Editor’s note: Since this story was published, Gifford Pinchot, Mount Baker-Snoqualmie, Okanogan-Wenatchee and Olympic national forests, as well as King County Parks, have closed lots, lands and facilities. They remained technically open at the time of publication.
Last weekend, King County Explorer Search & Rescue and the Regional Special Vehicles Unit responded to three 911 calls and ultimately assisted six different people all stranded on Mailbox Peak, where unprepared hikers were caught stranded after dark and above the snow line without lights or adequate outerwear.
After hours of searching in the dark for the lost hikers — all of whom made it home safely and uninjured — the volunteer search-and-rescue group posted at 12:37 a.m. on Sunday: “To the communities that we serve, we ask that you make good choices. With the current dangers posed by Covid-19 every mission puts volunteer rescuers at risk and consumes PPE, like N95 masks, that are much needed elsewhere in our EMS and hospital facilities.”
These kinds of incidents will hopefully come to an end with Gov. Jay Inslee’s “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order, announced Monday evening. While elected leaders have yet to explicitly ban hiking, trail running, mountain biking, backcountry skiing or mountaineering, access to public lands has closed left and right in the wake of the stay-at-home order, and there is a growing consensus among the region’s outdoor enthusiasts that as we buckle down to weather the coronavirus pandemic, adventure can wait.
On Tuesday, Washington State Parks announced all parks, wildlife areas and water access will close for at least two weeks, starting Wednesday. (Campgrounds were already closed through April.) Mount Rainier, Olympic and North Cascades national parks all closed roads and access points to vehicles “until further notice.” That includes popular winter destinations like Paradise and Hurricane Ridge. (Spring may have sprung at sea level, but it remains wintry in the alpine.) The Northwest Avalanche Center also paused forecasting.
While the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie, Gifford Pinchot, Okanogan-Wenatchee, and Olympic national forests did not initially announce any specific trail or trailhead closures, the lands and facilities (like trailhead bathrooms and visitors centers) were shut down in the days following Gov. Inslee’s order. Even prior to the official closings, snow had already piled up on state Route 542, for example, making a trip to popular winter trailheads like Heather Meadows near Mt. Baker Ski Area all the more treacherous. Despite the fact that some of Washington’s cherished wilderness remained, technically speaking, open to the public, even the region’s most ardent hikers are urging everyone to heed the spirit of Inslee’s order.
After a week in which the Washington Trails Association encouraged socially distant hiking — no carpools, no large groups, no summit lunches — even it has changed tune: “If you have to drive to the trailhead, it’s probably too far.”
This new reality comes after a week of sunny weather that prompted Western Washington residents to flock to the mountains and struggle to adhere to social distancing — or outright ignore it.
Photos circulated on social media showing dozens of people eating a summit lunch atop Rattlesnake Ledge. The Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance complained that so many riders thronged local trails, their crews could not safely conduct trail work. These incidents are the outdoors equivalent of continuing to play pickup basketball at Green Lake, the kind of behavior that led Seattle and King County to close playing courts and fields in city and county parks.
For the last week, debates have raged in online forums for local hikers, climbers, mountaineers and backcountry skiers about what is acceptable behavior during the pandemic. Many have argued exercise is good for their immune systems and spending time in wild, remote places is ideal social distancing — and a mental escape from the news cycle. Others point out the inevitability of coming into contact with people at gas stations and trailheads on the way to those remote places, as well as the risk of a car crash or mountain injury that could result in a trip to the hospital that would strain an already burdened medical system — as well as create unnecessary exposure to coronavirus-positive patients.
“I feel this overwhelming response to go ‘into nature’ to feel better is a fear response and could cause much more harm than good with all the additional contact,” said Seattle-based certified mountain guide Matt Schonwald, who has been a vocal online proponent of staying home. As nurses and doctors fight on the proverbial front lines, Schonwald has been quick to scold those whining about missing a weather window to tackle big peaks. “Exposing selfish, fearful behavior masking as ‘need’ and ‘risk management’ will help all of us come to grips with what we will have to do very shortly to come out the other side quicker.”
I found myself caught in that trap.
After an intense week reporting on the pandemic, during which I couldn’t turn off the news even if I wanted to, I was eager to clear my mind. My wife and I decided on an overnight snowshoe trip to Snow Lake. Traveling to Snoqualmie Pass would mean a shorter trip with fewer (or no) stops, and snowshoeing a familiar route felt low-risk. But because it’s so close, the parking lot at the Alpental ski area was almost full on the bluebird day, which made keeping our 6-foot distance from others a challenge.
We mostly succeeded on the way in by taking the relatively wide Source Lake trail, and the wide-open alpine terrain at the head of the Alpental Valley allowed plenty of room to maneuver away from others. Our upper Snow Lake campsite was pure bliss, with a purplish sunset, alpenglow high on Chair Peak and a night sky replete with a shooting star.
But on the way out, we struggled to safely pull off the popular Snow Lake trail far enough to allow uphill parties to pass without coming within 6 feet of us. On a steep, snow-covered embankment, social distancing and passing on the trail don’t go together well.
After several hours carrying overnight packs under the March sun (hot, if not blistering), we were eager for a cold, refreshing reward from Snoqualmie Pass brewery Dru Bru. They continued to sell to-go orders only with a “one customer in the store at a time” policy, and we were eager to give them business during this difficult time. But on Monday, Dru Bru also announced it would be ceasing operations after seeing the weekend crowds at Snoqualmie Pass. Such is life under coronavirus, an unwinnable catch-22 wherein supporting struggling small businesses and seeking refuge in the nearby outdoors become, in the aggregate, counterproductive.
Back home, the mountain glow quickly faded. The weekend felt normal — we spent a night out in the backcountry and capped it off with a local brew — and that’s a problem. Gov. Inslee’s words from last week haunted me: “If we are living a normal life, we are not doing our jobs as Washingtonians.” While the governor’s new order did not explicitly close the state’s trails and wilderness, the outdoorsy crowd should be able to read between the lines.
“We discourage travel unless you feel it is essential, but any time you go out in public you are potentially going to expose yourself to others, and that is something we are trying to avoid right now,” Inslee spokesperson Matt Faulk told the Seattle Times. “If you’re going to a public place, my guess is you’re probably not the only person with that idea, which means you’re going to run into people and increase your exposure and your chance of exposing others.”
King County closed its trails and trailheads March 25, two days after Inslee’s order.
“Here in central Puget Sound, we really value the natural environment and our ability to get out, exercise and enjoy nature,” Constantine said in an interview last week, before the stay-at-home order was instituted.
Within the confines of “stay at home,” everyone will have to figure out their comfort level during the weeks (and possibly months) to come of what constitutes an acceptable amount of outdoor recreation. Hopefully last weekend’s scenes will not repeat themselves, requiring law enforcement to dedicate limit resources to patrolling trailheads. (Violating the governor’s emergency order is a gross misdemeanor.)
As for me, I laced up my running shoes yesterday and ran around a local high school track. The mountains will have to wait.