‘This is not the time to take risks’: backcountry skier rescued | SierraSun.com

‘This is not the time to take risks’: backcountry skier rescued

With the closure of ski resorts due to COVID-19, along with recent snowfall, many outdoor enthusiasts have taken to the backcountry in search of some late season turns.

The decision to go out, however, could end up putting first responders in a situation where they risk infection, along with placing added pressure on an already stressed health system.

“Taking risks in the backcountry comes with big responsibility and can lead to big consequences,” said the Tahoe Nordic Search and Rescue’s board members in a message. “This is not the time to take risks. Small accidents can quickly manifest into major problems that can become life threatening. Your actions in the backcountry can impact others.”

On Saturday afternoon, as another winter storm was moving into the region, the Nevada County Sheriff’s Office received a call about a backcountry skier that had gotten lost northeast of Castle Peak. The Nevada County Sheriff’s Search and Rescue team responded to the call and began search operations from Boreal Mountain California.

After cell phone contact was made with the lost individual, his location was determined to be northwest of Frog Lake. Initially, search and rescue sent out snowmobiles, but due to dense tree cover and chasms made by open streams, the party had to be called back.

A Nordic rescue team was then sent out from the Donner Pass rest area, and under whiteout and near whiteout conditions, managed to climb up and over the pass, which, according to the Sheriff’s Office, sits at roughly 8,600 feet. The lost individual was located on the far side of the pass, at around 8,200 feet.

As conditions deteriorated, the rescue team witnessed a trio of avalanches, one of which was a small, slab avalanche that a searcher set off and was caught in. He was unharmed, according to the Sheriff’s Office.

After locating the subject, the rescue team retraced its footsteps in an effort to avoid higher risk avalanche areas, before eventually making it out around midnight.

“This incident is (a) stark reminder of what is at risk when venturing into the backcountry right before a winter storm,” said the Sheriff’s Office in a statement. “If it was not for the great skill, unwavering dedication, and heroism of the teams who answered the call that night, this would have a different ending.”

The Sheriff’s Office couldn’t be reached for comment.

While backcountry areas remain open, officials from the Tahoe National Forest are urging users to remain at home.

“The vast majority of the Tahoe National Forest is open to recreation at this time,” said Tahoe National Forest Public Affairs Officer Joe Flannery. “But we are really asking folks now more than ever to be prepared and to recreate responsibly. Right now, due to COVID-19 issues, both law enforcement and search and rescue operations may be limited.”

The forest service was recently forced to close Donner Summit Snow Park due to the amount of people visiting the site and ignoring social distancing practices.

“We had large capacities of people,” said Flannery. “We’ve already had an issue of human waste management and some trash issues up there, so that combined with the evidence that we saw of a lack of social distancing, we made the decision to close that site.”

For a full list of forest service closures and tips for recreating outdoors, visit http://www.fs.usda.gov/main/tahoe/home.

“The best thing to do is to stay close to home and to recreate near your home,” said Flannery. “We realize exercise is a great health benefit, but we encourage folks to recreate in their own neighborhoods and communities.”

Justin Scacco is a reporter for the Sierra Sun. Contact him at jscacco@sierrasun.com or 530-550-2643.

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