Wilderness rescuers brace for a busy winter

Snow is on the way — and amid COVID-19, recovery missions are on the rise.

 

Every winter, volunteers from Seattle Mountain Rescue are dispatched to the sites of dozens of harrowing incidents: They rescue backcountry skiers buried in avalanches, help injured hikers descend slick trails — and once, they even removed the wreckage of a single-engine plane from a mountainside. Volunteers must tackle steep, avalanche-prone mountain terrain, carrying the requisite gear to ward off hypothermia. Once on the scene, they rig anchors and ropes to carry out rescues, a time-intensive project that often lasts until after dark. “I can’t think of a time I didn’t come out in a headlamp during a winter mission,” said Cheri Higman, chairperson of the organization.

Guides practice their crevasse rescue skills on the Cowlitz glacier, Mount Rainier, Washington last year. With increased recreation during the pandemic, backcountry first responders are preparing for a potential rise in rescues this winter.

And this winter may be harder than usual, thanks to COVID-19. Owing to the pandemic, outdoor recreation skyrocketed this summer, and that trend is projected to continue into the winter. As a result, backcountry first responders are preparing for a potential rise in rescues, especially given the forecast for a particularly snowy winter in the Northwest. “We are anticipating there will be an uptick in accidents,” Higman said.

As soon as a wilderness emergency is reported in Washington, county sheriffs dispatch search and rescue volunteers. In King County, where Seattle is located, the sheriff may call one of nine all-volunteer units that make up the King County Search and Rescue Association. Each has its own specialty: building anchors with ropes and rigging kits for steep alpine rescues, tracking lost people, or transporting other rescuers on all-terrain vehicles. The association has over 500 responders on its roster, though only about 25% of them are trained to work in snowy terrain.

“We are anticipating there will be an uptick in accidents.”

In addition to assisting with missions, Seattle Mountain Rescue typically holds a number of trainings and workshops throughout the year. This winter, concerned about early snow, it began training six weeks earlier than usual. But, Higman said, new volunteer enrollment has been down this year, in part because the organization had to abandon a recruitment round after the pandemic hit in the spring. Like other outdoors organizations, Seattle Mountain Rescue moved most of its training online; it’s also had to cancel in-person community workshops on treating cold injuries and training for winter navigation, which can help decrease the need for rescues. 

The pandemic restrictions could be a problem as more recreationists head outside. By October, the King County Search and Rescue Association had already conducted 191 rescues, compared with a total of 198 for all of 2019. Search and rescue groups in other Western states, including California, Utah and Colorado, were also stretched thin over the summer.

And this winter, many of the people hitting the slopes are likely new to backcountry adventures. With many ski areas limiting ticket sales in response to COVID-19, and resorts in New Mexico and Colorado already selling out of passes, retailers are reporting an uptick in backcountry gear sales. For instance, Ean action sports company with stores in Seattle, Portland, Denver and Salt Lake City, has seen its April-to-October sales for ski-touring equipment like boots, bindings and skins increase by 120% compared to the same period in 2019.  “We see customers that are looking to provide themselves with options,” said Laura Holman, Evo’s assistant buyer.

“Avalanche awareness and education in general is now more accessible than ever to people in rural areas, (who) have historically been underserved.” 

Organizations that train recreationists are also preparing for a busy year, but COVID-19 has forced them to adapt. The Northwest Avalanche Center, which typically offers avalanche awareness courses to about 10,000 people annually, has pivoted to an online-only format. Similarly, The Mountaineers, a Seattle-based alpine club, has taken its basic avalanche safety classes online, with in-person field practices limited to small groups. Those courses are filling up fast, making it challenging to balance the demand with the COVID restrictions, said Mountaineers CEO Tom Vogl: “We’re all trying to figure out how we can offer as many courses as possible while continuing to contain the spread of the virus.” 

Scott Schell, the executive director of the Northwest Avalanche Center, hopes that the abrupt move to digital education will actually allow more people to take part. The center’s 14th annual Northwest Snow and Avalanche workshop went online for the first time this year, and attendance was higher than ever before. “Avalanche awareness and education in general is now more accessible than ever to people in rural areas, (who) have historically been underserved,” said Schell.

