The Ice Lakes Basin in the San Juan mountains is easily one of the most iconic alpine regions in Colorado. Located just outside of Silverton, the main trailhead offers a steep approach that leads to some of the most crystal clear blue water you can find. Combined with wildflowers, mountain goats and rugged peaks, it’s nothing short of a perfect weekend getaway.
So I was excited to finally hike to the basin for the first time in September 2020. Joined by a friend, we eagerly loaded up our packs and set up the dirt path for a four-day trip.
But on the third day of camping at altitude, we woke up to dark skies and thick smoke. The wind had shifted overnight, blowing remnants of a wildfire many miles away into the area. The sun was now barely visible, with only a weak, orange glow through the haze. It hurt to breathe. We quickly packed our belongings and hurried down the trail alongside a few other worried backpackers.
Although we got out safely without assistance, a few weeks later in October others would not be so lucky. This time the wildfire was not miles away, it was at the Ice Lake Trailhead. With flames blocking the primary exit, more than two dozen hikers and dogs were evacuated by helicopter.
Similar stories of backcountry adventurers facing extreme wildfires are beginning to pop up with more frequency. In the same fire season, a young man from Loveland was evacuated by helicopter after flames from the Cameron Peak fire trapped him in Colorado’s Rawah Wilderness. The East Troublesome fire prompted evacuations in Rocky Mountain National Park. Even urban-located trails aren’t off limits anymore, with dozens of rock climbers and hikers fleeing the NCAR fire this March in Boulder.
Backcountry wildfire encounters are also happening across the western U.S. Hikers have been evacuated repeatedly in recent years, including from Yosemite National Park’s Half Dome, along the Pacific Crest Trail and, most recently, in Laguna Niguel’s Coastal Fire. In the aftermath of these fires, many trails have also closed indefinitely due to high risk of soil instability, falling trees and lack of critical resources.
There have always been risks to spending time in the backcountry, yet it’s also true that the risk of encountering extreme wildfire behavior is rapidly increasing as the effects of climate change increase. The Forest Service is already shifting from the idea of fire seasons to year-round activity, and wilderness education groups such as NOLS have begun addressing extreme wildfires in the backcountry as a growing threat to users.
This means it’s time for mountain adventurers to increase their preparation. While most of us will hopefully never be forced to flee for our lives, having the additional knowledge and training in wildfire risk management could be a life saver should the situation arise.
Similarly to other natural events such as avalanches, understanding how wildfires work can go a long way to avoid getting caught in one. Other preparation includes additional monitoring for regional conditions and red flag days, monitoring horizons for smoke columns, eliminating use of backcountry fires, understanding how to seek shelter if flames approach and ensuring others know your whereabouts should evacuation be necessary.
As a former wilderness guide, I’d also suggest carrying a GPS emergency beacon, donning bright colors and carrying a whistle. While these items can be useful in many situations, they could be especially helpful in a wildfire. Proximal wildfires are smoky and loud, so it’s helpful to make yourself easy to spot and reduce the need for lung capacity to alert rescuers of your position.
Getting outside is essential to who we are as Coloradans. With a hot, dry summer fast approaching, preparation is the key to ensuring we continue to recreate safely.
Trish Zornio is a scientist, lecturer and writer who has worked at some of the nation’s top universities and hospitals. She’s an avid rock climber and was a 2020 candidate for the U.S. Senate in Colorado.