As most of you know Alta Ski Area, along with nearly every other resort across North America, has been closed since March 15 due to the Covid-19 outbreak. This was a surprising, although necessary, measure needed to curb the spread of this deadly pandemic. Yet for those of us who still want to ski, our options have been limited to the backcountry. This begs the question: with most states issuing strict stay-at-home orders and asking people not to go outside unless absolutely necessary, should we even be skiing at this point in time? If so, how can we ski safely while still abiding by proper social distancing protocols to curb the spread of COVID-19?
From the looks of it, many skiers have already decided for themselves that they should be skiing, that they have every right to go skiing, that skiing is no different from going outside for a walk, or for a bike ride, or for a run around the park. Their justification is that they still happen to be in ski mode, that their season was cut short through no fault of their own, and that there’s still plenty of snow left in the forecast. Besides, what better place to be than up in the mountains, getting some much-needed exercise and escaping the chaotic reality happening below.
Sounds reasonable, right? The only problem is Little Cottonwood Canyon has become anything but a safe haven. Skiers are driving up the mountain in droves; trailheads and parking lots are filled to capacity; nobody seems to be following the town’s no-groups-of-more-than-ten-people- and stay-no-closer-than-six-feet-apart ordinance. There’s still an inappropriate amount of social gathering, with skiers tailgating around vehicles, building jumps, and hiking in large clusters. To make matters worse, people are taking risks they shouldn’t be taking, skiing lines they shouldn’t be skiing. People without the proper knowledge or equipment are shouldering their alpine gear and bootpacking up the hill. People are setting off human-triggered avalanches and putting others in danger. And the consequences of these decisions are placing an excessive and undue burden not only on the local EMS and rescue units, but also on the health-care system in general, both of which are already over-taxed and working at a limited capacity.
So what’s the right decision in regards to this unprecedented modern-day dilemma? We here at the GMD, including myself, have decided to continue skiing. We’ve decided this because we love to ski, because there isn’t much else to do while living in the mountains but to ski, and because skiing is the only way for us to get any exercise and keep ourselves sane during this crisis. We have chosen to ski, but we do so cautiously and in a responsible manner, knowing the risk we’re placing on both ourselves and those around us. We do this by heading out with one or two others at most; we read the daily avalanche reports and follow the town rules; we provide other skiers their allotted space and don’t congregate in the parking lot afterwards; we had experience traveling in and evaluating avalanche terrain before this outbreak. We choose to ski knowing there’s still a very serious and deadly pandemic happening around us, and that there’s still the possibility that ‘the powers that be’ might close our access to the backcountry, just like they did in parts of Colorado.
So for those of you who still want to ski and are planning on coming up to Little Cottonwood Canyon, we hope you ask yourselves a few questions beforehand so you can ski safely while following social distancing: Do I feel healthy enough to go skiing? Do I really need to be driving up with so many people in one car? Do I have to be hiking with such a large group? Do I need to be dropping into this line knowing the conditions aren’t safe and I might be placing others in danger? And, most importantly, am I setting a good enough example that others might follow suit?
Stay safe everyone.
Here are a few other opinion pieces written by Wasatch backcountry skiers: