How are #socialdistancing in wild places posts impacting rural mountain towns?

Author, Brigitte Denton, ski touring on the San Joaquin Ridge overlooking June Lake, CA (March 2019). Photo Credit: Jessica Haist.

I have a profound appreciation for wild places. They provide space for keeping physically fit and the grounding I need to maintain good mental health. They are also pivotal in maintaining the balance the Earth needs to stay healthy. With the world at our fingertips, those that cherish the outdoors can advocate for wilderness areas through social media. Snapshots of beautiful landscapes, smiling faces, and outdoor enthusiasts scaling walls, hiking up peaks, and floating through pillows of fresh snow draw others in. As an outdoor educator and guide, my main purpose is to bring the photo adventures I share with my followers to life hoping that others will join my endeavor in preserving these areas and to pass along skills that will empower people to tap into the health benefits Mother Nature offers. Social media has been an ally in this venture. However, in the last week, I have started asking the question “Is my social media content having an impact that is not in line with my intentions?”

Popular destinations such as national parks, the Eastern Sierra, the Tetons, and Moab have published pleas to the outdoor community and non-residents to curtail their activities during the pandemic due to the limited resources in these rural areas. Despite this and “Stay At Home” orders throughout the country, these areas, including the Eastern Sierra, are seeing a flood of people from all walks of life venture into the wilderness including residents and travelers. Dave McAllister describes the current Bishop scene in his article, The Pandemic Comes to Bishop: A Small Climbing Community Struggles Beneath the Weight of COVID-19, where he states “Bishop locals pointed to around 300 cars “parked” on Chalk Bluff Road, at the mouth of the Happy Boulders, last weekend. This is a staggering number on the best of days”. I cannot help, but ask myself, “Are my posts illustrating getting outside and #socialdistancing contributing to the tense atmosphere and risky behavior? Am I inadvertently putting undue strain on our rural EMS and healthcare system? Are my posts resulting in overuse of the land and destroying the areas I work hard to preserve?”

Tensions are rising evidenced by experiences shared by many. People, residents, tourists, and nomads alike, are upset by the behaviors of others. Mammoth Lakes local and ultra-marathon runner, Jenny Lucas, posted about an encounter she had where a stranger walked up to her and started coughing in her direction exclaiming “we’re all going to get sick. I hope you get sick”!

Screenshot taken March 22, 2020 with written permission from Jenny Lucas.

The high cost of living has led to an increase in people living out of their vehicles. Many who work in town live in trucks and vans. They are joined by the influx of nomads who live on the road enjoying what the different open spaces have to offer. Many are being targeted and bullied into leaving the area. Two days ago, a colleague was threatened by a man driving around on a motorcycle. Feeling that she was in danger she spent the night at another friend’s place and left the next day hightailing it to her summer job location, an outdoor education school that kindly offered her a place to stay as long as she is able to quarantine for 14 days upon her arrival and maintain social distancing standards after that.

In addition to the tension, there are additional issues: limited resources, risk management, and land overuse. The entire point of social distancing is not containment. It is meant to slow the spread so that the healthcare system does not become overburdened with sick patients all at once resulting in the loss of lives. It doesn’t take much to overtax the clinics and small hospitals in these rural towns. Mammoth Hospital, the only one in Mono County, has 17 beds and 2 ventilators. Mono County Emergency Medical Services, where I work part time, has 4 ambulances, staffed with paramedic-EMT teams, stretched out over 100 plus miles along highway 395 with a response area that is 3,132 square miles. The closest major hospital capable of handling critical patients is Reno, Nevada. ALS units are rare in rural communities. Many areas just have volunteer fire departments limited to Basic Life Support. Most Search and Rescue teams are volunteer outfits as well, attracting many retired older folks that have the time to help.

“Social distancing” has lend itself to a lot of free time with schools closing and employment being put on hold. The attractiveness of wide-open wilderness and the endorphin rush one gets from being outside has enticed, understandably so, both the experienced and inexperienced to adventure in the backcountry. On March 20, 2020, Mammoth Lakes Recreation asked residents “to recreate responsibly during the ongoing outbreak of COVID-19”. Friend and IFMGA guide, Ryan Heutter, posted the same day that he is halting all guiding operations and higher risk personal activities commenting that “I could convince myself that I am capable of climbing and skiing with caution, but that is just bargaining. With a partner who works in a hospital ER that only has 17 beds and 2 ventilators, I can’t afford to accept half measures”.

Screenshot taken March 22, 2020 with written permission from Ryan Huetter.

