on our public lands. This effort remains a work in progress.

If we’re speaking openly here, mountain bikers would be OK with fewer hikers, runners, and horses walking up the downhills, which is why mountain bikers want to build more trails—to spread out the crowds. For these reasons, and also bratwurst and beer, trail work is part of mountain-bike culture. Minus the beer, pretty much every high school mountain-bike race team in the National Interscholastic Cycling Association (NICA) does trail work. Freeriders do it. Cross-country racers do it. Trail riders do it. Downhillers do it. Old guys that get fat in winter also throw down. “Trail work is part community outreach for us,” says Wiens. “It’s also true that the trail itself is essential to our experience. We say things like, ‘That was a good trail’ or ‘That was a bad trail.’”

Trail runners, on the other hand, don’t have much of a birth story. No counterculture kooks in Marin County, California, monkeying around with old Schwinns. No access problems, no vigilantes laying booby traps for them. People were running on trails long before trail shoes were a thing. Nobody told them they couldn’t do it then, and nobody is telling them they can’t do it now. And while, like mountain bikers, runners can inadvertently sneak up behind hikers and spook them, they rarely get the same dirty looks. Even the social dynamics of trail running are different than those of mountain biking. “Historically, ultrarunners and most trail runners were a little more self-sustained,” says Brett Sublett, owner of the Durango Running Company, in Colorado. “People got into that solo mindset and kind of assumed they were the only people out there running. And that’s still a big part of what attracts people initially. But with the popularity of trail running, that’s changing. We used to get ten people to a group run, now we get 30 to 40. There’s a much stronger trail-running community.”

Which gets us to today. Nine million trail runners and counting, yet a widely held belief—if an unproven one, as most trail crews don’t ask too many questions—that they have the lowest turnout among the core user groups when it comes to trail maintenance. But here’s some good news: that’s changing. The most storied ultrarunning events have long required that racers complete volunteer trail days. Today, dozens of smaller events are following that lead, with many offering more lottery-style entry chances to volunteers. In Colorado, VOC is actively trying to recruit such folk by posting flyers at the Cheyenne Mountain Trail Race. Meanwhile, Nancy Hobbs, founder and executive director of the American Trail Running Association, is promoting trail work on her organization’s site and actively directing runners to volunteer opportunities. (The association also plugs an activity called “plogging,” which involves stopping to pick up trash from trails as you jog. Not sure why it needs a name.) Sublett, of the Durango Running Company, requires that the Fort Lewis College kids he helps coach perform at least one day of trail work a year. These types of initiatives, especially with the race entries, seem to be gaining traction.

Durango is also home to Trails 2000, a trail-maintenance nonprofit founded 30 years ago on the idea of engaging with all nonmotorized users. Its numbers suggest that it’s working. According to Mary Monroe Brown, the group’s executive director, Trail 2000’s volunteers break down as follows: 40 percent mountain bikers, 35 percent hikers, and 25 percent trail runners. “People who mountain bike here also trail run and dog walk,” says Monroe Brown. “And the Durango Running Club and the Durango Running Company have helped create a culture where there’s a direct correlation between running and trail work. People that are driven enough to live in Durango have an outdoor ethic and tend not to develop that protectionist attitude, that this is my trail and I need to protect my experience. We should be taking the high road and working together.”

Still more promising? Little Missoula, Montana, is home to what is (as near as I can tell) the nation’s only dedicated advocacy group organized to get trail runners out doing trail work. It’s called the Montana Trail Crew (MTC), and to date it has adopted trails, purchased land, moved trailheads, and performed all manner of maintenance with hundreds of volunteers, some of whom get out for at least three trail days each summer. Sometimes the MTC works on pedestrian-only trails. Sometimes it sends volunteers to MTB Missoula to help with multi-use paths. It doesn’t matter much to them. “A lot of people get into trail running from a fitness or a road-running background,” says MTC cofounder Jimmy Grant. “They don’t all have that mountain ethic. We wanted to serve as a model for other groups. You get more personally invested in your running and your town when you get your hands dirty.”

So there you have it. Signs of progress. But will trail runners outside of chill towns like Durango and Missoula get the message? Tough to say. They might not want to get their arms all swole doing manual labor. But I hope so, if only because, if that happens, then the trail-running and mountain-biking communities can shame the hikers into stepping up as well. Call me snitty, but there are 45 million of those lazy parasites.

F—ck the Gear Police

28 Apr

Recently, an old friend of mine took an evening walk on a quiet road near his home in the Southwest. He was carrying a camping lantern. Near the end of his stroll, an outdoorsy couple we both know drove by, said a quick hello, then went on their way. The hazing came via e-mail a short time later. “Nice lantern, bro,” wrote the outdoorsy guy. The woman followed up, gearsplaining that “there are these things called headlamps.”

My annoyed friend later griped to me that hardcore outdoor folks, who are supposed to be above base fashion concerns, are in fact the world’s most merciless fashion critics. To which I say, No duh, Lantern Boy.

Sure, a lantern lights your way as effectively as a headlamp, but we have never judged gear purely by its performance. We care about performance and style—and carrying Ichabod Crane’s lantern is a style don’t.

Gear policing is also a time-honored tradition. Take those zip-off “convertible” pants that started gaining traction in the nineties. Damn they work well on spring days when the noonday sun warms up the tour bus. At least I’m guessing they do, because I’ve never actually donned a computer programmer’s hiking kit. Nor would I dare show up to a group mountain-bike ride in a spandex bib, since this would inevitably earn me a round of “Wait, are we racing today?” sarcasm from the crew in baggies. Nordic skiers—of all people—love to rank on road cyclists who are out cross-training on skinny skis in their team jackets. The jackets work fine, but they scream hack. And because the roadies ski in a manner that’s both upright and gangly, with their poles flailing in front of them, the nordorks call them pterodactyls.

