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As Resorts Limit Numbers Amid Pandemic, Consumers Move To Backcountry

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

So even before the beginning of this unusual ski season, more and more people have been abandoning ski lifts and heading into the backcountry. Now, as ski resorts limit their numbers because of the pandemic, that sport is really taking off. But this backcountry boom comes with dangers. Greg Rosalsky from our Planet Money podcast has the story.

GREG ROSALSKY, BYLINE: Jeremy Jones is a freeride snowboarder who made his name in the backcountry doing death-defying descents on some of the world's steepest mountains.

JEREMY JONES: I kind of, like, really found my footing in, say, the world of pro snowboarding in making films, and specifically in Alaska, where we would take helicopters into these remote mountains and snowboard down and then document it.

ROSALSKY: By 2008, Jones had spent over a decade snowboarding this way, earning a reputation as the world's best big mountain rider. But he got sick of helicopters. They were only able to reach a small sliver of the world's peaks. And then he got into environmental activism, founding an organization called Protect Our Winters.

JONES: I was understanding climate change and really taking a close look at the carbon footprint that my snowboarding had on the planet.

ROSALSKY: So Jones decided to jettison helicopters and begin climbing mountains using his own two legs and a special kind of snowboard, a splitboard.

JONES: Basically, you take a traditional snowboard, and it's cut down the middle. You can take it apart, turn it into two skis. And you put these climbing skins on the skis, which allows you to walk up a mountain. And then you get to the top. And you turn it back into a normal snowboard.

ROSALSKY: Through numerous movies and a snowboard company, Jones Snowboards, Jones has probably done more than anybody else to popularize and develop splitboarding.

JONES: It's definitely grown more than I ever thought, I mean, by a long shot.

ROSALSKY: Even before the pandemic, splitboarding was the fastest-growing segment of the industry. But after ski resorts closed in March, sales of them and other backcountry gear really exploded.

JONES: Absolutely, COVID has kind of turned it into this more of a frenzy-type situation where people are rushing to buy gear early because they're afraid it's going to sell out.

ROSALSKY: There's a lot to love about backcountry snowboarding and skiing. But it's hard and also dangerous. There's no ski patrol, no avalanche control, no groomers. The terrain is unpredictable. The boom in backcountry splitboarding and skiing has what economists call negative externalities - in other words, costs imposed on others. All these newbies in the backcountry can place an extra burden on public health and safety resources during a time when some hospitals are overwhelmed.

JONES: It is serious stuff. And we hope to inspire people to get out there. But with that comes the responsibility of educating them.

ROSALSKY: Jones' gear comes with avalanche education stickers and materials. And the home page of its website has a whole section dedicated to backcountry safety. His company begins every winter promoting avalanche awareness. During the pandemic, Jones says, he checks that local hospitals aren't at full capacity before he goes out. He recommends taking avalanche courses, hiring guides and always reading daily avalanche reports.

JONES: To the newbies, you should be nervous. I'm nervous. The mountains, you are entering a wild place.

ROSALSKY: Wild, but maybe more crowded these days.

Greg Rosalsky, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF LIGHT OF SUN'S "DAWNING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.