SALT LAKE CITY — Although the traffic that plagued Big and Little Cottonwood canyons earlier this winter is all but gone, skiers, snowboarders and snowmobilers are still flocking to the backcountry.
And with the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 now over 600, Utah’s avalanche experts are warning backcountry travelers not to take unnecessary risks — not only could an accident in the backcountry divert potentially lifesaving hospital resources, but search and rescue crews have been hit hard by the mass exodus of seasonal ski-industry employees.
“On average we would have anywhere from 20 to 30 individuals at each ski resort that can respond to Wasatch backcountry rescues,” said Unified Police Sgt. James Blanton. “And now you’re looking at maybe two to five people from each resort if you’re the lucky.”
These volunteers include ski patrollers at Brighton, Solitude, Snowbird and Alta ski resorts, many of whom left Utah after being laid off for the rest of the winter.
“The response times for rescuers are going to be a little bit more lengthy than they normally would,” Blanton said. “Especially with the adverse weather conditions right now, helicopter operations are pretty much null and void.”
Since Wednesday there have been almost 40 human-triggered avalanches across the state, according to the Utah Avalanche Center. Six of the avalanches carried at least one person, including two skiers who were partially buried after a close call at the now closed Snowbasin Ski Resort.
“We’ve been lucky no one was hurt,” said Mark Staples, executive director of the Utah Avalanche Center.
Staples said it’s entirely possible the avalanches are a result of the new snow and could’ve happened with or without the resort closures — some areas in the Wasatch Mountains reported 2 feet of snow in the past week.
“We’ve had great snow, good powder, and we have a lot of people here that like to get out in the mountains, so it could be busy no matter what,” he said. However Staples did not rule out the closed ski resorts as a factor.
“The fact is that all the ski resorts are closed, so for anyone that wants to go skiing or riding, the backcountry is their only option.”
John Gleason, spokesman for the Utah Department of Transportation, echoed Staples, telling the Deseret News snowplow crews in Big and Little Cottonwood canyons have noticed the trailheads are unusually crowded.
A crowded backcountry poses its own set of risks, and Staples urged anyone that travels into the mountains to be considerate of other groups and make conservative choices.
“We have this huge population center next to the mountains and we have easy access,” Staples said. “What that means is you just have to consider who’s below you or who might be above you ... we’re not out in the middle of the wilderness by ourselves, so we all have to work together.”
At Zion National Park, which is still open despite Arches and Canyonlands shutting down, search and rescue crews conducted two rescues on Thursday within hours of each other, including one woman who was hospitalized with a serious leg injury.
These are the exact situations Blanton and other search and rescue crews are trying to avoid. Because crews in the central Wasatch are already stretched so thin, a backcountry rescue might take longer than usual, and could have potentially deadly ramifications.
“My suggestion is don’t go too far into the backcountry,” said Blanton. “I understand people want to get out and get going again, but until this pandemic is over we don’t want to overburden our health care system because they’re already taxed as it is.”