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High country an enticing allure, but are people prepared?

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Monday, Aug. 13, 2018 5:46 PM
Ice Lake Basin is a popular spot for hikers. Lakes have incredibly blue water that lures people to some of the beauty of the San Juan Mountains. But beauty can be deadly if people are not prepared for what the backcountry might bring.

An online search for Ice Lakes brings up thousands of pictures of alluring turquoise-blue alpine lakes.

The hike northwest of Silverton in San Juan County is increasing in popularity because of its picturesque views, but what isn’t immediately apparent is the potential dangers of the high-altitude, remote trail.

Ice Lakes and other Silverton-area trails have increased in popularity in recent years among hikers and off-road vehicle users, said Jim Donovan of San Juan County Search and Rescue. He attributes this to a growing population across the state, especially the Front Range, and visitors are learning about the San Juan Mountains on social media and seeking them out.

The death of a 72-year-old man last week in Ice Lake Basin illustrates the worst-case scenario when things go wrong in the backcountry.

Donovan said a big mistake he sees when people enter the mountain environment is that they’re unprepared.

Hikes can easily become longer than expected, and people can get in trouble if they are not prepared to be in the elements for an unexpected length of time, he said. Fatigue, weather and injuries can all make an outing longer than expected.

Social media can be used as a tool to share experiences and discover new places. But Donovan says it can be dangerous when people see a place on social media but do not realize the difficulty or danger that can be encountered in reaching that alpine lake or peak.

Some people have injured themselves while taking a selfie or doing something risky to have something exciting to post on social media, he said.

In the mountains, weather can be nice in the morning and turn into thunderstorms in the afternoon. Hikers can get stuck in storms without appropriate cold-weather clothing. If someone gets injured and has to wait for help, they will likely need extra food and water.

“We really recommend people really know what they’re getting into when they’re going out on a hike,” he said.

Donovan also recommends carrying the “10 essentials”: A map, light source, sun protection, first-aid supplies, a knife, fire-starting supplies, shelter, extra clothes, and extra food and water.

When planning a hike, people can get information on trails and how difficult they are from local public lands agencies, he said.

The ultimate cost for being unprepared is death.

Ice Lake Basin is a popular spot for hikers. Lakes have incredibly blue water that lures people to some of the beauty of the San Juan Mountains. But beauty can be deadly if people are not prepared for what the backcountry might bring.
Debra Van Winegarden/Special to the Herald

San Juan County Coroner Keri Metzler stressed the importance of taking extra precautions on the trail and having situational awareness.

Just because a skier has taken an avalanche course does not mean that they won’t get caught in an avalanche, she said.

Situational awareness is important, such as knowing which bike gear is necessary on the trail and being careful when danger is present, for example, traversing a cliff band, she said.

Some outdoor enthusiasts treat an outing as a race, said Pine Needle Mountaineering Owner Jeremy Dakan. For example, people will try to climb a Fourteener as fast as they can. To do this, they will pack lightly with minimal supplies.

If hikers are not used to this style of hiking, they should pack on the heavier side, he said.

Dakan’s main piece of advice is to prepare for the worst, and bring more food, water and other supplies than you think you will need.

Classes are offered to prepare recreationalists to survive in emergency situations. Southwest Rescue offers courses in wilderness medicine, avalanche safety and swiftwater rescue.

In addition, Donovan advises hikers carry SPOT devices. The devices use GPS and satellites to broadcast a person’s location to first responders in case of an emergency.

If somebody is injured or stranded, Donovan says the most important thing to communicate to rescuers is the person’s location and extent of the injury.

When choosing a hike, people should not bite off more than they can chew, Donovan said. Otherwise, enjoy the high country and turquoise pools of water.

rsimonovich@ durangoherald.com Photo captions included with an earlier version of this story suggested it is possible to access Ice Lakes in an off-road vehicle. It is not possible to drive to Ice Lakes; it is a 4½-mile hike.

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