Alta • Forget Clorox wipes, hand sanitizer and even toilet paper. The hardest thing to find in the Central Wasatch right now? Climbing skins for skis.
Will Hodgman of Park City can understand why they are such a hot commodity in the time of closed ski resorts and COVID-19.
“If you don’t have skins, you don't have anything when you're going uphill,” he said of the nylon straps that help skis grip the snow.
And these days, Hodgman, who spent Wednesday alpine touring around the Alta Ski Area, has plenty of company when he’s headed uphill. Some say too much. Concerns abound as an unprecedented number of people head into the mountains to escape crowds and cabin fever amid the coronavirus crisis.
Uptick in uphill
A new coat of snow covers the mountains, but ski lifts across Utah remain motionless after resorts closed last week to stem the spread of the deadly COVID-19. Skiers and snowboarders set on getting their fix have been largely undeterred however. They’ve simply been strapping on snowshoes, splitboards or touring skis and using leg and lung power to trek to places where they can make some turns, often in untracked powder.
Broadly termed uphill skiing, the practice is generally allowed in the backcountry and at a growing number of resorts across the country. It was already the fastest growing trend in alpine skiing before COVID-19 hit, appealing to people who prefer to “earn their turns” rather than pay up to $200 for a lift ticket. In the past two years alone, according to the nonprofit trade organization SnowSports Industries America, the sale in dollars of alpine touring equipment and backcountry safety gear has increased 81%.
Yet over the past two weeks, the sport seems to have experienced an additional mini-explosion as people turn to it as a way to practice social distancing without being cooped up inside.
“I stay at home and I feel anxious and sick, you know?” said Diane Harrington of Draper as she grabbed her splitboard from the rack of her car parked among about 50 others near Grizzly Gulch in Alta on Wednesday. “And I mean, I usually carpool, so I feel a little guilty not carpooling .... But I'm also kind of, like, loving the freedom and the fact that we can be free and drive around right now. I forsee, maybe even the next week, we might be shelter-in-place [with] no exercise, either.
“So, you know, I do feel a little bit greedy coming [here]. A little selfish. But I feel I need it for my mental state.”
The allure is understandable. At Alta, the beauty of the ruddy stone cliffs contrasting with the stark white of freshly fallen snow on one side of the valley is rivaled by the sheer, jagged, brilliant white peaks on the other. And with the resort’s snowcats and groomers mostly silenced, the tranquility is transformational. It is broken only occasionally by a bird’s call, the tinkle of laughter or, faintly, the scritch of skis going up a track.
That beauty and the snow has been calling Harrington and Hodgman, separately, to Alta Ski Resort and its back and “slack” country for years. Now that call is also being heeded by people who might not have had the time or equipment to try it but suddenly find themselves with more free time on their hands. Restaurants, bars, gyms and museums have all been shuttered due to the coronavirus.
“We have seen a disproportionate number of people trying to get into it for the first time,” said Dylan Timmer, store manager at Wasatch Touring in Salt Lake City. “They can’t ski at the resorts for the first time and they’re just trying to make the best of it.”
Take what they can get
Wasatch Touring specializes in renting and selling alpine touring gear. Early this month it halted rentals and began selling off that equipment, a typical move as it gets ready to transition into its summer cycling business. What is atypical is that its customers must either pick out equipment themselves online or via a phone call with a store employee. The store is not allowing walk-up customers to protect its employees from contracting the virus, which has been diagnosed in more than 400 people in the state.
Perhaps more unusual is that, despite those restrictions, it has very little stock of alpine touring boots, skis, bindings and avalanche safety equipment left on its shelves. And no climbing skins.
The same is true at White Pine Touring and Jans in Park City. All of Summit County is under a shelter-in-place order as it deals with more than 100 confirmed cases of the virus. Ski towns have a significantly higher rate of the virus and Utah’s Summit County has the highest of all the ski towns at 196 cases per 100,000, according to a public health order issued by the county.
Still, uphill skiing equipment is flying off the virtual shelves.
“We’re selling through our new product as well,” said Jack Walzer, the general manager of both White Pine and Jans. “They’re not too picky at this point.”
The run on touring equipment is a silver lining for retail stores facing a shortened winter season and uncertainty about the profitability of their summer biking businesses due to fears and restrictions related to COVID-19. Even that shine may soon fade, however.
On Friday, the trade organization SIA introduced #CurbYourTurns. The social media campaign is directed toward keeping skiers and snowboarders out of the backcountry. The nonprofit is concerned about further spread of the virus.