While this type of frat-boy dragging might bug my old friend with his lantern, it’s mostly harmless. Plus, outfit tracking can also be a kind of public service. It was just a few years ago that people were wearing those ghastly FiveFingers shoes into coffee shops. That infraction has thankfully been shamed away, but lately there’s the plague of male trail runners who think it’s OK to wear wispy short shorts to the acai-bowl counter. Fear not, the gear police have been dispatched.

And while I’m at it: the number you still have Sharpied on your skin from last weekend’s sprint triathlon—just like that avalanche transceiver and climbing harness you wore to the bar last winter—doesn’t say, “I’m in the club.” It says, “I’m trying too hard.” We’re snickering at you from the chairlift because of your egregious gaper gap. (If you don’t know what that is, check out @jerryoftheday.) We’re laughing loudly as we bike past because your cycling helmet is on backward.

“Is this guy being a bit too harsh?” you might be asking yourself right about now. Maybe. But in these hyperpolitical times, I’m not here to tell the outdoor world to stop making jokes at the expense of unsavvy rubes. Besides, the merely awkward are not a protected class—yet.

Still, I will concede that the rampant hazing has led to an unfortunate new development that I’ll call the uniform era, in which the fashion police double as timorous fashion victims who are afraid not to look like everybody else.

The origins of this scourge can be traced to the adventure-chic movement that took off about 15 years ago, when urbanites and outdoor-apparel makers fell madly in love with each other. Soon everyone in the Whole Foods parking lot was outfitted like expedition climbers. This squashed the lingering counter-culture ethos that had once defined the outdoor world—think bearded raft guides in cutoff jeans or Yosemite dirtbag climbers in ratty sweaters.

Then came the great homogenizing force of social media. Suddenly, you didn’t have to ski or bike or fly-fish 120 days a year to look the part. Instead you read a story about climber-photographer and Oscar winner Jimmy Chin and think, What a badass, I’ll follow him on Instagram. And hey, this ad for a puffy in my feed looks like something Chin was wearing on Lhotse last week. Tap. Ship. Multiply that by hundreds of thousands and we have uniformity. A friend of mine who has been an outdoor photographer in Utah since the eighties got it just right when he said that everyone looks cool now. I see this heightened fashion sense constantly in my role as an outdoor writer. It’s needlessly stressful—because I should be above the fray, too—but my heart rate spikes and I get sweaty when I’m about to interact with representatives from Red Bull or really anyone from the SoCal action-sports culture. Ditto when I’m at the Outdoor Retailer show in Denver, where the exhibition floor is invaded by a battalion of flannel-clad dudes wearing short beards and flat-brim trucker hats. Like all true mountain folk, I don’t even speak SoCal. Instead of uptalking, I’m a natural downtalker. I must remind them of their late grandpa. I think I was once passed over for a job because of tribal differences.

Of course, when everyone appears to be part of a tribe, it’s difficult to know who really is. So it is that insecure mega bros have become hypersensitive to any inconsistencies in the dress and actions of the mere mortal bros—and they gear-police them like Donald Sutherland in the final scene of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Forgive them. They’re simply clinging to their perceived and fleeting elitism.

It’s gotten so bad that some folks are going to extremes to stand apart. Not long ago, I was in Alaska on a press junket with another outdoor journalist I’ll call Gordon. The folks hosting us set everyone up with top-of-the-line waterproof-breathable pants. I’m talking $550 pants. And yet Gordon coveted a guide’s ratty trousers. Torn at the cuffs, scuffed with dirt, drenched in diesel fuel, they screamed authentic. So, on the spot, he traded his brand-new pair of pants for ’em. Filth is actually an insider look now. Just visit Silverton Mountain in Colorado if you don’t believe me.

This story is sad, but even sadder is the fact that the current era of unrestrained gear policing has largely consumed the weirdos and iconoclasts who have always made the outdoor world rich and diverse. We lose a bit of our soul when we have no mono-skiers or rollerbladers or jorts wearers. Which is why I was psyched to see some ranch boys out on my local ski hill in Montana this winter ripping around—well, exploding around—in Carhartt overalls, hatless. And having recently moved away from Colorado, I actually miss the folks we labeled IBMers, in their floppy sun hats and khaki pantaloons. The best insult ever hurled at former vice president Dick Cheney was a bumper sticker out of Wyoming that said he skied in jeans. Now I long for the days when a politician could be both evil and soggy—how unique.

But all is not lost. Across a range of outdoor sports, an anti-uniform rebellion is taking root.

In the freeride mountain-biking hub of Whistler, British Columbia, pros are bucking the baggy paradigm to ride in jeans despite the rain. In terrain parks all over, slopestyle skiers are donning cotton sweatshirts despite the snow. Or maybe that’s just a new uniform, who knows? But I do find hope in my 17-year-old son, who takes a special kind of pleasure in thumbing his nose at the fly-fishing set with their mustaches and their Buffs pulled up over their oh-so-perfectly weathered snapback caps. To tweak ’em, he spin-casts with his shirt off.

Going forward, I won’t abandon my own gear-policing habits—sorry, Ichabod, it’s just too much fun—but I will be taking cues from my son, who could give a shit what he wears on the ski hill or anywhere else. Montana, which is still chockablock with anachronistic weirdos and the fashion oblivious, is good for that. Heck, now that it’s cycling season again, I might even wear my full spandex race kit on the next casual trail ride. It’s better performing anyway.

On second thought, scrap that. I can take the ridicule. But I’d rather not take the bullet for a fashion don’t.

