With Sun Valley’s early closure, some Blaine County residents have turned to backcountry skiing and recreation to enjoy the last bits of the 2019-20 season. While the conditions fluctuate on a daily basis, the Sawtooth Avalanche Center says it will continue to issue daily avalanche forecasts through April 12—but it warns people to consider the risk they are taking whenever they venture out into the backcountry.
“We urge folks to consider that any backcountry rescue will tax resources that are needed to manage the impacts of COVID-19,” a Facebook post from the organization on March 20 states. “Slow down, be careful, and consider avoiding avalanche terrain.”
Since guide companies cut their seasons short, it is now up to the public and the Avalanche Center’s small staff to gather intel on conditions throughout its vast area of coverage from Banner Summit east to the Soldier and Wood River Valley mountains.
“We are adjusting to receiving fewer observations than usual,” Director of the Sawtooth Avalanche Center Scott Savage said on Monday. Forecasters have followed social distancing guidelines by heading into the field alone and staying out of avalanche terrain most days.
“We forecasters can conduct most of our work and meetings digitally, but we miss the in-depth discussions and face-time that came with working in a shared office space,” he said.
On Monday, Savage warned that the storm making its way through the region would bring about a foot of snow, and spike avalanche danger to “Considerable” or “High,” with the potential for natural avalanches large enough to bury people.
Dr. Terry O’Connor, a physician with St. Luke’s Wood River’s emergency department, encouraged the public to use caution when heading into the backcountry now.
“As an avid backcountry skier myself, I understand the urge to get out and enjoy some fresh air and go for a tour with friends, but we are in unprecedented times,” O’Connor wrote on the Avalanche Center’s Facebook page. O’Connor asked residents to make a few adjustments to their outings to protect the community and avoid extra strain on healthcare workers and first responders.
First, spread yourselves out, O’Connor said. Do not carpool with anyone outside your household and maintain social distance when backcountry recreating.
Second, dial expectations back to minimize risk of injuries.
“Our local EMS services cannot afford to be out of service to our immediate community on a prolonged rescue,” he said. “Before you do anything, really ask yourself if you and your team are adequately prepared to self-rescue or even spend a night out.”
Lastly, keep it clean. Wash your hands and disinfect surfaces and commonly used areas such as door handles and gas pumps.
While the local national forest and BLM lands are open, the Avalanche Center continues to urge caution when heading out.
“Now is a terrible time to get caught in an avalanche,” a Facebook post from the organization stated on Monday.
Law enforcement agrees: There is a shortage of backcountry rescue personnel due to the unprecedented effects of the COVID-19 virus, according to the Blaine County Sheriff’s Search and Rescue Facebook page. The Sheriff’s Office also urges residents to consider that any backcountry rescue would tax already strained resources and is discouraging people from going into the backcountry unless they are fully prepared, trained and equipped to self-rescue.
“We have noticed an increase in backcountry use in recent weeks, especially on Bald Mountain and near Galena Summit,” Savage said. “We encourage people to maintain safe social distance at trailheads, while recreating, and at the car or truck at the end of the day.”