A complicated helicopter rescue of a backcountry skier injured in an avalanche March 31 near Rico highlights the importance of staying away from high-risk outdoor activities during the coronavirus pandemic.
Twenty emergency responders from Dolores County Search and Rescue, Rico Fire Department, Flight for Life and San Miguel County Sheriff and Search and Rescue responded to the incident on Telescope Mountain.
“When getting outdoors to exercise, control your level of risk so you do not put a strain on local emergency services,” said Ethan Greene, director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. “Each rescue requires a lot of emergency personnel and takes away resources needed for this pandemic.”
A party of three experienced backcountry skiers were skinning up the northeast side of Telescope Mountain when one or more triggered a slab avalanche.
One man was caught in the slide and sustained a broken femur, likely from hitting trees, said Rico Fire Chief Todd Jones. He was not buried. The skiers were carrying avalanche rescue equipment, including beacons, probes and shovels.
A member of the party skied out to alert rescue authorities. The location of the avalanche was inaccessible by snowmobile.
A command post and landing zone were organized in nearby McJunkin Creek for the Flight for Life Helicopter to land.
Rico Fire rescue personnel were flown to a ridge above the avalanche path. Monroe Ivy, Dave Kuhns, Justin Juarez and another man, skied down to the injured skier with a rescue sled. They along with an emergency doctor and paramedic administered aid, including a splint for the broken leg.
Rescuers on skis then pulled the sled with the victim down the mountain to a waiting helicopter. He was flown to Mercy Medical Center in Durango.
“It was a big operation in steep terrain,” Jones said. “Please use caution recreating outdoors and always have a backcountry rescue card.”
In a pandemic, an added risk for backcountry rescue crews is the increased chance of infection because they work side-by-side, and social distancing is difficult.
“If an emergency responder has to be put in quarantine, they are out of service. That puts more strain on limited public resources,” Greene said.
On March 24, a snowboarder was seriously injured after triggering an avalanche in the backcountry at 11,500 feet near Ophir. The rescue required more than three dozen emergency personnel.
The avalanche reportedly traveled 1,500 feet down the mountain. An incident report from the Colorado Avalanche Information Center said the slide traveled 1,500 feet and was 150 feet wide.