Letter: Dial back the risks you take outdoors, please
Eagle County residents: A recent accident in the backcountry near Ophir, Colorado, illustrates just how risks that recreationists take in the outdoors can impact local first responders during our current public health crisis.
On March 24, two local snowboarders were riding a steep, north-facing chute in an avalanche zone above the town of Ophir in San Miguel County when they triggered a slide that caught one of the riders, who sustained life-threatening injuries. More than 50 people were involved in a massive rescue operation that ensued, including members of San Miguel County’s volunteer search and rescue team, an emergency room physician, backcountry ski guides, a helicopter pilot and others — a significant fraction of the town’s population of 171.
Working in close proximity to stabilize the patient, these rescuers knowingly put their own health at risk to save the life of a stranger whose COVID-19 status was unknown. As one rescuer explained to a reporter from Outside magazine, “That guy was dealing with some serious, multisystems trauma that was more pressing than our concerns for the virus — for better or worse … We were focused on getting him out of there and ensuring that he didn’t bleed out on our watch, more so than we were worried about germs.”
In a pandemic, a backcountry rescue that would be risky in normal times becomes even more so due to the invisible threat of the coronavirus, which is easily transmitted from person to person in close-contact situations. During a rescue, maintaining a social distance becomes difficult, if not impossible. Rescuers who may have been exposed to COVID-19 during a mission may be subject to quarantine to prevent infecting other first responders, sidelining valuable resources for 14 days.
As more members are benched by the pandemic — including those who may choose not to respond to avoid exposing themselves or their families to the virus — a SAR team’s ability to respond to emergencies erodes. In addition to these realities, locally, at Vail Mountain Rescue Group, volunteer members with advanced medical certification are on standby to help augment staffing at Eagle County Paramedic Services and Vail Health, should additional resources be needed to manage our community’s COVID-19 response.
This is why VMRG, in solidarity with other teams like San Miguel County Search and Rescue, is asking everyone to dial back the risks they take outdoors, and if possible, to avoid the backcountry altogether while the governor’s stay-at-home order is in effect. Our advice? Pick an accessible low-risk/no-risk option like a rec path or a local trail you know (and maintain your social distance). If you choose to recreate in the backcountry, consider the impact that your presence there could have on local first responders during these difficult times, should something go wrong.
As one of the snowboarders in the Ophir avalanche told Outside, “I didn’t realize how many different ways the result of our actions could put people at risk in regards to the virus.”
We hope you will.
Vail Mountain Rescue Group