Patagonia Will Not Comment on the Finance Bro Vest

19 Apr

If you followed the story that sent shivers through the finance and tech worlds, then you know that moving forward, environmentally and socially conscious Patagonia only wants to begin new co-branded vest business with firms that share its commitment to One Percent for the Planet or certified B Corporations that play by the same rules it does. As the brand has done in the past, Patagonia is putting its business mores above the bottom line. No longer—I take it, since Patagonia declined to comment—will it do business with capitalists who write $50 checks to the Sierra Club at home but invest $50 million in BP at the office.

Patagonia is moving on. Good on ’em. Eat it, shady elements of the fintech world. Story over, right?

No, actually. Because I can’t let this story go. Not the part about Patagonia refusing to share a bivy with bedfellows that sell out the Arctic or look the other way as bureaucrats purge EPA databases of science. (Who wants to eat dehydrated stroganoff and spoon with the likes of them?) That part should be applauded. My beef is with those who would contend that fleece vests are some sort of fashion play that emotes a core outdoorsy style. The New York Times (which once said that snowboarding would save the sport of skiing, so what does it know about this beat) even went so far as to say that fleece vests are “the basic garment of climber culture.”

Hold on a second, you fintech casual-friday urbanites and glamorous-if-indoorsy fashion-desk types. I just did an image search for Alex Honnold of Free Solo fame and in not one image is he wearing a goddamn fleece vest. Like every outdoorsy person who dodged the Baby Boom, the dude favors T-shirts—well one T-shirt apparently, plus midweights and puffies. The fact is, fleece vests haven’t been a legit outdoor look since 1998.

I know the date because it was imprinted on my brain in the winter of 1998–99, when I was running retail operations at Jay Peak ski area up in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. One day the crew in the rental shop was burning time talking about who they would and wouldn’t date, and a young woman said she wouldn’t date me because I tucked my shirt into my pants. I was already married, but on account of human nature, I was taken aback. Looking down at my outfit, my shirt was indeed tucked into my pants. And over the shirt I was wearing a fleece vest. The same kind I’d been wearing since the early nineties when every skier suddenly had one and every company handed them out as swag. That was the moment I realized mountain-town casualwear had left the fleece vest behind. The next day, I did something so out of character for me, that I remember it to this day. I changed my look. By untucking my shirt and ditching the fleece vest, I was keeping myself current as we prepared for a new millennium.

Not everyone made the transition. I once watched as a bunch of editors gave a writer friend of mine a makeover from wearing a fleece vest over a tucked shirt. That was in 2004. Now when I see a guy in a mountain town wearing a fleece vest, two questions come to mind. Was he once a bro who never kept up with the times? Or is he a traveling salesman for Purdue Pharmaceutical pushing oxycontin at the local walk-in clinic?

Today the only vests I own are breathable puffy units (not fleece) that I wear on shoulder-season bike rides, while skate-skiing in cold temperatures, and as a core layering piece on the ski hill. To be clear, I wear them under shells. And I would never wear them casually. I’d be ashamed to.

So, the answer is no, Wall Street and Silicon Valley, a fleece vest over an oxford doesn’t say you’re outdoorsy. And I doubt that even The New York Times would say it’s a good look. Please cease wearing them. I don’t care that you’re appropriating what was once outdoor culture. My only gripe is that by misappropriating outdoor culture you’re giving the impression that we of the outdoors still dress like it’s the nineties. My seventy-something parents wear fleece vests for cool-weather pole-walking excursions. They live in Florida. The rest of us don’t.

I also have to ask, what’s wrong with a nice suit? I haven’t owned one in 20 years, but they’re authentic to your culture and they look a lot sharper than whatever it is you’re trying for with the power vest. Own it.

And when you’re ready to divest yourself from soulless capitalism and build portfolios around companies that support conservation, sustainability, and the fight against climate change, maybe think about buying a T-shirt (one T-shirt) and making do with less. As Patagonia’s founder Yvon Chouinard famously said: “The more you know, the less you need.” And you don’t need a power vest.

A Ski Area with No Chairlifts Is the Next Big Thing

11 Apr

Back in March, I made the case that skiing could benefit from a handful of backcountry ski areas that don’t feature any lifts but offer gear rentals, educational opportunities, varied terrain, and—this was the controversial part—avalanche-mitigation work, including bombs. For those who actually read the piece as opposed to weighing in blindly on social (Russian bots), the conceit might have seemed pretty far out there, even for a mouthy and opinionated Masshole-bred blowhard like me.

Turns out it wasn’t that much of a stretch. A few days after that column went up, Erik Lambert and Jeff Woodward, the cofounders of a new company called Bluebird Backcountry, reached out to let me know that they were gearing up for their first of several prototype sessions testing a backcountry ski-area concept eerily similar to the one I proposed—minus the bombing as of yet, but that’s the dream scenario. A permanent home for the project has not been settled on, but over two March weekends on Mosquito Pass, Colorado, Bluebird took 100 skiers—it was all human powered—into the high country, where they tested everything from skin-track logistics (two parallel tracks make for easier instruction) to cost ($50 is the sweet spot for the amount of services rendered) to sustenance (they set up a skin-track bacon station and fried up ten pounds’ worth to distract newbies from the uphill suffering). For this prototype event, Bluebird hired Colorado Mountain School guides to lead the groups. It wasn’t a free-for-all.

Then, on April 10, Bluebird announced its next pop-up session, to be held April 27 and 28 on 200 acres at Colorado’s Winter Park ski area after the resort closes for the season. Winter Park will be another test of the “in-bounds backcountry” model Bluebird is proving has merit.

To be clear, the Mosquito Pass and Winter Park events are just test runs: Bluebird’s stated goal, though, is an “avalanche-controlled and ski-patrolled ski area that’s 100-percent human powered.” Lambert and Woodward, who have quietly been working on the endeavor for two and a half years, say their hope is to eventually offer backcountry skiing on multiple permanent sites throughout the U.S. “We believe the demand exists to have a number of locations across the country, and that U.S. ski culture will morph as a result,” Lambert says. “Backcountry skiing is a cultural shift.” 

