Safety check: Business of the Backcountry session explores issues that come with booming sales

Winter backcountry sales have never been better, but actual safety and education ... that could use some improvement.
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Throughout the next month, SNEWS will recap its coverage of Outdoor Retailer Winter Market 2014 with select stories from the O.R. Daily we published at the show Jan. 21 – 25. It’s an opportunity for you to catch up on stories you might have missed in O.R.D., and for us to update and upload the articles to our searchable archives.

What’s the most important gear you take into the backcountry? Your brain. That was the strongest message delivered by Scarpa North America CEO Kim Miller at the Jan. 24 Business of the Backcountry seminar at Outdoor Retailer Winter Market, and the ensuing conversation revolved around how manufacturers, educators, retailers, athletes, resorts and other players could wrap their brains around ways make the backcountry safer.

The panel, which was produced by Verde PR and Consulting and Outdoor Retailer, consisted of Miller; Ryan Gellert, Black Diamond brand president; Utah Avalanche Forecaster Bruce Tremper; Mike Hattrup, global director of K2’s adventure category; Hud Knight, Backcountry.com director of merchandising/GMM hardgoods and footwear; and Dave DeSeelhorst, owner/GM at Solitude Mountain Resort. Verde CEO Kristin Carpenter-Ogden and OR Show Director Kenji Haroutunian moderated.

“Everybody in this building at Outdoor Retailer has reach. We wanted to amass the best resources to provide the best information for everyone to push out to make the biggest changes happen as fast as possible,” said Carpenter-Ogden, who came up with the concept for the ongoing discussion.

Some of the biggest gear trends and innovations at this show — from carbon skis to avalanche airbags — have been focused on the backcountry experience, but that interest in getting out on untouched snow has inflicted a heavy price. The death of Tony Seibert, the grandson of one of Vail’s founders, this month in a slide just out the gates of the Colorado resort underscored the dangers even experienced skiers and snowboarders face on wild snow. And the biggest focus of the panel was how to improve education for anyone interested in heading out of bounds.

“The important thing to remember is that we are on a huge growth pattern that has people looking for more terrain — and it will only keep getting bigger,” said DeSeelhorst, who explained that Solitude does not allow uphill travel or rent AT gear because the resort has no idea what level of avalanche and backcountry education the people using that gear have. “But people are going to be out there and we need to develop better programs at an earlier age.”

“There’s got to be an expectation that you bring your own gear, [and] that you know how to use into the backcountry. If you are out there without the aid of a guide it’s critical to make that investment,” said Gellert, whose brand Black Diamond has worked to develop a range of backcountry gear focused on making safety easier and more effective.

The panel acknowledged that much of that responsibility lay on them. it discussed the possibility of requiring training to purchase certain equipment and encouraging the use of guides in the backcountry, especially for less-experienced travelers. The consensus was that much education work could occur directly at retail.

“There is a tipping point when it’s like selling someone a gun who doesn’t know how to use it,” said Miller.

That process has begun. Knight pointed out Backcountry.com will refer consumers who buy avalanche safety gear to guides to help ensure they understand how to use it and can teach the brain work of backcountry travel and snow behavior. All of the brands have put resources into educating their customers and supporting avalanche forecasting, training seminars and providing resources online. But there is still much work to be done, and the backcountry business, though growing fast, is still quite small.

Case in point: avalanche forecasters. “These guys need money,” said Miller. “We have people with master’s degrees in snow science who would make more money selling fast food.”

--Doug Schnitzspahn

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