As people look to the outdoors for health and community, emergency responders urge caution

Longtime Steamboat Springs resident Jamie Letson crests the top of Christie Peak Express at Steamboat Resort on Tuesday. Letson was one of hundreds of people who have found their own ways to ski and snowboard despite the resort's operations being closed due to the COVID-19 outbreak.
Derek Maiolo

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — The chairlifts were closed Monday, March 16, at Steamboat Resort, but that did not stop hundreds of people from skinning and snowshoeing their way up the ski area. 

Amid a global outbreak of novel coronavirus, which has shut down an ever-growing list of businesses and events, countless numbers of people have been left without work and advised to practice social distancing. In Steamboat Springs, where remote outdoor areas abound, the pandemic has prompted many to seek solace and safety in recreation. 

Nicole Pepper, who worked at the Steamboat Whiskey Company before Gov. Jared Polis announced the temporary closure of all in-restaurant dining establishments and bars in Colorado, decided to spend her newfound leisure time doing something she had never done before. She donned a pair of snowshoes, strapped her snowboard to a backpack and accompanied two of her friends on a trek to the top of Thunderhead lift at the ski area. 

Pepper was surprised to find the mountain abuzz with people. Though the resort announced an indefinite closure of operations over the weekend to slow the spread of COVID-19, that does not prevent people from schlepping themselves up the trails. 

As she and her friends ambled up the ski runs, Pepper described a celebratory scene of people cheering each other on, setting up camps and chatting with friends and strangers — albeit with a healthy amount of space and clothing between them. Children walked up the more gradual runs near the base area with sleds. Dogs ran through the slushy snow, chasing Frisbees and other dogs. 

“Everyone was having a great time, just happy to be outside,” she said.

But before heading into the outdoors, people should keep in mind the health of the first responders who might be coming to save them if something goes wrong.

Steamboat Springs residents Scott Fox, left, and Dawn Cook keep a healthy distance as they celebrate St. Patrick’s Day near the Bashor Lift, which has been closed since Steamboat Resort shut down amid the COVID-19 outbreak. This was Cook’s first time hiking up the resort, an opportunity she took to get some turns on the snow despite the closure.
Derek Maiolo

Emergency services across Routt County have established special protocols to keep responders safe as they treat patients who may have been exposed to COVID-19. That includes procedures on transporting patients who may be sick and increasing the use of personal protective equipment. 

Still, those who feel sick or who think they may have been exposed to the virus should avoid recreating, according to Routt County Search and Rescue President Jay Bowman.

“If someone does expose the team to the virus, then the team goes home and exposes their family,” Bowman said. “It can spread (the virus) exponentially.”

10 backcountry essentials

Routt County Search and Rescue advises that adventurers always bring these 10 items on backcountry excursions:

• Navigation: Map, compass and GPS system
• Sun protection: Sunglasses, sunscreen and hat
• Insulation: Jacket, hat, gloves, rain shell and thermal underwear
• Illumination: Flashlight, lanterns and headlamp
• First-aid supplies: First-aid kit
• Fire: Matches, lighter and fire starters
• Repair kit and tools: Duct tape, knife, screwdriver and scissors
• Nutrition: Food
• Hydration: Water and water treatment supplies
• Emergency shelter: Tent, space blanket, tarp and bivy

If just one member gets the virus, it could compromise the entire team.

Search and Rescue cancelled a training planned for Tuesday due to concerns about COVID-19, urging members who feel sick to refrain from going on missions.

In a news release on Tuesday, the U.S. Forest Service urged visitors to self-assess before entering field offices, including in Steamboat. Those who are feeling sick, have been in contact with someone diagnosed with COVID-19 or may have been exposed to the virus should avoid visiting the offices. Those who need to speak with a Forest Service official should call to set up an appointment or speak over the phone at 970-870-2299.

While the ski area is closed, Steamboat Ski Patrol will not be responding to calls for service, Bowman said. That means his team of trained volunteers is the primary emergency responder for incidents that occur on the mountain, which could mean longer response times than usual. 

“If people go up there, they are potentially on their own,” he said.

The recent flood of people who have flocked to the resort for backcountry skiing also has crowded the nearby parking areas, which Bowman said could further complicate emergency responses. 

That being said, Search and Rescue will continue to answer calls for service and help anyone who is lost or injured in the backcountry, Bowman said. 

On Tuesday, Search and Rescue volunteers were called to assist a woman who injured her leg while hiking on the Fish Creek Falls Trail, according to Harry Sandler, vice president of the local nonprofit organization. Rescuers were able to transport her to the hospital without further incident. 

Bowman encourages people who feel well enough to get outside and exercise to do so in a responsible way. That means taking the proper equipment and making smart decisions.

“It’s a great, healthy way to fill your time and be able to easily practice the social distancing,” Bowman said.

For Pepper, her maiden voyage trekking up Steamboat Resort was a reminder that joy and adventure remain possible despite the growing list of cancellations and quarantine measures.

As she and her friends carved down Heavenly Daze, legs a bit wobbly from the ascent, the sun dropped behind Emerald Mountain to the west, casting a streak of vivid pink across the clouds. Pepper stopped to grab her phone and take a picture. She could not believe the view. 

“A photo couldn’t do it justice,” she said.

To reach Derek Maiolo, call 970-871-4247, email or follow him on Twitter @derek_maiolo.

COVID-19: Follow our coverage

Before immediately heading to the hospital, people who are exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19 have several resources, including:

  • The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment is providing a phone line to answer questions from the public about COVID-19. Call CO-Help at 303-389-1687 or 877-462-2911 or email for answers in English and Spanish, Mandarin and more.
  • UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center offers Ask-A-Nurse, a 24/7 call line staffed by registered nurses who can assess symptoms and provide advice on seeking care. In Routt County, Ask-A-Nurse can be reached by calling 970-871-7878.
  • Virtual Visits can be done from the comfort of your home and only require a computer or tablet with a working webcam, speakers and microphone, or a smartphone.
  • If patients are experiencing severe symptoms or having difficulty breathing, they should visit the hospital’s emergency department.

Take precautions in everyday life:

  • Frequently and thoroughly wash hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. If soap and water are not available, use hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol.
  • Cover coughs and sneezes with a tissue, then throw the tissue in the trash, or use your inner elbow or sleeve.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands.
  • Stay home if you’re sick and keep your children home if they are sick.
  • Clean surfaces in your home and personal items such as cell phones, using regular household products.
  • Be calm but be prepared.
  • Employees at businesses and customers ​are required to wear a mask, according to a statewide public health order.
  • Limit distance between non-household members to 6 feet when indoors and outdoors.
  • The maximum group size for indoor activities is 10.

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