Mosquito Pass was a proof-of-concept exercise that also helped them refine their approach. “What we were doing there was incredibly detailed observation,” says Woodward, who has a background in the tech-startup world. “In addition to the guests, we had 25 volunteers taking notes on pain points and logistics. Of the 336 observations that we’re now analyzing, we made 44 adaptations from day one to day four. We were learning what people are looking for.”

Mosquito Pass was a natural choice for the prototyping session because of its terrain and proximity to Denver. But it might be primed to become a backcountry ski area for another reason: an existing, if long neglected, base structure. Beneath Mosquito Peak, an outfit dubbed North London Mill Preservation (NoLo) is currently restoring an old mill site on leased property, with the hopes of having a backcountry hut operational in the next two years. Before they got invested in the historic-preservation component of the site, which is now well underway, NoLo founders Jeff Crane and Kate McCoy had planned to run their own backcountry ski area, complete with avalanche control if it made sense. After collaborating with Bluebird, they’re seeing another potential path forward.

“They have an idea, and they were looking for a place to test it,” says Crane. “We have a place, but the idea of what it will become is changing. I think what we’ll do is work with a variety of guides including Bluebird, Colorado Mountain School, Backcountry Babes, and the like.”

NoLo and Bluebird—and, yeah, me—share a vision of opening up the sport of backcountry skiing and splitboarding to more users. Some of them might be newbies who don’t have a mentor to ease their entry into the sport, others might be seasoned tourers looking to take kids or family out in mitigated terrain far from ski-resort infrastructure, still more might be recruited from the ground swell of resort uphillers, and others yet might be experts looking for a place to ski during high-hazard avalanche conditions in the more exposed backcountry.

Bluebird’s Lambert draws an analogy to what indoor walls have done for climbing. “Until the gyms came along, there was no easy entry point for would-be climbers,” he says. “If you didn’t know somebody that climbed, you weren’t going. Climbing needed safe places to go, creature comforts like toilets, and instruction on a basic level. That’s where these backcountry ski areas come in. Backcountry skiing, though, is 30 years behind climbing.”

All this is in keeping with a third push by the town of Aspen, Colorado, to shift itself to a human-powered hub for resort uphillers, mountain bikers, trail runners, nordic skiers, and traditional backcountry skiers, too. (Advocates have been in touch with Bluebird Backcountry as well.) The town has even gone so far as to build the Aspen Uphill Economy Recreation Plan to make those goals more tangible. “There’s such a surge of folks that are interested in backcountry skiing now,” says Kent Sharp, president of the SE Group, which consults with and devises strategies for ski areas and towns in their dealings with public land managers. “Part of that trend is great, part of it’s terrifying. Nobody wants to see people in the backcountry who as of yet have no business there. It’s even scarier to think of them following a buddy who isn’t as experienced as he or she claimed. It’s not an irretrievable commitment of resources to build such a place and see how it goes for a few years. You can remove the infrastructure in a few days, and you’re right back to pristine national forest.”

Judging by the photos, Bluebird’s test of concept was a smashing success. An astounding 35 of the 100 guests were first-time backcountry skiers. And if the business model plays out as planned, with the possibility of including rentals and other services that nascent backcountry skiers might need, they believe the operation will be successful. “Our hope is not only to provide controlled places for this sport to grow,” says Lambert, “but to revolutionize the educational flow of backcountry skiing, help new users understand the human factors involved, and develop a mountain sense. There will be some people that love the safe experience and return just for that. Others will use it as a stepping stone to get into the true backcountry. We recognize that backcountry skiing isn’t for everyone, but it should be open to more people.” 

And that (which you, dear reader, have long since gleaned, having actually read both of these stories) was exactly my point with that original column. But all this will be lost on the trolls that love to hate but hate to read.

If skiing in the backcountry interests you but, beyond taking your Avalanche 1 class, you don’t know where to start, head to Bluebird Backcountry and fill out its survey (2,000 respondents and counting).

What to Do When Your Chairlift Stops—for Hours

1 Apr

The chairlift came to a hard stop about five minutes ago, and now you find yourself—we’ve all done it—asking that question: Can I safely jump from this height?

For most of us, it’s a daydreamy (or nightmarish) exercise. But depending on where you’re dangling, the answer is… probably not. Exceptions are rare and usually newsworthy. Earlier this season at a Canadian resort, a crew of heroic teenagers appropriated some safety netting and fashioned a crude landing trampoline to catch a kid whose dad was holding him from the chair by one hand. Barring superteens, though, most chairs are suspended about 30 feet off the deck, so unless it’s a historic powder day, jumping will mess you up.

Well then, what the hell should you do in the event of a major mechanical lift failure or, worse, if you find yourself stranded on a lift after hours? In the latter case, like the protagonists in the 2010 campy horror flick Frozen, you’re facing a scenario that involves a choice between life-threatening self-rescue and a slow death of hypothermia. (The movie spiced things up by adding circling wolves.)

Before throwing yourself to those wolves, there are some things you need to know. Ski areas have contingency plans for when a chairlift breaks down. In the case of a power outage, it’s pretty easy: Older lifts typically have diesel engines that provide backup juice; they’ll fire those up in a cloud of smoke and get you unloaded in about 10 to 20 minutes. Newer lifts are even slicker, designed so that snowcats can hook into the pulley system and advance the chair slowly for a safe unload.

It’s only a major mechanical meltdown that might keep you on the lift for hours. If, say, the haul rope gets iced up from snowmaking and derails off a sheave wheel, ski patrol will get in touch with the lift-maintenance crew and hash out a plan. If the lift can be repaired in the next few hours, and the temperatures aren’t too brutal, get comfy (but not too comfy—skiers have been known to fall asleep and tumble off chairs), because you’re going to be dangling for a few hours as a mechanic precariously works the haul rope back over the bogey with a come-along tool.  Enjoy the complimentary hot chocolate back at the base.

