Rethinking Outdoor Risk Taking During Coronavirus

The coronavirus lockdown has created a unique paradox in Utah. On one hand, we’re confined to our homes with most restaurants, bars and places of business closed in the name of social distancing. On the other hand, many people are unshackled from nine to five constraints, whether that’s because they’re part of unfortunate layoffs and furloughs or are finding newfound freedoms afforded by the home office. With idle hands, an already outdoor-obsessed populace has seized upon the “healthy” outlet of outdoor recreation as people have flooded the trailheads to backcountry ski, ride bikes, jog and hike. In doing so, Utahns have unwittingly exacerbated a public health hazard by flouting distancing rules and engaging in risky behavior that threatens to tax a healthcare system already stressed by the coronavirus pandemic.

Early spring is a glorious time in Utah. Low elevation trails are beginning to thaw and valley temperatures are comfortable, enticing dirt enthusiasts out of a winter hibernation. Meanwhile, a healthy snowpack in the mountains and typically ample snowfall make for some of the best backcountry skiing and riding conditions imaginable. The last few weeks have been a perfect example, and the stir crazy have been getting after it. But here’s the reality check; now is not the time to push it.

With ski resorts closed, there has been a surge in backcountry skiers in the Wasatch, and a flurry of purchasing backcountry ski gear like skins indicates many of these skiers may be relatively new and inexperienced. During the past storm cycle there were 42 reported human-triggered avalanches in the backcountry in Utah. Even more alarming, 14 people were caught and carried in those avalanches with some notable close calls in large terrain on Mt. Ogden, Mt. Superior and Maybird Couloir that could likely have ended in serious injury or worse. I’ll note it’s never prudent to shame individuals involved in avalanches for their decision making as it limits the community’s ability to learn from a situation, and that’s not what I’m doing here. Instead, I’m calling out the outdoor community as a whole in Utah for engaging in risky behavior at a time when our actions impact far more than just ourselves.

Few of us are blameless here. I rode my mountain bike on the Bobsled Trail in the SLC foothills on a crowded Saturday with a packed trailhead. I was fired up to ride in some warm sun after tinkering with my bike in a cold garage for days on end. There’s no way I didn’t come within six feet of people while riding, and I went ahead and hit a bunch of gap jumps on the way down. Pretty dumb, I must admit, and from here on out I’ll be riding more conservatively, during less crowded times, in areas with fewer people. I’m asking fellow member of the outdoor community to do the same.

If one of us ends up injured in an avalanche or crumpled below a bike jump, we’re compromising an already fragile public health system. Search and Rescue and EMS crews will have to tend to us while in close proximity. Then we’ll end up taking over a hospital bed that will likely be needed if and when COVID-19 cases surge in Utah. Just look at the harrowing account of a how many people were impacted by a single backcountry rescue of a snowboarder who was injured in an avalanche outside of Ophir Colorado this week. It’s not just about individuals right now. We’re all in this together, and we all need to be part of the solution.

I’m not telling people they shouldn’t go enjoy the outdoors. It’s one of our few luxuries right now. Instead, we need to reexamine our risk thresholds and—at least temporarily—adjust them for the current situation. Our late great colleague Glen Warchol published a story in May 2016 detailing how our brains work a bit differently up here, which may make us more prone to risk taking in Utah. Right now, we just need to get a grip and tone it down a notch.

Get some fresh air. Go for a jog. Walk your dog. Go skiing or mountain biking if want, as long as you do it responsibly. Make conservative terrain choices while backcountry skiing. Don’t bike or hike on an already crowded trail. Recreate well within your limits, and don’t post about your outdoor exploits on social media with a tired iteration of the distancing hashtag. You’re only going to fuel FOMO in others and possibly inspire them to do something irresponsible. Stay home when possible, and don’t die in an avalanche while surviving coronavirus.

Tony Gill
Tony Gill
Tony Gill is the outdoor and Park City editor for Salt Lake Magazine and previously toiled as editor-in-chief of Telemark Skier Magazine. Most of his time ignoring emails is spent aboard an under-geared single-speed on the trails above his home.

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