Steve Matera photo
Throughout the NWAC forecasting region, our mountains are inviting, nearby, and easy to access, which means it’s easy to get into avalanche terrain! As newer hikers look for winter recreation opportunities, many are drawn to familiar summer trails, and they may overlook the dramatic changes that occur as winter settles in to the mountains—and underestimate the hazards involved.
To illustrate this problem, consider the Snow Lake trail in the Alpental Valley, by some counts the most visited in the state. Although continuous winter traffic may give the impression of a “trail”, following it engages the traveler in a series of large avalanche paths.
Image produced by Kit Barton for NWAC
In an effort to educate and better understand the growing backcountry recreation population NWAC will be launching a pilot project to reach backcountry users at some popular trailheads this winter. This project will hopefully offer a great window on the changing demographics of backcountry travel in our region, and a chance to evolve our educational offerings to better serve our mission.
As Seattle rapidly grows, anecdotal evidence suggests that we are seeing a dramatic uptick in regional backcountry use, and especially in snowshoeing and winter hiking. There have been 11 US avalanche fatalities during the past ten years for hikers (the demographic assigned for snowshoers by the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, who curates avalanche accident statistics). Of these 11, six, or 54 percent, occurred in Washington State. Although at a national level accident numbers overall seem to have plateaued in the last decade, we remain concerned that statistics for this user group may trend upward.
NWAC has long sought to change trends like this through education–which accounts for roughly 25% of NWAC’s non-profit annual budget. Our pilot Trailhead Outreach project is different from our traditional programs, which target people who already visit or want to visit avalanche terrain. The idea of this pilot is to reach people who are not self-identifying as being at risk—the people who may not even think to attend one of our free Awareness classes. In this sense, we are going “upstream” in an effort to reach people before they reach avalanche terrain.
Tent Time by NWAC Board member Rick Meade
We will be there to offer thoughtful discussion of the basics: the forecast, the travel advice, and best practices for backcountry travel. As a public safety organization, we don’t typically describe any location or activity as “safe;” instead our forecasts offer information and travel advice suggesting where not to go, given the conditions. Put another way, we help people manage their risk.
Meanwhile, we’re hoping to learn from the people we meet. Where are they headed? How did they decide to visit the backcountry, and what do they know about avalanche danger? How can we better craft and distribute our forecast products, and how can we make sure people know how to use them?
And we would love your help! If you would like to volunteer to help with the Trailhead Outreach Project, please be in touch with Jonathan Chriest at firstname.lastname@example.org, or head to our volunteer interest survey.
Meanwhile, don’t miss out on these upcoming educational opportunities for all backcountry travelers. Check out our calendar of free awareness classes, or head to one of our in-depth workshops hosted and sponsored by REI (links below will take you to the REI events page):
December 14th, Going Deep Session #2: Avalanche Terrain: Hard earned lessons with Bree Loewen and Seattle Mountain Rescue
January 3, Snowshoeing and Avalanche Risk: What Every Snowshoer Should Know
Many ski areas have opened, though some only briefly, while others are waiting and watching for the requisite snow to pile up on the slopes (check out our Instagram feed for a peek at the mixed bag of conditions out there). But for lovers of the backcountry, winter arrived weeks ago. Get the gear, get the training, get the forecast, and have a safe season of adventure!