However, if it’s frostbite weather, or if that repair involves a part getting shipped from Germany, ski will patrol spring into action with a complicated rescue operation called a lift evac. Andrew McCloskey, a pal of mine and a fellow Outside ski tester who has patrolled for 12 years at Alta, explained how it works at that Utah mountain. Your home hill’s approach might vary.

First, a patroller is sent down the lift line telling all the victims (sorry, wrong word) to stay calm and not to jump and that help will arrive shortly. Then ski-patrol teams take the lift by sections. One patroller scales the tower uphill from you, clips what is essentially a rope bag with light cord in it to the communications line that runs from tower to tower, then scuttles back down the rungs and drags the bag down to your chair. Patrollers fix a wire-stiffened tail of rope to one end of the cord and haul it up to you. No longer the passive victim, now you get to feed that rope through an eyelet on the chair and back down to patrol.

Next up the rope comes a fabricated device that looks like a chair without legs. One by one, while remaining seated, you slide your butt onto the chair, slip your arms through some loops, give the thumbs-up, and patrol belays you to the ground. The entire lift should be cleared in two hours.

So now you have a story to tell the grandkids. But for a really compelling tale, you need to get stranded on a lift overnight in temperatures that can kill you. It’s apparently not that hard. (A quick Google search will pull up half a dozen incidents.) How does it happen? Enter the lifties—total pros at some resorts, borderline carnies at others. At the end of the day, the ones at the bottom of the lift are supposed to gate off the loading zone and call up to the upper shack with a designated “last chair.” That’s the primary reason why chairs are numbered—other than busting pot smokers. But sometimes the lifties aren’t paying attention and get their signals crossed. Or this also happens: you thought you were being clever and slipped past the gate and onto the lift without them noticing, wanting to snake one more run. D’oh, you’re going to regret that. Wolves, yo.

Because of where your chair happened to come to a stop in the woods or over closed terrain, ski patrol missed you on its end-of-day sweep. It’s now dark and about eight degrees with the windchill. Nobody can hear your screams. Maybe you read that iconic story in Outside by Peter Stark about what happens to people that die of hypothermia, and you don’t want your loved ones to find you naked with two broken legs.

Minus the nudity, a young snowboarder in North Carolina found himself in exactly such a scenario in 2017. After a few hours, as frostbite was kicking in, he chose to jump. But if you know North Carolina skiing, he didn’t land in bottomless powder but rather frozen dirt with a thin coating of man-made snow on top. The impact broke some bones in his legs and knocked him out. When he came to, he crawled 200 yards out of thick woods, like Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant, then crawled another 300 yards to the terrain park, which had just opened for night shredding. Thankfully, he lived. And the kid commands a ton of respect from me. But I can only imagine the response he got from the terrain-park skiers. “Dude, bro, you’re messed up, dude, bro.”

Did he have a better alternative? Is breaking your legs the only play here? To find out, I asked Mickey Wilson, the now famous slackliner and all-around adventurer, who in 2017 dramatically scaled a lift tower and navigated a haul rope to save a buddy who was hanging, strangling on his backpack’s sternum strap. Here’s a condensed take on what Wilson had to say:

“The first thing you do is run your decision matrix. How imperative is it that you get off the chairlift? Do you need to self-rescue, or is it better to wait until morning for help? If you decide it’s go time, the first thing I’d do is drop the extra weight. My skis. My backpack. Maybe my boots. Don’t toss your gloves, though. Tuck them in a pocket. You might need them, depending on how cold that cable is.

“Once you’re set, carefully stand on the seat, then grab the top of the bar above you, the frame of the chair. Do a pull-up into a mantle (feet meeting hands), and swing a leg over that bar so you’re sitting on it like a horse. There’s no rush. Gather yourself, and then pull yourself up the vertical pole that attaches to the cable with that claw device. Climb it like a stripper pole if you have to. Then grab the cable and mantle on top of it like you’re sitting on a horse again. You need to be a 5.10 climber or the equivalent slackliner to pull this off. You need to be a monkey person.

“Now it’s time to scooch across the cable with your bare hands in front of you and your upper inner thigh dragging along the cable. I wouldn’t try to shimmy under the cable in supermonkey mode unless I only had to go a few feet. That cable is thick. Your arms would seize up. You wouldn’t last. If the tower is close to you, head up the cable to it. But if you’re in the middle of the span, head down. It’s easier. Once you make it to the tower, you’re scot-free. Most modern lifts have catwalks with ladders leading to them for the lift-maintenance people.

“During the rescue I performed, my friend was dying. I went into a flow state. He’d been hanging for two and a half minutes. It was the most intense moment of my life. In a self-rescue, you’d want to visualize everything like a ski racer before you did this, to get in a similar mindset. But you have to know thyself.”

Cool, thanks Wilson. Everyone else, that’s what you do if the lift stops.

The Case for Avalanche Control in the Backcountry

13 Mar

 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!

Hipcamp Just Made Booking Campsites Way Less Terrible

25 Feb

Last summer, we reported on the abysmal online booking system that would-be campers had to navigate to reserve campsites on most federal lands. Turned out it wasn’t the government—the people who brought you the DMV and the IRS—that was the root of the dysfunction, but rather the old private contractors that refused to share data on campsite availability with the public. Why and how that information got locked up is a story of crony capitalism and gray bureaucracy, but after four and a half years of hard fought advocacy work to little fanfare, the non-profit Access Land and the companies and people behind the “open data for open lands” movement have scored a major victory.

