Each winter, Seattle Mountain Rescue volunteers are sent to the sites of dozens of heartbreaking incidents: they rescue the backcountry skiers buried in avalanches, help injured hikers to descend slippery trails– and once, they even removed the wreckage of a single-engine plane from the mountainside. Volunteers must tackle steep, avalanche-prone mountain terrain, wearing the necessary equipment to prevent hypothermia. Once there, they set up anchors and ropes to perform rescues, a time-consuming project that often lasts until dark. “I can’t think of a time when I didn’t go out with a headlamp on a winter mission,” said Cheri Higman, president of the organization.
And this winter can be harder than usual, thanks to Covid-19. Due to the pandemic, outdoor activities have exploded this summer and this trend is expected to continue into the winter. As a result, backcountry first responders are bracing for a potential increase in rescues, especially given forecasts of a particularly snowy winter in the Northwest. “We anticipate that there will be an increase in accidents,” Higman said.
As soon as a wilderness emergency is reported in Washington, county sheriffs send out search and rescue volunteers. In King County, where Seattle is located, the sheriff can call one of the nine all-volunteer units that make up the King County Search and Rescue Association. Each has their 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 more than 500 stakeholders on its list, although only about 25 percent of them are trained to work on snow-covered terrain.
In addition to helping with missions, Seattle Mountain Rescue typically runs a number of trainings and workshops throughout the year. This winter, concerned about the early snowfall, he started training six weeks earlier than usual. But, Higman said, new recruitment of volunteers has declined this year, in part because the organization had to abandon a round of recruiting after the pandemic struck in the spring. Like other outdoor organizations, Seattle Mountain Rescue has moved most of its training online; he also had to cancel in-person community workshops on cold injury treatment and winter boating training, which may help reduce the need for rescue.
The pandemic restrictions could be a problem as more recreationists will head outside. As of October, the King County Search and Rescue Association had already carried out 191 rescues, compared to a total of 198 for all of 2019. Search and rescue groups in other Western states, including California, Utah and Colorado, were also stretched during the summer.
And this winter, many of the people hitting the slopes are likely new to backcountry adventures. As many ski areas limit ticket sales in response to Covid-19, and resorts in New Mexico and Colorado are already selling ski passes, retailers are reporting a rise sale of off-piste equipment. For example, Evo, an action sports company with stores in Seattle, Portland, Denver, and Salt Lake City, saw sales from April through October for ski touring gear like boots, bindings, and boots. skins increase by 120% compared to the same period in 2019. “We are seeing clients looking to offer themselves options,” said Laura Holman, Evo purchasing assistant.
Organizations that train leisure enthusiasts are also gearing up for a busy year, but Covid-19 has forced them to adapt. The Northwest Avalanche Center, which typically offers avalanche awareness classes to about 10,000 people per year, has moved to an online-only format. Likewise, the Mountaineers, a Seattle-based alpine club, took their basic avalanche safety courses online, with in-person field practices limited to small groups. These classes fill up quickly, making it difficult to balance demand with the Covid restrictions, said Tom Vogl, CEO of Mountaineers: “We’re all trying to figure out how we can offer as many classes as possible while still containing the spread of the virus. “