COVID-19 Triggers Mountain Safety Concerns

Avalanche experts cite a potential for increased accidents as skiers head to the backcountry as resorts stay closed or limit access.
Posted at 6:02 AM, Oct 16, 2020

Avalanche experts and mountain communities in the U.S. are bracing for winter as COVID-19 drives a growing number of skiers and snowboarders away from resorts and into the backcountry. A dangerous recreational shift that could leave a costly mark.

"They wanted to get out in the mountains. Didn't have anything else to do, which is great, but they went out without any training," said mountain educator Jim Donovan. "And were able to get themselves in trouble."

With ski resorts closed or limiting access, Donovan, director of Colorado's Silverton Avalanche School says people have been pouring into the backcountry in search of places to ski and snowboard. Many of them inexperienced, all of them on terrain that can humble even the most seasoned athlete.

"There was a huge surge in cases and incidents that we saw at the end of last winter," Donovan said. "It ranged from really experienced users to just brand new people out there who didn't even know how to use any of their rescue equipment."

Donovan says this winter isn't looking any better.

"We are really preparing on both the local and state level and national level to really handle a big increase in backcountry use," Donovan said.

Bearing the brunt of this are backcountry towns like Silverton, Colorado in the heart of the San Juan Mountain range. Located more than 9,000 feet above sea level, Silverton is an hour and a half drive from the nearest hospital. A distance that puts search and rescue responsibilities squarely on volunteers in the community.

"We are the ones who get the phone call and have to step up and come help you," DeAnne Gallegos, executive director of the Silverton Area Chamber of Commerce, said. "It's not just about you as a skier. It is about your friends, family and our community’s lives that you put at risk when we have to come save you from your avalanche accident."

A responsibility, now complicated by the risk of COVID exposure avalanche rescue teams face.

"They don't want to bring the virus home," Gallegos said.

"As an avalanche center, we feel that we have our work cut out for us in reaching these new user groups," said Chad Brackelsberg of the Utah Avalanche Center.

Brackelsberg, the executive director of the Utah Avalanche Center, and his team are one of dozens of nonprofits doubling down on outreach efforts.

"It's gonna be really critical that people understand the danger that they could potentially put somebody in," Brackelsberg said. "As well as just their own personal and their group safety."

"Even the most avid educated backcountry skiers are those whose lives get taken and or involved in an accident," Gallegos said.

Professional big mountain skiers and ski mountaineers are calling for everyone, as they put it, to "Know Before You Go."

"There are a lot of online resources. And I'm sure there are some like classroom sessions or outdoor sessions where you can learn how to use your equipment," said John Collinson, a professional big mountain skier. "And so you build yourself up. Yeah, you don't want to just go out and ski the hardest thing you possibly can."

"It is absolutely imperative that you have an avalanche beacon, shovel, probe, partner and the knowledge of how to use those safety devices," said Caroline Gleich, a professional ski mountaineer. "Most people start out, they go out skiing, and it's all fun. Then they have an accident or a close call, and then they start to reel it back in."

"The mountain will always be there. And you can always go back when you're better prepared, when you have the appropriate equipment and you know how to use it," Gleich said. "Make decisions, so you can live to ski another day."