As winter sports resorts in North America closed in response to the coronavirus outbreak, skiers and snowboarders began flocking to backcountry trails or to slopes where they could trek uphill and then take a downhill run. Though the activities are not forbidden, public officials have begun imploring the skiers and snowboarders to scale back.
The crowds not only add to the risk of spreading the virus, but they have also alarmed emergency workers in many mountain communities, who see an increased threat of avalanches and of severe injuries that can divert medical resources needed to cope with the pandemic.
A snowboarder near Telluride, Colo., was seriously injured on Tuesday in what officials described as a human-triggered avalanche, necessitating the deployment of a search and rescue team.
“We had more than 30 people involved in that rescue, 30 people who would otherwise not be together at all,” Tor Anderson, one of the rescuers with San Miguel County Search and Rescue, said. “When you think about everyone involved — the helicopter pilot, the local residents who showed up to help — this is totally unnecessary contact because someone made a bad decision.”
The snowboarder was airlifted to a hospital in Grand Junction, Colo., Anderson said, and was expected to be occupying a bed in the intensive care unit for quite a while.
“What happens in two weeks when people need all those beds for people dying from Covid-19?” Anderson said, referring to the disease caused by the virus. “What happens when that person gets Covid from being in the hospital? This is an unbelievably unprecedented time. We have to think more responsibly.”
A Colorado stay-at-home order, which went into effect on Thursday, does not prohibit activity on the state’s mountains. But on Friday, Gov. Jared Polis held a news conference to clarify the order and strongly discouraged traveling to the mountains for exercise.
“It is not a competition to see what you can get away with,” said Polis, who had ordered the resorts to close on March 15.
“If you need to recreate and you love our outdoors,” he added, “do it in communities close to your home. This pandemic is not a vacation. It’s not the time to drive two or three hours from Denver to mountain communities, many of which are reeling from the crisis.”
Backcountry trails near major cities and closed ski areas with so-called uphill access have been especially crowded since resorts shut down operations, officials said.
“The last couple of weekends have been downright nuts,” said Scott Schell, executive director of the Northwest Avalanche Center in Seattle. “A lot of people living in the Seattle metropolitan area — people who are pent up — are skiing even though ski areas are closed. The parking lots have been packed.”
Officials in mountain communities have advised low-risk options — for example, cross-country skiing rather than backcountry turns on steep slopes.
“Your day of fun should not come at the expense of us dropping everything while dealing with this public health crisis to come save you,” Susan Lilly, the San Miguel County public information officer, said after imploring people to be careful.
Across Canada and the northwestern United States, avalanche forecasts have been halted, at least in part because they might promote mountain activities and steer skiers and snowboarders to sites far from home.
The forecasts have continued at the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, yet the snowboarder injured near Telluride, for example, rode in an area that the information center had specifically cited as a high avalanche risk.
“From a broad perspective, it’s great people are getting out and doing activities that help them during these difficult times,” Ethan Greene, the director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, said. There’s a lot of ways to recreate safely, but people flocking to one area is difficult from a public health perspective.”
Another worry for search and rescue groups is that many people heading to avalanche-prone slopes do not have appropriate equipment or awareness of safe routes. They are also congregating in large groups in parking lots and on trails, officials said.
“Besides not social distancing, our biggest concern is that people who would normally be on the ski areas feeling safe are in the backcountry unprepared,” Dawn Wilson, a spokeswoman for Alpine Rescue Team, said. “People are going out without transceivers and beacons. They don’t know the avalanche dangers. They don’t know what they’re doing.”
Even among those accustomed to the rigors of the backcountry, expectations have changed quickly.
Tim Wenger of Palisade, Colo., met last week with a friend on Vail Pass — at a popular trailhead parking lot that has since been closed — for a morning of backcountry snowboarding. The pair chose the area because the Colorado Avalanche Information Center rated it “low” for avalanche risk.
“I’m glad we got there early,” he said on Thursday. “A lot of people had the same idea. We kept our distance. We made a plan beforehand to break our own trail and stick to our own route. I don’t recall seeing people congregating or being disrespectful. It seemed like a lot of avid local backcountry skiers on top of their game.”
Nonetheless, Wenger, who lives about two hours away, said that trip might have been his last for a while.
“Given this new order from the governor, my plan is to wait it out,” he said, referring to Polis’s stay-at-home order. “If you’re going to recreate, it’s important to stay close to home.”
More and more communities are denying uphill access to slopes, though some will still allow it as long as local residents are the primary beneficiaries and rescue crews are not diverted from helping the sick.
“We are doing it for the community; it seems to be a good thing, a release that people need right now,” Jeff Hanle, a spokesman for the Aspen Skiing Company, said of permitting uphill access at Aspen’s four otherwise shuttered ski areas. “We’ll stay open as long as Pitkin County and state health don’t tell us to shut down. We don’t have patrol on the hill. If someone gets hurt, it’s a 911 call and significant response time. We hope people are taking care of themselves and taking extra precautions.”