Last week, a backcountry skier was critically injured in an avalanche near Ophir, Colorado, about 20 minutes south of Telluride. More than 50 people were involved in the rescue. Local health and ski industry officials have urged backcountry adventurers to take extra caution so as to avoid putting an extra burden on already-strained first responders and healthcare facilities.
Devon O’Neil wrote about the incident in an article for Outside Magazine. He spoke with reporter Alex Hager about the unique risks of a rescue during the coronavirus pandemic.
Alex Hager: Did people who were involved in the rescue ignore some risks because the highest priority was saving the skier’s life?
Devon O’Neil: Yeah. I think a lot of that came down to instinct. You know, some talked about this afterward –– both on the record and off –– about how in retrospect they wished that there had been more attention paid to the risks involved. Yet you didn't get the feeling that they would do anything differently if this happened again tomorrow. You know, maybe they would think twice about not putting on rubber gloves or touching somebody if it wasn't absolutely necessary or something like that.
But ultimately, I think everybody realized this guy is dying. He has injuries that are impossible to diagnose right now, but it's very clear that he was fading and struggling to breathe. And everyone realized that the urgency was clear. They had to get him off this mountain and get him to really high level medical care as fast as possible. And the as fast as possible part, I think, played into the instinctive decisions that they made which were not really consistent with the way they'd been living their lives for weeks leading up to that –– which was staying apart and being really careful to not spread this virus either in their own home or through this community.
That became everyone's reflective takeaway. We did what we did because we had to, and we don't regret it, but boy, it's pretty freaky to think what might’ve just happened out there.
AH: You talked to volunteers and doctors who were involved in this rescue. Did those people say that backcountry exploration is a bad idea right now?
DO: I think for the most part, everyone who was involved with this rescue could absolutely relate to why those guys were out there, and also why this kind of a scenario presents these really unique risks just simply because of the timing.
A lot of these people who saved the victim's life were skiing, whether in East Waterfall Canyon or another part of the mountains right above Ophir. They were doing really similar things. Maybe not skiing as steep of a slope or one with as tricky of a place to get back out of if needed. Maybe the access was a little different. But I think everyone who was out there helping to save this guy's life could absolutely understand every facet of this rescue in this whole scenario.
AH: You were telling me how other people were planning on riding that same run on that same day, and that this could’ve happened to anyone. Is there some inherent risk in doing anything in the backcountry right now?
DO: I think you have to look at this as, yeah, this could happen anywhere in Colorado. Let's say the messaging is ‘Don't go back country skiing, go fly fishing.’ Well, if someone hikes down kind of a rocky ravine and gets into this really sweet little fishing hole and then twists an ankle coming out because you're walking along really uneven scree or something, suddenly you are in need of a major, really complicated rescue in the same way.
We're in winter, we're in the prime time to go skiing right now, especially backcountry skiing. The snow is really good and there's a healthy snowpack and a lot of places. So there's certainly been pushback against backcountry skiing that I don't think there's been against other outdoor sports right now.
But the point remains, if you're going into the back country to do a lot of stuff right now, all it takes is a quick little unexpected mishap –– because no one expects it to happen –– and suddenly you could be exhausting resources in the same kinds of ways as someone who gets caught in an avalanche 11,000 feet.