On Monday, February 25, the online and app-based campsite booking service Hipcamp, whose founder and CEO Alyssa Ravasio was the driving force behind Access Land, announced that its third-party platform is now the first to feature both public and private campsite availability in real time. The upshot: As with countless other non-governmental sites that rely on open data to make your life easier, you won’t have to jump through as many hoops to find campsites that work for you.

The freeing of the data happened because the government, through the administrators at recreation.gov, and their new primary contractor, Booz Allen Hamilton, agreed to share availability for roughly 100,000 federal campsites, and, unlike the prior contractor, actually followed through on the promise. Thus far, say rec.gov officials, a half dozen or more third-party vendors have signed agreements to tap into the data.

That's welcome news to Hipcamp’s Ravasio. “Campers have known for a long time that it’s too hard to find and book a campsite,” she says. “Today, I woke up and said we’re starting to solve not just a part of the problem, but the whole problem. I can’t wait for the day when other entrepreneurs begin building a Spanish language app. That’s possible now. The entire idea of the internet is to make it easier to meet people where they are. Now it’s finally happening for campers.”

All this comes just months after Booz Allen Hamilton and the federal government updated recreation.gov, the main clearing house for camping on most federally managed lands. If you’ve logged on recently, you’ll know what we’re talking about. Rec.gov officials admit that there were a few hiccups at first, but from our experience, the site finally functions like a for-profit booking platform—think Hotels.com or Cheapoair.com. And that makes sense because, although it looks like a pure governmental entity, rec.gov is a profit-driven enterprise for both the contractor and our federal coffers. Think of it as a revenue source with altruistic goals. “It’s all about making these public lands and waters more accessible,” says the Forest Service’s Janelle Smith, public affairs specialist for Rec.gov. “If it’s easier on a site—whether that’s rec.gov or a third party—that’s good for everybody.”

The work for Access Land is not done yet, however. It will be a little longer before you’ll be able to actually book federal campsites via Hipcamp and other third-party sites “in-app.” (There’s still information security to flesh out.) Meanwhile, most state park reservation systems still lag behind the feds in freeing our data. But voicing your support for free data should help diversify the campsite reservation business, meaning new user groups will find it easier to recreate outdoors. That’s the ultimate goal of Rec.gov and Access Land. “It will forever change how people will gain access to their public lands,” says Ravasio. 

Resort Skiing Is Dangerous. And It Always Will Be.

30 Jan

On January 17, a catastrophic inbounds avalanche released in open terrain on the K3 Chute of Taos Ski Valley’s 12,481-foot Kachina Peak. The resulting slide ripped to the ground, capturing two skiers and depositing them in a debris pile reportedly 150 yards long and deeper in spots than a 20-foot probe. Both skiers, 26-year-old Matthew Zonghetti, of Massachusetts, and 22-year-old Corey Borg-Massanari, of Colorado, died. According to the Taos News, the deaths were the first avalanche fatalities in Taos’s 64-year history. These were deep burials (six-plus feet), which are rarely survived even in the best of circumstances. 

Again, the avalanche occurred inbounds on open terrain. Neither skier did anything wrong that day. As with all avalanche deaths, whether inbounds or out, they were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.

In the aftermath of such tragedies, there’s a tremendous sense of grief and an outpouring of support, specifically to the families who have lost a loved one, but also to the first responders and skiing community. And then, later, skiers and the wider public tend to ask three questions: How can avalanches happen inbounds on controlled terrain? What happens now? And, are inbounds avalanches becoming increasingly common?

I’ve done extensive reporting on this subject, and the answer to the first question—how can it happen?—is that, well, it’s complicated. Avalanches are an inherent risk of resort skiing and snowboarding. And they always will be. No matter how many explosives ski patrol tosses, the risk never goes to zero. It can’t. Avalanches don’t work that way.

Here’s a primer, with an apology to the avalanche professionals out there for dumbing it down. Most deaths—inbounds and out—are attributed to what are called slab avalanches, as opposed to loose or wet slides. In simple terms, a slab is a layer (or many layers) of consolidated snow on top of a layer (or many layers) of unconsolidated snow or icy crust. When you hear ski patrol blasting during or immediately after a storm, they’re typically concerned with what are known as surface or storm slabs. The fear is that the new snow layer isn’t bonded to the surface snow beneath it. Storm slabs can be easy to predict by watching the weather, but they can be hard to pinpoint on a mountain, thanks to what avalanche forecasters refer to as spatial variability—the wind and the terrain decides the location. At a ski area, that can mean such pockets of unstable snow go untriggered by the snow-safety team out running its routes or by the bombs they throw. Spatial variability is the number one reason why avalanches are inherent to ski areas.

But there’s a more insidious type of slab that’s even more closely tied to inbounds avalanches. It’s often called a “persistent slab.” Scientists spend lifetimes studying them, but in the briefest of explanations, a persistent slab means that a weak layer (or layers) is buried beneath the surface of the snowpack. The weak layer often takes the form of the type of round crystals that make for shitty snowballs—they don’t stick to each other. As with storm slabs, persistent slabs are spatially variable. But while the weak layers are easy to identify by digging a deep test pit, knowing when or if one will lead to a slide—especially with deep instabilities—is perhaps the most challenging tasks in the outdoor world. Avalanche forecasters like to say that such layers are “guilty until proven innocent,” and ski resorts spend tens of thousands of dollars each winter testing such deep instabilities with explosives. But of course you can never prove anything with avalanches unless you throw a bomb and make one slide. Those weak layers can get worse over time depending on the weather; the weight of new snow can make them more tenuous, and they also come with nearly impossible-to-predict triggers, such as when the weak layer encounters a rock and you ski near the rock, or when the snow above gets scoured by the wind so that a skier can interact with the suspect layer.

