As a busy backcountry season looms, a first-of-its-kind collaboration corrals tourism marketing, avalanche education, land managers and outdoor recreation businesses to push responsible recreation this winter
In a normal year, late fall features Colorado ads enticing would-be vacationers from New York, Chicago, Dallas and Phoenix with images of powdery playgrounds.
But in this anything-but-normal year, the Colorado Tourism Office isn’t peddling vacations to out-of-state tourists. The office is redirecting its winter budget toward state residents with a call for responsible recreation in the remote winter wildlands. It’s not a clarion call to adventure in the backcountry. It’s a plea for heads-up playtime.
“The message we are sharing is safety,” said Cathy Ritter, the director of the Colorado Tourism Office. “We are operating from a position that we believe plenty of people will be heading into the backcountry already and we don’t want to be adding to that number.”
Colorado’s outdoors was exceptionally busy this year.
As more Coloradans turn to the mountains for respite, search and rescue teams are frazzled and land managers are stressed. They endured a record number of drowning in lakes and rivers this year and endless calls for help. And heading into what will be an extraordinarily busy winter in the backcountry, an alphabet soup of state and federal agencies are joining outdoor businesses and groups in a winter-long campaign asking Colorado’s winter backcountry explorers to ponder risks, be responsible and show respect.
The four-month Colorado Backcountry Winter Safety Campaign launches Monday, with a weeklong build toward urging all backcountry adventurers to take a safety pledge to “Know Before You Go,” “Recreate Responsibly” and “Care for Colorado.”
The effort includes the Colorado Tourism Office, Outdoor Recreation Industry Office, Colorado Avalanche Information Center, Colorado Search and Rescue Association, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, the Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management and the Colorado Department of Transportation, which clears trailhead parking lots, making the plow driver the bouncer of the backcountry this season.
(Watch for aggressive ticketing by police and Forest Service, too, as parking overwhelms mountain trailheads.)
The state and federal agencies are joined by a couple dozen conservation and backcountry groups as well as businesses, guides and local governments in Colorado’s high-country.
“It’s been just an incredible, blossoming partnership,” said Lauren Truitt, Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s assistant director for information and education. “This is something so brand new and so impactful, with all of us leveraging and lifting a similar core message through very different channels that allows our reach to go so much further.”
The effort was sparked by a meeting in Gov. Jared Polis’ office in early September. Search and rescue teams around the state, stressed by a busy summer, were fretting an equally frantic winter. Backcountry guides and avalanche educators were reporting record interest by a growing horde of skiers eager to explore beyond resorts.
Ritter had her messaging machine at the ready. So she corralled the state agencies that help manage outdoor recreation and crafted the new campaign.
“People are seeking the outdoors in unprecedented numbers this summer and the concern is that most people may feel the same call for getting outside in the winter, but may not realize all the risks involved,” she said.
Nearly 50 Colorado Search and Rescue teams conducted almost 2,900 missions in 2019, all driven by volunteers who spent more than 350,000 hours on rescues and training. And 2020 is shaping up to be even busier, thanks in large part to hordes of people visiting public lands this summer.
Jeff Sparhawk with the Colorado Search and Rescue Association said those teams — made up of about 2,800 volunteers — are in a “prepare for anything mode,” right now.
They are watching ski resorts control crowds as state leaders clamp down on activities in an attempt to slow the spread of the coronavirus. As they wait for snow that will ultimately define the avalanche hazards in the backcountry, they are getting some rest after a hectic summer and hunting season.
Earlier this year, before the pandemic, bipartisan legislation wound through the statehouse that would have developed a plan to better support the state’s overworked search and rescue volunteers. The bill was lost in the summer’s COVID crush.
“Since that bill went down, the work for us has dramatically increased for most areas around the state,” Sparhawk said. “We essentially got no relief while the requests for our work increased.”
Alongside the safety pledge, the new backcountry campaign on Colorado.comencourages users to support the Colorado Search and Rescue Association, which represents the state’s dozens of volunteer rescue teams around the state. (A 5-year Colorado Outdoor Recreation Search and Rescue Card only costs $12.)
Sparhawk is hopeful that this summer’s record-setting traffic on public lands showed the value of a well-supported search and rescue community.
“People are becoming aware of the bigger picture. It’s inspiring to see how valued our mountains are. This is where people turn and we need to protect the mountains and the people who are there,” Sparhawk said. “The way we see it, search and rescue is a vital piece of Colorado.”
And a single exposure to contagion can shut down a team, which could be disastrous. If the number of calls for help stays high through the winter, teams could be stretched thin, Sparhawk said.