Over the past 72 hours, many of the mountainous regions in the Western US have declared some kind of Shelter-in-place order, encouraging residents to stay home and avoid unnecessary travel. In light of these developments, and other news from around the nation, the time has come for mountaineers to hang up their crampons, and stay at home with the rest of us. If you don’t live in the mountains, driving there to hike, camp or climb is a pretty bad idea. Here’s the problem…
You may spread COVID-19 to small, fragile communities.
The single biggest reason to avoid the mountains right now is to protect their meager public health resources. There are very few hospitals, for example, in the Colorado Rockies, yet most mountain communities have a higher-than average age, compared to urban areas. This means they have less resources than cities, to treat more high-risk patients.
People may have COVID-19 for up to 14 days without showing symptoms, meaning you may bring the virus into contact with many others before you know it. Even stopping for gas in a mountain community could leave the virus on a pump handle for others to catch. Staying home protects those who protect our mountains.
Accidents happen, and first responders are already busy.
Even if you plan to avoid all towns, mountaineering is a high-risk activity. Hundreds of search and rescue missions each year involve thousands of first responders from all over the state. With rescue crews hard at work dealing with the response to COVID-19, mountain towns cannot afford to lose them in responses to backcountry incidents. As an example, a snowboarder yesterday triggered an avalanche over the Eisenhower Tunnel, blocking a DOT service road. More than 30 responders took time to help, wasting critical resources.
It isn’t just mountaineering either. Any time spent travelling on mountain roads or highways puts you at risk of a car accident. This inevitably would put you in contact with local first responders, and potentially medical personnel if serious, while leaving you stranded for a time. The risk is small, but the number of hikers and climbers out there is large: The more people who choose to drive to the mountains, the greater the risk someone will get hurt, and mountain communities will pay the price.
It makes it easier to violate guidelines.
Even if everything goes according to plan, you still make a negative impact. When you travel unnecessarily once, it makes it easier to do so in the future. What may start as a drive to do some hiking or climbing may lead to less social distancing in general. If you post online about your experience, you may even cause others to go hiking as well, spreading poor behavior like a virus – and thus spreading the virus. The risk isn’t worth it – right now, there’s no such thing as too much precaution.
For those living in Denver, going to the mountains at all is a violation itself. The Denver Department of Public Health & Environment states on its website, “Denver issued the Stay at Home order in solidarity with our neighboring and mountain communities. Staying at home means staying where you are –not going to neighboring communities or the mountains for recreation where we could further spread COVID-19 and overwhelm limited healthcare systems.” (Source)
Similarly, the Colorado Tourism Board states, “While ‘escaping’ to the great outdoors and more rural parts of the state may seem like a logical idea, Colorado’s rural destinations and mountain communities have limited medical facilities and personnel whose services need to be reserved for their residents. Non-essential travel is discouraged at this time.” (Source)
Now isn’t the time to visit the mountains. So hike locally!
For all these reasons, it’s better to stay home right now (as the name of the order implies). That doesn’t mean you can’t exercise outdoors. There’s no better time to get into shape with a jog around your neighborhood, or an exploration of your city’s park system. If you’re lucky to be near the foothills, there are plenty of trails near you. And if you live in the mountains yourself, you’re free to hike still (so long as you limit your risk and social contact).
These times aren’t easy – it’s easy to get annoyed or angry. I also want to be on a mountain right now. If we work together, keep positive, and keep taking one step after the other, we will make it, together. Stay safe and healthy friends.