For all these reasons and many, many more, avalanches, like the weather, are a level one chaotic system. And like the weather, they’re inherent to the mountains—avalanche-controlled or otherwise. I’ve witnessed inbounds avalanches that have carried skiers over cliffs and inspected firsthand the evidence of other massive inbounds slides. In one case, the terrain had been open for many months.

I’ll leave it to the avalanche professionals on the scene at Taos to determine the specifics of the Kachina Peak slide, but as a well-read 20-year veteran of backcountry skiing, the K3 avalanche was almost certainly not a storm slab, but rather a deep release of a persistent slab. Images and firsthand accounts of the Kachina slide would indicate that the entire snowpack broke all the way to the ground and ran the length of the avalanche path. A U.S. avalanche forecaster might call that a Category 5 event: it went as deep as it could possibly go, for as long as it could possibly go. 

No resort advertises the fact, but as skiers we live with this type of residual uncertainty much of the time we ski big terrain. If we weren’t collectively OK with that small level of risk, we would never ski off the low-angle groomers. So, as with collisions with other skiers, slips from chairlifts, and falls from cliffs, avalanches are considered an inherent risk to resort skiing and snowboarding. This was recently confirmed in the Colorado courts after a lawsuit was filed in the wake of two avalanche fatalities that occurred on the same day at separate resorts in 2013. Avalanches, the Colorado Supreme Court found in 2016, are indeed an inherent risk in the sport—and resorts, barring clear-cut negligence, are protected from avalanche-related lawsuits. That decision further validated Colorado’s Skier Safety Act, which never specifically mentions avalanches but does address the inherent dangers of snow.   

And that speaks directly to the second question. What happens in the wake of a tragedy like the one that occurred on Kachina? My long-standing industry sources tell me that in the immediate aftermath, there will be an investigation. Typically conducted by the resort (though a Forest Service law-enforcement officer and avalanche forecaster may be involved), the snow-safety team and the resort’s risk-management staff will immediately review the mitigation work that was performed, interview all employees and witnesses with a corporate attorney present, analyze the decision-making process that led the resort to open the terrain, and debrief the emergency response. By the end of the investigation, the resort will have a feel for whether it was negligent in its duties or if it did everything in its power to operate safely. 

Later, lawsuits will likely be filed. But if Colorado’s 2013 incidents serve as precedent, the local courts will look to state law for guidance as they try to determine in favor of the plaintiffs (negligence on behalf of the resort) or the ski area (assumption of risk on behalf of the skiers). Every state’s body of case law is different, every case is different, and negligence trumps all. But while there’s no certainty that a judge will rule in favor of the resort if and when a case makes it to the state supreme court, New Mexico’s own Skier Safety Act would surely come into play—specifically the bit about snow’s inherent risks. The language is written into New Mexico’s act, which uses the same wording as Colorado’s:

“Each skier expressly assumes the risk of and legal responsibility for any injury to person or property which results from participation in the sport of skiing, in the skiing area, including any injury caused by the following: variations in terrain; surface or subsurface snow or ice conditions.”

It may not be particularly clear, but “surface and subsurface conditions” includes the types of avalanches discussed above. 

Given the law, the case-law precedent, the nature of avalanches, and the fact that Taos Ski Valley has a reputation for diligent and extremely cautious avalanche-mitigation work and terrain opening, the bar for negligence in any court proceedings will be set pretty high. As it should be. Without those protections, resorts might not be able to operate in what many of us would consider challenging and fun terrain. In the worst-case scenario, if we as skiers don’t assume some risk, expert skiing on unique western terrain will end.

The fact that most skiers today don’t appear to know about the risk of inbounds avalanches would seem to indicate that the ski industry isn’t marketing that particular risk very well to skiers. But it’s also true that despite the recent loss of life in Colorado and New Mexico, deaths by inbounds avalanches are exceedingly rare. The latest fatalities amount to the 10th and 11th, including patrollers, in the U.S. since 2008. That translates to roughly one avy-related death per year out of 50 million annual skier visits.

As to whether inbounds avalanche deaths are on the rise, it’s probably too soon to say. We know anecdotally that—equipped with better gear—skiers and snowboarders are spending more time in deep powder on bigger terrain. And we also know that across North America, resorts have moved to open more of that terrain. But it would be conjecture to draw too much of a correlation yet. In fact, over the decades resorts have become markedly safer in terms of inbounds avalanches. In total, 45 skiers and snowboarders died from inbounds avalanches from 1950 to 2017. But while between 1951 and 1979, roughly 10 percent of all U.S. avalanche deaths occurred inbounds, by 1994 that inbounds number had dropped to 1.3 percent—which, even though it reflects the growth of backcountry skiing and snowmobiling (deaths moved to the backcountry), is still a sizable drop and hints at the adoption of avalanche mitigation across the resort industry.

Assuming 27 Americans die per year in avalanches, that means, over the past ten years, 3.5 percent of those fatalities have been inbounds. Which, if borne out, hints at a slight uptick. Or perhaps it’s a statistical anomaly and inbounds avalanche deaths will quickly taper off again. Moving forward, though, with avalanche control getting more sophisticated due to new mitigation devices like Daisy Bells and GazEx Exploders, the control work might just stay ahead of it. Let’s hope so.

In the meantime, we’d all benefit from treating mountains and mountain environments like the inherently dangerous places they are. We owe that to the expert skiers who—through no fault of their own—died while skiing in this big terrain. Knowing that avalanches are an inherent risk in no way softens that human tragedy. But we can learn from the loss and remember that despite the grooming and the bubble chairs, the heated parking lots and the mid-mountain macchiatos, our high peaks are forever wild—and they always will be.

