Clear Creek County warns trail users that emergency rescues could be “significantly delayed”

Fall and winter meet, Tuesday Oct. 12, 2010, as snow covers the mountains along Berthoud Pass. (RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post)
Fall and winter meet, Tuesday Oct. 12, 2010, as snow covers the mountains along Berthoud Pass. (RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post)

Clear Creek County sheriff’s deputies began posting bulletins at trailheads on Wednesday, warning backcountry users that emergency rescues could be “significantly delayed” because of the strain the coronavirus is putting on law enforcement, search and rescue teams, and emergency medical responders.

Clear Creek County is a popular playground for Front Range backcountry skiers with destinations that include Jones Pass, Berthoud Pass, Loveland Pass — all of which fall on the Continental Divide  — as well as Herman Gulch, Stevens Gulch and four fourteeners (Mount Evans, Mount Bierstadt, Grays and Torreys peaks.

The bulletins also bear the logo of the Alpine Rescue Team, a volunteer group that conducts search and rescue operations in Clear Creek as well as two neighboring counties, Jefferson and Gilpin.

“Plan ahead and be prepared for any eventuality, including extended rescue times and the potential of an uncomfortable night out,” the bulletins say. “Carry the ’10 essentials’ (of backcountry survival), do not participate in activities that are high risk or those which exceed your equipment or capabilities. Also watch the weather as things can change quickly during this time of the year.”

The bulletins stops short of closing the trails.

“Look, we want you to get outside and recreate,” Clear Creek County Undersheriff Bruce Snelling told The Denver Post by phone on Wednesday. “We prefer that you do it in your own neighborhood, don’t come up here and congregate. And certainly, if you’re up here, adhere to the social distancing requirements. And, again, be prepared if you get stuck back there. It could be a delayed response, and we could have other issues because of the pandemic.”

RELATED: Backcountry skiers concerned about safety after sudden influx of novices

A whole chain of problematic events could occur when a backcountry rescue takes place during the coronavirus crisis.

“When we go out there, it’s not that we send one person,” Snelling said. “It takes multiple people to effect a rescue out of the backcountry. And everybody has to use (personal protective equipment) gear. Well, PPE gear for us is a one-time use issue. We will use up that PPE gear, then turn around and get another call and have to re-glove and re-mask and go back out there. If somebody has to be transported out with an ambulance, that’s a paramedic and an EMT on an ambulance that have to use their PPE gear. They end up having to decontaminate the ambulance afterward, taking those guys out of service.

“And that’s if just one person gets hurt,” he said. “If we get an avalanche and there’s a half a dozen people buried, that will call for a bigger response, exposing more people, creating more problems.”

The Sheriff in neighboring Grand County posted similar bulletins last week. Grand County includes the north side of Berthoud Pass, which has attracted many backcountry skiers in recent days. Clear Creek County is on the south side of the pass.

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