Opinion: Don't wax skis just yet as the backcountry remains closed, no avalanche forecasting under alert level 3 and 4
Earlier this month, the biggest winter storm of the season brought a much needed, and long anticipated, top up of new snow. This was followed by clear skies, creating the perfect winter conditions. However, in a cruel twist of fate before anyone could enjoy it, the country plunged back into Covid-19 alert level 4 as the Delta variant emerged in Auckland.
After almost two weeks at alert level 4, the country, except Auckland and Northland, is preparing for the drop to alert level 3 on Tuesday at 11.59pm. But backcountry enthusiasts, don’t wax those skis just yet. Looking back to last year under alert level 3, any form of backcountry snowsports, such as ski touring, split boarding, or mountaineering, was not permitted. However, under level 2 these activities were allowed along with multi-day tramping, hunting, and many more recreational activities, with a more conservative approach.
Details on what the next version of alert level 3 could look like are not yet publicly confirmed, but we can look back on what was in place last year for some indication as it is likely those restrictions will apply again, especially for ‘high risk’ recreation activities.
Additionally, August and September are also prime avalanche season. Typically, the New Zealand Avalanche Advisory (owned and operated by the New Zealand Mountain Safety Council) forecasters are cranking out daily avalanche advisories across the 12 alpine regions. For the first time in its history, forecasting has ceased in winter due to alert level 4, and this will continue in alert level 3. If there’s further reasoning needed to prevent anyone heading out into the backcountry, then not having the avalanche advisory to support sensible decision-making is one of them.
While the temptation for some will be incredibly hard to resist, it is not the time to be letting the team of 5 million down.
So far, during alert level 4, every indication suggests the backcountry snowsports, mountaineering, tramping, hunting and other adventurous recreation communities have done a fantastic job of sticking to the rules.
One of the primary reasons these ‘high risk’ recreational activities are off the cards through alert levels 4 and 3 is that when things do go wrong, the emergency response often involves a large number of people from multiple bubbles which increases the risk of community transmission and unnecessarily puts more people at risk.
For those who might be thinking about ski touring or exploring inside closed ski areas, remember these areas have not had avalanche control work for some time now, so are effectively uncontrolled backcountry – that's until ski area operations resume, likely at level 2.
In Aotearoa we enjoy almost unrestricted and unlimited access to recreation in our outdoors which is the envy of the world. It’s a total privilege, and at a time when everyone is making sacrifices in an attempt to once again eliminate Covid-19, unfortunately now’s not the time to be heading for the hills.
Some may debate what is and isn’t a ‘high risk’ activity, and yes, it is fair to say that can be very subjective depending on individual circumstances. While it may be common to think “it won’t happen to me”, sometimes it just does.
For further information on Covid-19 in the outdoors, visit Covid19outdoors.nz
Photo: Loic Lassueur