It’s Not OK to Poach Trails in Unstaffed National Parks

11 Jan

On Sunday, January 6, two western Montana skiers headed out for a tour. They drove snowmobiles to the border of a federal wilderness area, then switched to backcountry touring gear, expecting to break trail through powder. Instead they found themselves following fresh tread tracks. In the distance, two snowmobilers were high-marking a bowl that was clearly within the designated wilderness. The outlaw motorists paid no mind to the skiers, who were obeying the social contract, and eventually buzzed within 20 feet of them.

Due to the government shutdown, the skiers couldn’t report the incident to rangers, but one of them called the local sheriff with a description of the sleds as well as a truck and trailer that was parked at the trailhead. (He shared these details with me on the condition of anonymity.) The sheriff’s office, not often tasked with public-lands violations, appeared indifferent. As for the throttle-twisting malefactors, one presumes they saw the government closure as an opportunity for an illegal joyride. “They were being so blatant about it,” the skier told me. “It sure seemed like they knew exactly what they were doing—and they didn’t care.”    

The violation wasn’t as egregious as the snowmobilers who buzzed Old Faithful during the three-day government shutdown last January, but such civil atrophy has become rampant in our national parks as the current crisis enters its fourth week. News stories have mostly focused on several deaths and the overflowing toilets occurring there, but what’s gone largely unreported is the fact that inconsiderate adventurers see the closure as an opportunity to fun-hog around public lands without a care for the rules that we the people have written to protect our open spaces and natural habitats. The national parks largely remain open, as do our national forests and other public lands. The laws that govern these lands are also still in effect. It’s only the diligent stewards we employ to care for those lands who are now out of work. Sadly, with little to no oversight, society devolves and people behave poorly. As George Orwell, who had a handle on dystopias, once stressed, “Governments make laws, but whether they are carried out ... depends on the general temper in the country.”

Let’s characterize the current temperament as increasingly brazen with instances of outright criminality. The worst reports are just now coming out of California’s Joshua Tree National Park, where marauding off-road vehicles have created tracks through the desert that will remain for decades. Crowds pitching illegal campsites are also doing lasting damage to the fragile landscape. In Northern California’s Marin County, mountain bikers have begun poaching the singletrack in Muir Woods National Monument and Point Reyes. On Christmas Day, I was cross-country skiing on national forestland near my home in Missoula, Montana, along a groomed track that is clearly marked as off limits to hikers and snowshoers when I encountered a teenager postholing along with a new sled from Santa, intent on ripping down a nearby avalanche path. 

I admit that I empathize with the anti-authority instinct here. If, like me, your idea of adventure involves more than perusing the stuffed-bobcat displays at visitor centers and walking mile-long, paved interpretive loop trails, national parks can feel overcrowded, overmanaged, and overly restrictive. Get rid of the Winnebagos and rangers, though, and the parks look like spectacular, wide-open playgrounds. Mountain bikers in particular have long dreamed of rolling the trails in national parks and wilderness areas. The former tend to offer zero off-road access except, in rare cases, to flat “carriage roads,” while the latter ban mountain bikers (and snowmobilers) entirely. Such restrictions can be soul crushing to sports-minded visitors. “The mountain-biking access is so bad in Marin that the shutdown gives us a chance to ride trails we normally can’t get on,” says a source who didn’t want to be identified. “We’re not cutting new trails or riding steep trails that aren’t suited to bikes. We’re riding established trails that the equestrians and hikers refuse to share with us. It’s like looking at a bunch of untracked powder and not being able to ski it.”

There’s a similar appeal in camping or backpacking without complicated permitting or reservations made months in advance. Sometimes you just want to follow your wanderlust. Do that during the shutdown in a manner respectful of the ecosystem and a park’s regulations and nobody will really care. But raging around our public lands breaking all rules is not the way democratic society is supposed to work. The irresponsible dregs violating our national parks and wilderness areas right now are acting like high school kids throwing a kegger because their parents are out of town. And at this pace, they’re going to destroy the house.

Even if, like the Marin bikers, you don’t believe you’re damaging the environment, ignoring the law has consequences, whether or not the rangers are on duty. User groups spend years lobbying for reasonable access to trails. Patience—and civility—are critical to the success of these efforts. In Boulder, Colorado, bikers worked within the system over 15 years to double the mileage open to riding. Those choosing to bomb choice singletrack within unmonitored national parks right now risk setting back those kinds of legitimate campaigns.  

Not to get too JFK here, but during the shutdown it’s worth asking not what we can get away with on our public lands but what we can do for them. Some upstanding citizens have been at this already. Climbers in Yosemite and Joshua Tree took it upon themselves to haul away garbage. At the National Forest Service–managed cross-country-skiing center where I live, the nordic club has helped stock the vault toilets with TP. Elsewhere, nonprofits are stepping up to take over some essential management or raise funds to keep the lights on.

Let’s take our cues from those actions and the thoughtful adventures of folks like professional climber Tommy Caldwell. Early last Saturday, with the roads in his hometown Rocky Mountain National Park closed, but the park itself open, Caldwell and some friends opted to fat-bike ten miles past the gates to a trailhead near the Dragontail Couloir. They knocked off a 1,500-foot boot-pack climb, made a 50-degree ski descent, and rolled back to Estes Park by 10:30 A.M. They didn’t burn a drop of fuel or break a single law in the process. They also didn’t need the help of any rangers, which is another lesson we can all draw from the shutdown. True, the Caldwell party’s skill level was beyond that of any search and rescue group, but as he told me, “We need to create a culture of that type of self-reliance,” adding that the park was deserted. “I don’t think the national parks can run without the government. But people shouldn’t assume they’ll be looked after all the time either.”

Self-reliance, self-governance, the temperament to abide laws even as we seek to change them through legal means—these teachings are as old as democracy. It’s upon us to act with decorum while the rangers we’ve entrusted with our safety, and a lot of our environmental protections, struggle to feed their families. America’s public lands are the envy of the world. Let’s treat them as such.