Meanwhile, many of the Northwest’s best-known outdoors organizations are teaming up to coordinate a message for recreationists looking for safe but snowy fun this year. Their advice: Always check avalanche forecasts, carry an avalanche shovel, probe, transceiver and other necessary gear, and seek training whenever possible. Schell said that it’s a common misconception that popular summer hiking trails are safe to snowshoe in the winter. “Snowshoeing is not the wintertime equivalent of hiking,” he said. “You’ve got to have a winter mindset, and that involves the ability to identify avalanche terrain, and when it’s appropriate to be there.”

Jane C. Hu is a contributing editor for High Country News and an independent journalist who writes about science, technology and the outdoors. She lives in Seattle. Email her at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor

High Country News Classifieds
  • GRAND CANYON DIRECTOR
    The Grand Canyon director, with the Grand Canyon manager, conservation director, and other staff, envisions, prioritizes, and implements strategies for the Grand Canyon Trust's work...
  • ADMINISTRATIVE ASSISTANT
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness seeks a part-time Administrative Assistant to support the organization's general operations. This includes phone and email communications, office correspondence and...
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • ONE WILL: THREE WIVES
    by Edith Tarbescu. "One Will: Three Wives" is packed with a large array of interesting suspects, all of whom could be a murderer ... a...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR, SALAZAR CENTER FOR NORTH AMERICAN CONSERVATION
    The Program Director will oversee the programmatic initiatives of The Salazar Center, working closely with the Center's Director and staff to engage the world's leading...
  • WILDEARTH GUARDIANS - WILD PLACES PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Salary Range: $70,000-$80,000. Location: Denver, CO, Portland, OR, Seattle, WA, Missoula, MT or potentially elsewhere for the right person. Application Review: on a rolling basis....
  • RIVER EDUCATOR/GUIDE + TRIP LEADER
    Position Description: Full-time seasonal positions (mid-March through October) Organizational Background: Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) is a 10 year old nonprofit organization fostering community stewardship of...
  • BOOKKEEPER/ADMINISTRATIVE ASSISTANT
    Position Description: Part-time, year-round bookkeeping and administration position (12 - 16 hours/week) $16 - $18/hour DOE Organizational Background: Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) is a 10...
  • LAND STEWARD
    San Isabel Land Protection Trust seeks a full-time Land Steward to manage and oversee its conservation easement monitoring and stewardship program for 42,437 acres in...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Ventana Wilderness Alliance is seeking an experienced forward-facing public land conservation leader to serve as its Executive Director. The mission of the Ventana Wilderness Alliance...
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    The Quivira Coalition (www.quiviracoaltion.org) is a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education,...
  • GRANT WRITER
    "We all love this place we call Montana. We believe that land and water and air are not ours to despoil, but ours to steward...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    The Development Director is responsible for organizing and launching a coherent set of development activities to build support for the Natural History Institute's programs and...
  • WILDLIFE PROJECT COORDINATOR
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation (NWF or Federation) is America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 53 state/territorial affiliates and more...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Cinnabar Foundation helps protect and conserve water, wildlife and wild lands in Montana and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem by supporting organizations and people who...
  • TRUSTEE AND PHILANTHROPY RELATIONS MANGER,
    Come experience Work You Can Believe In! The Nature Conservancy in Alaska is seeking a Trustee and Philanthropy Relations Manager. This position is critical to...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR AT FRIENDS OF CEDAR MESA
    -The Land, History, and People of the Bears Ears Region- The Bears Ears and Cedar Mesa region is one of the most beautiful, complex, diverse,...
  • CONSERVATION SPECIALIST
    Position will remain open until January 31, 2021 Join Our Team! The New Mexico Land Conservancy (NMLC) is a non-profit land trust organization dedicated to...
  • OLIVERBRANCH CONSULTING
    Non-Profit Management Professional specializing in Transitional Leadership, Strategic Collaborations, Communications and Grant Management/Writing.
  • GREAT VIEWS, SMALL FOOTPRINT
    Close to town but with a secluded feel, this eco-friendly home includes solar panels, a graywater reuse system, tankless hot water, solar tubes, and rainwater...