While freak accidents do occur, most of the time incidents happen because people missed or ignored the red flags in their judgement and decision-making process. The Eastern Sierra is home to numerous experienced mountain athletes and professionals like Ryan who are more than capable of “recreating responsibly” and role modeling sound decision making. What about those that do not have this level of experience? The ones that are unconsciously incompetent? How does one weigh the risk verses benefit when they do not understand the likelihood and consequences of an action? Since guiding companies have suspended operations, people are venturing out on their own putting themselves in situations where they risk learning a difficult or fatal lesson. Getting away with it unscathed only encourages them to continue with this risky behavior. Every decision impacts more than just a single person or party. More people are put at risk if something goes awry and a rescue operation is needed. On the evening of March 17, 2020, the day after Jackson Hole Ski Area closed, Teton County SAR, responded to and extricated an injured snowmobiler on the Continental Divide Trail requiring two response teams and one communications team. In Mammoth Lakes, many skiers, snowboarders, and paragliders have been heading up the Sherwins, an area that can be easily accessed without an AT setup or split board. In the last two days, one skier broke their pelvis and another person suffered serious injuries after launching off a kicker they had built. It is important to keep in mind the amount of resources needed to run a rescue mission as well as what is required to put a person back together at the hospital especially during the current pandemic where resources are already strained and a global shortage of supplies exists.

Screenshot taken March 22, 2020 with written permission from Teton County Search and Rescue.

Last, but not least, how is the influx of recreational users impacting the land? Unfortunately, not all people practice solid Leave No Trace principles. Popular climbing crags and hiking trails are notorious for being littered with human “surface dumps”, dog waste, and trash. Additionally, vegetation gets overrun by users making their own trails.

It is easy for me to point my finger in the other direction, putting the sole blame on the media and others exhibiting the behaviors that I find disheartening. However, I think we need to reflect and try putting ourselves in other people’s shoes. Social media allows us to share our experiences with friends, family, and in many cases strangers that come across our profiles. Posts can be shared among the masses. My reach extends well beyond the Eastern Sierra especially on my Instragram and Twitter platforms that are shared publicly. Everyone reacts to adversity and uncertainty differently. While my pictures of me #socialdistancing in the outdoors may offer my followers something positive to look at on their feed, others may be stricken with different emotions. While previously envious of my lifestyle, they may now feel jealousy and resentment in their current state of isolation. Other viewers may convince themselves that traveling to a wilderness area is okay because they don’t feel sick and there is plenty of room. Some may experience FOMO (fear of missing out) driving them to come visit and play. I speculate that some see it as a healthy escape from the chaos and their own feelings of fear and panic. There is a myriad of emotions out there. It is not fair to assume that everyone will respond to my outings in a manner I intended.

I am not telling anyone to stay cooped up inside nor am I discouraging people from posting about the things that bring them joy and peace. I am urging everyone to reflect on how their actions impact others. When it comes to social media, how do we strike a balance? I think we need to evaluate the social media platforms we are using and how our posts impact our followers. We should be asking questions like…

  • Are my privacy settings set to private or public?
  • Is it possible to restrict posts to specific followers?
  • How are my posts impacting my followers? Soliciting feedback through a poll might be helpful.
  • Do I need to make changes to what I am posting on certain platforms, but not others based on privacy settings and follower base?
  • If I am impacting people negatively and contributing to these issues, what changes can I make? Perhaps Face Timing with friends and/or family to share about your #socialdistancing adventures is a good solution.

Developing self-awareness is one of the most challenging feats on life’s journey. With it comes feelings of discomfort and in a society that abhors mistakes, one may feel shame. Perhaps this is what leads us to avoid internal reflection and an unwillingness to admit that we were mistaken. This is not only to our own detriment, but to that of many others and the wild places we cherish. With a microscopic adversary in our midst, humility is imperative. Rather than point fingers in the other direction, I think we need to look within, own the fact that we may be contributing to the issues we are seeing in our mountain towns, and be willing to make some changes.


Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics (Accessed March 22, 2020). The 7 Principles. Leave No Trace Center For Outdoor Ethics [Online]. Available:

Mammoth Lakes Recreation (2020, March 21). Local Residents Are Urged To Recreate Responsibly. Mammoth Lakes Recreation [Online]. Available:

McAllister, Dave (2020, March 17). The Pandemic Comes to Bishop: A Small Climbing Community Struggles Beneath the Weight of COVID-19. Thundercling [Online]. Available: