The Defiende Nuestra Tierra program seeks to expand access to the outdoors for the Latino community and engage leaders in conservation work. Photo by Olivia Emmer.
The Defiende Nuestra Tierra program seeks to expand access to the outdoors for the Latino community and engage leaders in conservation work. Photo by Olivia Emmer.

By now we know that recreating outside positively affects one’s cognitive, mental, physical and emotional well-being; and that a few hours a week can completely change one’s mood for the better.

So, it might not come as a shock that after this past year Colorado Parks and Wildlife reported a 30 percent increase in visitations through Nov. 2020, as noted by the Denver Post; a staggering number considering that just one year prior, the Outdoor Foundation reported that nearly half of the U.S. population did not participate in outdoor recreation.

The Roaring Fork Valley (RFV) is no outlier to this outdoor participation trend, and with more travel and a dangerous snowpack this season, the risks are intensified. Fortunately, outdoor leaders in the RFV have noticed that recreationists are taking risk management – the ability to independently assess the risks of an activity – seriously.

“We are absolutely at our limit in terms of the availability and the demand for educational courses,” said Johann Aberger, Associate Professor of Outdoor Education at Colorado Mountain College (CMC). “We have waitlists 14-people-deep for avalanche classes right now.”

For Aberger, this influx is exciting because it means more people are getting outside and learning to be self-sufficient. He elaborated that self-sufficiency has always been a key aspect of going into the backcountry, but this year it has been significantly amplified at CMC and is now a central part of the curriculum.

Specifically, students are now required to carry their own gear and provide their own transportation, routes and course mileage have been altered, and risk tolerance conversations are frequent to help reduce the need for emergent outside help. Fortunately, if outside help were necessary, newly-elected board member of Garfield County Search and Rescue (GCSAR) Elise Wolf said they are prepared and travelers should always feel comfortable to call.

Per usual for winter protocol, the snowmobiles are ready. The ski-cadre team – a group of individuals who train together specifically for winter ski travel and avalanche missions – is geared up for big days. And, according to Wolf, routine check-ins with Colorado Avalanche Information Center are underway. 

“As far as what’s different this year,” Wolf elaborated, “We’ve increased our PPE (personal protection equipment) that we carry with us and have taken advantage of webinars put out by Mountain Rescue Association about rescue under COVID.” 

Unlike previous years, she said this one is more stressful because GCSAR members have not been able to train as much in-person due to COVID. Weekly group meetings have been cancelled or gone remote and training has been modified to reduce gatherings. The group dynamic has also been disrupted as new members have not been able to bond through weekly in-person meetings.

“Fortunately, we have a great group of people,” added Wolf. “People who come to search and rescue have a lot of background of their own to begin with. They’re adept in the backcountry, they know their wilderness first aid, so I’m pretty confident in them.” For travelers, she recommends considering the individual risks, knowing and trusting your group’s risk tolerance, having the right gear, knowing how to use it and checking the avalanche forecast every time.

Upvalley, at Aspen Alpine Guides (AAG), managing partner Steve Szoradi is seeing a similar outdoor boom, emphasizing that this past summer was very busy. “We’ve been operating all summer outside, whether it was rock climbing or hiking, and we’ve had our COVID plan filed with the county since the summer.” Szoradi explained that typical protocol includes masks, emergency PPE for guests and guides, sanitizing hard goods, isolating soft gear for 72 hours, and limiting guide vehicles to half-capacity or having guests driving themselves.

While AAG lost overnight hut trips due to COVID protocol, Szoradi said there has been an increase in low-risk sports like snowshoeing and day skiing. Specifically, a new product called “Introduction to Skinning” has taken off this year. As a great option for guests who are looking for overall fitness, Szoradi said, this product teaches the basics of gear and technique for exercise purposes in low-risk terrain.

Regardless of the activity, experts agree that getting outside safely is important.

“The health and perspective that comes with spending time in space is extremely good right now,” according to Aberger, “We’re all so cooped up with each other, and I love the people I am cooped up with, but you gotta be outside.”

Szoradi added that the mental health benefits that come from nature are great for their guests, who are happy to be out of the cities, to pause, and take a deep breath.