At Mount Charleston in the Toiyabe National Forest, it’s the call of the wild.
Not the coyote’s howl or the blue jay’s chatter, but the sound of emergency sirens echoing through Kyle and Lee canyons on snowy weekends. Between the sledding accidents and auto crashes, first responders from multiple law enforcement, fire and forestry agencies are kept busy rushing from one emergency to the next. When the snow falls, the mountain’s volunteer firefighters and paramedics answer calls almost constantly.
Take a drive up State Route 157 after a recent storm, and it’s easy to see the problem. Southern Nevadans hungry for cheap outdoor recreation converge by the thousands at small snow play areas, then spill over onto dangerously icy and steep hillsides. They park their cars on the roadside, and often in the roadway and violate enough traffic laws to keep a platoon of police officers busy.
On the hills, large boulders and deep ruts are obscured by even a small snowfall. Signs warning of the danger have been known to disappear early in the season. Others marking closed areas are ignored. Fences meant to dissuade sledders from bashing their brains out are knocked down every winter.
The result is painful and predictable: busted ankles, cracked vertebrae, head trauma, and worse.
A recent incident serves as a terrible reminder of the danger. On Jan. 22, a group of high school kids skipped class and headed up Kyle Canyon in the morning. Near Cathedral Rock, in an area closed for the winter because of the dangerous conditions, the young people decided to have a little fun sledding. A 17-year-old girl slammed head-first into a tree and suffered a massive brain injury.
Nevada Department of Forestry officials packed her off the hillside and down to a waiting Flight For Life helicopter, where she was transported to University Medical Center’s Trauma Center.
Steve Brittingham, a captain with the Nevada Division of Forestry with 24 years on the mountain, has watched the crowds in Kyle and Lee increase over many winters. He’s not sure how much more the areas can take before a dangerous, and potentially deadly, gridlock is created on the iced-up state routes.
“It’s pretty much at an unmanageable level at this time,” he said. “The crowds are too great for a very small (snow play) area in a very small mountain range next to a large metropolitan area.”
Brittingham was one of those who came to the aid of the injured teen, whose head injury appeared grave within moments of the incident.
“It was just kids being kids,” he said.
But that’s the point. There are areas on the mountain where trying to have a good time is deadly. Brittingham reminded me that it’s not only teens and children that are getting hurt. He recently came to the aid of “a college-educated guy” who, for some unknown reason, decided to attempt to sled down an icy, vertical chute that led directly to a parked car. Sure enough, he rammed into the car and suffered a concussion.
“A lot of it’s just the nature of the beast up here,” he said. That beast of ice and rocks is compounded by the approximately 20,000 people who come to the mountain in 6,000 cars on the first weekend after a fresh snow.
The obvious answer is to redirect the traffic and shrink access to certain areas, but how do you limit the people’s access to their own public lands?
Very carefully. It’s not as simple as throwing up a fence.
Public safety and overcrowding concerns are good reasons to regulate the crush of humanity on the mountain, and officials I’ve spoken with for years have warned of the dangers during the snow and fire seasons.
And yet, some government bureaucrats cling to the belief the Kyle and Lee recreation areas are actually underutilized. Obviously, these people don’t use the roads on the weekends and have never been stuck in a mile-long line of cars because of a single emergency call along the jammed roadway.
Brittingham, the realist, observed, “People should be allowed to come up here and play if they want, but we’re way beyond our ability to handle the crowds.”
That means visitors will be hearing the call of the wild for a long time to come.
John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. E-mail him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0295.