Montana Public Radio

Headed Out? Keep Your Distance And Minimize Your Risks

Apr 2, 2020

According to a 2018 report from Headwaters Economics, nearly 90 percent of Montanans participate in outdoor recreation for physical and mental well-being. But safety concerns amid the novel coronavirus outbreak are complicating how people get outside.

It’s a powder day in Missoula and folks are flocking to the local ski hill. That hill is called Snowbowl. Of course, the resort itself is closed due to coronavirus. I’m hiking up to the top to go for a ski. In the snowy parking lot, one thing stands out to me immediately. A lot of cars. I count about 50 at the uphill access parking.

All those cars could mean congestion on the trail, skiiers not practicing social distancing, or safety hazards in the event of an avalanche or bad fall that could stress an already overburdened medical system. Due to coronavirus, people who recreate outside are forced to confront new dilemmas about where, when, and how to get outdoors.

But they’re still encouraged to do so. Gov. Steve Bullock’s stay-at-home order directly mentioned outdoor recreation on public lands as an acceptable activity, provided participants take safety measures.

Rachel Schmidt is the director of the Montana Governor’s Office of Outdoor Recreation.

"That means the hiking and the biking and the running and the walking, and all of those other things. We can do those things in a safe manner, close to home, six feet away from each other," she says.

A sign in Missoula with tips on enjoying parks safely during the coronavirus pandemic.
Credit Courtesy William Marcus

In national forests and state land across Montana, trails generally remain open. Still, state and federal officials have taken measures to reduce potential for spread of the virus on public lands, including closing campgrounds, bathrooms, and group recreation sites. Popular hike-in hot springs in Idaho are closed to bathers, and violators could face fines in the thousands of dollars. Glacier and Yellowstone national parks are closed to visitors.

So people are still free to recreate outside. But sports like skiing are a bit tricky. An avalanche near Telluride, Colorado last week seriously injured a skiier, drawing more than 30 people into a rescue effort and diverting valuable medical attention away from the local COVID-19 response. Ski areas across the country have reported issues with parking and crowding due to uphill traffic.

"The safest thing to do is to stay at home," says Spencer Bradford, education director for the West Central Montana Avalanche Foundation.

In Montana, official policies on skiing uphill differ across the state. Here at Snowbowl, uphill access is still allowed. The same is true at Whitefish, but a notice on their website reads, "now is not the time to get injured, to put yourself, or put others at risk." On their websites, Bridger Bowl and Red Lodge both "strongly advise against uphill travel" due to safety concerns amid the pandemic, although it’s technically allowed. Big Sky prohibits all uphill access while the resort is closed. Cooke City/ Silvergate, a popular backcountry ski destination, banned all travel to the area from non-residents.

"But if you do decide to go out you need to add in a little bit of extra risk mitigation," Bradford says.

He says the coronavirus means skiers should add a new factor into their calculus: the well-being of their communities should something go wrong. An accident could both clog up hospital resources and take search and rescue teams out of isolation, risking exposure. Bradford says skiers should be intimately familiar with avalanche conditions, ski conservatively and well below their ability levels, drive alone to trailheads, and generally stay off slopes greater than 30 degrees where avalanches are most likely to occur.

Other activities like rock climbing also warrant special precautions.

"Climbers should generally avoid rock climbing," says Damian Mast, a board member at the Western Montana Climbers’ Coalition.

"There’s just a certain amount of touching ropes, touching gear, putting things in your mouth, that is just not safe."

Popular climbing areas across the country like the Bishop area in California and New Hampshire’s Rumney have shut down access entirely. That hasn’t happened yet in Montana. But a climber in the Custer Gallatin National Forest was injured in a rappelling accident last weekend, instigating a 12-hour rescue effort.

But outdoor activity can mean better overall health and a reprieve from the loneliness of hunkering down at home.

Again, Rachel Schmidt of the Office of Outdoor Recreation,

"I love the fact that I’m looking out my window at any given time, or when I’m out on a walk with my family, there are tons of people out walking, just spending time together."

Back at Snowbowl, I’m nearing the summit. If you’re stuck in your house isolated all the time, nothing sounds more appealing than a day in the mountains. This is a big mountain, so despite all the cars I only see about six other skiers on my route. And, from a distance, each of them also offers a big, wide smile.