Backcountry skiing is booming in America.
When America's newest ski resort opened in Colorado on 31 December, Bluebird Backcountry was uniquely adapted to social-distancing measures because it lacked one thing that every other ski resort in America (and everywhere else) has: lifts. There were no queues to stand in, worrying about your neighbour breathing on you. Instead of shuttling ticket-holders up the mountain by gondola, lifts and other mechanised means, the new resort made skiers and snowboarders make their own way up the mountain before gliding down.
The resort limits skiers to just 200 per day on the mountain and their professional ski patrol is behind the scenes for avalanche evaluation and medical response.
Bluebird is part of the growing interest in backcountry skiing (or, in European resorts, “ski touring”). Not long ago, off-piste skiing was frowned on in most of the United States. But even before the pandemic, backcountry skiing was becoming mainstream, reports The Economist.
From 2016 to March 2020, sales of touring gear (such as skis with bindings that release at the heel for skiing up) more than doubled, going from $39m to $79m. By the 2017-18 season, 5% of America’s 30m skiers and snowboarders were venturing out of bounds. Although some resorts are open to backcountry skiers, most choose wilder environs, such as national parks, where they find solitude and better powder.
Now covid-19 has supercharged the growth of the sport. In March last year backcountry-gear sales leapt 34% compared with the year before. Retailers reported that, a week after resorts were forced to shut down, much of their stock was sold out. Car parks at popular access spots were full. This year most resorts are open but the boom continues. Manufacturers and retailers had increased the supply of skis, boots and the like. Yet many stores are still running low. Doug Bittinger, the owner of Mountain Outfitters in Breckenridge, Colorado, reported that he had sold as much by late December as in the whole 2019-20 season.
Will the boom in backcountry skiing last? If the virus disappears, many skiers will return to the safety and ease of traditional resorts. But some will develop a yen for what the sport has to offer: a brutal workout in a winter wonderland.
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