Clear Creek County sheriff’s deputies began posting bulletins at trailheads on Wednesday, warning backcountry users that emergency rescues could be “significantly delayed” because of the strain the coronavirus is putting on law enforcement, search and rescue teams, and emergency medical responders.
Clear Creek County is a popular playground for Front Range backcountry skiers with destinations that include Jones Pass, Berthoud Pass, Loveland Pass — all of which fall on the Continental Divide — as well as Herman Gulch, Stevens Gulch and four fourteeners (Mount Evans, Mount Bierstadt, Grays and Torreys peaks).
The bulletins also bear the logo of the Alpine Rescue Team, a volunteer group that conducts search and rescue operations in Clear Creek as well as two neighboring counties, Jefferson and Gilpin.
“Plan ahead and be prepared for any eventuality, including extended rescue times and the potential of an uncomfortable night out,” the bulletins say. “Carry the ’10 essentials’ (of backcountry survival), do not participate in activities that are high risk or those which exceed your equipment or capabilities. Also watch the weather as things can change quickly during this time of the year.”
The bulletins stops short of closing the trails.
“Look, we want you to get outside and recreate,” Clear Creek County Undersheriff Bruce Snelling told The Denver Post by phone on Wednesday. “We prefer that you do it in your own neighborhood, don’t come up here and congregate. And certainly, if you’re up here, adhere to the social distancing requirements. And, again, be prepared if you get stuck back there. It could be a delayed response, and we could have other issues because of the pandemic.”
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A whole chain of problematic events could occur when a backcountry rescue takes place during the coronavirus crisis.
“When we go out there, it’s not that we send one person,” Snelling said. “It takes multiple people to effect a rescue out of the backcountry. And everybody has to use (personal protective equipment) gear. Well, PPE gear for us is a one-time use issue. We will use up that PPE gear, then turn around and get another call and have to re-glove and re-mask and go back out there. If somebody has to be transported out with an ambulance, that’s a paramedic and an EMT on an ambulance that have to use their PPE gear. They end up having to decontaminate the ambulance afterward, taking those guys out of service.
“And that’s if just one person gets hurt,” he said. “If we get an avalanche and there’s a half a dozen people buried, that will call for a bigger response, exposing more people, creating more problems.”
The Sheriff in neighboring Grand County posted similar bulletins last week. Grand County includes the north side of Berthoud Pass, which has attracted many backcountry skiers in recent days. Clear Creek County is on the south side of the pass.
Paul Woodward, a mission coordinator for the Alpine Rescue Team and a past president of the Colorado Search and Rescue Association, worries about the risk of exposure rescuers face during the coronavirus crisis, including a shortage of Personal Protective Equipment for members. He hopes the bulletins posted at trailheads will help.
“We’re just going, ‘How do we get this message across?’ ” Woodward said. “We can’t say, ‘We’re not going to come get you.’ Our worst fear right now is doing a trail carry with somebody that’s symptomatic, and losing half our team for one person. We don’t have the M95 masks we need.”
In fact, the Alpine Rescue Team and Jeffco Sheriff deputies were involved in a search and rescue mission Tuesday night in the Evergreen-Conifer area that was not related to recreation but forced them to grapple with prudent protocol in the coronavirus pandemic.
They were called out to search for a woman in her 60s with dementia who wandered away from her home with no food, water or extra clothing for the weather.
“Jefferson County (sheriff) was there, and we assisted them in the searching with some of our members, keeping as much distance as possible, because we could be carrying COVID at this point,” said Dawn Wilson, a public information officer for the Alpine Rescue Team. “There was a lot of discussion beforehand on the radios between the mission leaders before dispatching the members about what our protocols would be.”
About a dozen ART members responded on skis and snowshoes in the Maxwell Falls area, Wilson said, travelling through a foot of snow or more looking for the woman. She was found about 3 a.m. Wednesday, 5-6 hours after the call for help came from the sheriff.
“She was pretty cold and was sent to the hospital with just mild injuries,” Wilson said.
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