"In hopes of flattening the curve of COVID-19, SIA is launching a social campaign to encourage all winter outdoor enthusiasts to hang-it-up for the season,” company president Nick Sargent said in a statement to the Salt Lake Tribune. “The mountains will always be there, and snow will continue to fall. Together as a winter community, we can lead a global movement to be responsible and beat this pandemic.”
That move comes on the heels of one county and several ski resorts in Colorado banning access to their backcountry and uphill skiing areas last week. The spread of the coronavirus is the overarching concern, but it is just one of several.
The dread of spread
When Summit County issued its shelter-at-home order Wednesday, it made allowances for outdoor activities like hiking and, presumably, skiing. The same precautions apply to both in preventing the spread of the highly contagious coronavirus: travel only with housemates, park far from the trailhead and don’t congregate there, stay six feet apart and don’t touch things others may have touched, including public restrooms.
That last one presents a bit of a conundrum to Alta’s mayor, Harris Sondak, and it has nothing to do with a toilet paper shortage.
He said his police estimated 500 cars parked near access to Alta Ski Area and Grizzly Gulch last Saturday and again on Sunday. If all those people use the public toilets at the ski resort and at the town center they greatly increase the risk of spreading the disease not just within the small town of 385 — which has no confirmed cases — but to all the areas from which they are coming. If they don’t use them, however, they could create quite an unpleasant situation along the trails and contaminate water sources.
Sondak’s suggestion: Use the bathrooms, along with plenty of soap and hand sanitizer.
“We are not afraid of people coming up and hiking around as long as they are behaving well,” he said.
Still, with hundreds of people heading into wilderness areas without any survival training, odds are finding a pile of poop near the trail won’t be the worst thing that happens. People are bound to suffer injuries or get lost. Calling in first responders and rescue vehicles can drain resources from a health care system already taxed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Part of being responsible right now is not getting involved in an accident,” Greg Gagne, an avalanche forecaster for the Utah Avalanche Center, said. “Our medical resources are strained as it is right now. If you get involved in an accident, it’s not good for anybody.
Gagne added that another force of nature also deserves consideration: avalanches.
Utah resorts have been relatively slow to catch onto the uphill trend. Still, six of them — Brighton, Alta, Snowbasin, Cherry Peak, Beaver Mountain and Powder Mountain — have offered or plan to offer uphill skiing even after closing up the rest of their operations this season. Compared to venturing into the backcountry, skiing the often familiar and more wide-open terrain of a resort can be more appealing to newcomers to the sport and has contributed to its growth.
The appeal is even greater this season, Gagne said.
“With resorts closing, people who are traditionally resort skiers have started to take up backcountry skiing,” he said. “To be honest, I would have thought that when the resorts closed, people would close up their season, too. But a lot of people are going out and buying touring gear.”
Lack of collective experience led housemates David Taylor and Colin Mortimore of Salt Lake City to Alta on Wednesday morning. Mortimore has been uphill skiing for two years and has avalanche safety certification. Taylor, though, is just getting into the sport. So they knew they could find some gentle and familiar slopes around Summer Road on the resort’s eastern boundary even though the resort was officially closed because the new snow created avalanche danger at high elevations.
“When you're with someone who doesn't have a beacon, shovel or probe,” Mortimore said, “this is the best you can ask for is just to be on a resort.”
The problems arise, however, when people forget the resorts are no longer conducting avalanche mitigation measures.
Even veterans can fall into that trap.
“I suppose I would be guilty of that,” Hodgman said. “You know, because I know the area well enough and I don't feel as in danger of avalanches. I know they fall, but you're within kind of the confines of the ski area.”
Gagne said avalanche danger is typically very low in the spring in Utah. This most recent snowfall and gusty winds, however, have raised the danger level to “considerable” at mid to upper elevations and “moderate” at lower ones. That applies to both backcountry terrain and that within ski area boundaries, he said.
Gagne worries, however, that many uphill skiers won’t realize there is no difference between the two and inadvertently put themselves in danger.
“It’s a great way to distance yourself from people,” he said. “Ignoring avalanches, if you’re distancing yourself from partners, it’s a great way to be outdoors and get some exercise.
“But it would be terrible to say COVID-19 didn’t get me but the avalanche did.”
UPHILL SKI POLICIES AT UTAH RESORTS
Alta Ski Area: Uphill travel allowed.
Beaver Mountain: Uphill travel allowed.
Cherry Peak Resort: Uphill travel allowed.
Powder Mountain: Uphill travel allowed.
Snowbasin Resort: Uphill travel allowed.
No uphill travel allowed at: Brian Head Resort, Deer Valley, Eagle Point, Nordic Valley, Park City, Snowbird, Brighton, Solitude, Sundance and Woodward Park City