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Pro Skier & Nurse Lucy Sackbauer Speaks From the Frontlines of COVID-19

Lucy Sackbauer back at the Kings and Queens of Corbet's competition in February. These days she's not skiing all that much, but doing her part as a nurse at her local hospital. Katie Lozancich photo.

With her snowmobile loaded into the back of her truck, Lucy Sackbauer left her home in Sun Valley, Idaho and headed north for what was looking like a winter of a lifetime. For the last few winters, she’s played a delicate balancing act as a professional skier and nurse. This year, her childhood dreams to film and shoot in the backcountry were too tempting to put on hold. With so many things going on, Sackbauer figured she’d have to quit her “day job” as an ER nurse. Thankfully, her hospital was willing to work with her ski schedule. “We’ll see you when you get back,” said her manager right before she left for Canada and Alaska for six weeks. Shifts covered, she packed all her skis and winter essentials into her truck and hit the road unsure of the final destination. Whistler? Pemberton? Alaska? “It was my first time leaving Idaho with my snowmobile,” explained Sackbauer looking back at the beginning of March. While the itinerary was loose and evolving the overarching goal was rather simple: ski, film, and repeat.

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Stop one brought her to Canada, where she connected with the Arc'teryx team for a few photoshoots. After that, she linked up with the Blondes in Whistler to film. It was going well until a wind event shut down the production for a few days. As they waited for the wind to subside, a new problem was brewing. The COVID-19 pandemic began to pick up momentum in North America, and its effects were like cascading dominos. Whistler Blackcomb closed. Her heli trip suddenly canceled. She started to hear rumors that the border would be shut. Realizing that she could be helping back at her hospital, Sackbauer bee-lined it to the border. As she was driving through Washington, she got a call from a co-worker. Fellow nurses were sick from COVID-19, and they needed all hands on deck.

Sackbauer rocking a different kind of kit for the season. Lucy Sackbauer photo.

If that wasn’t already bad enough, her home in Blaine County, Idaho—which encompasses Sun Valley, Ketchum, and Hailey—was leading the nation with the highest rate of infection. Yes, we're talking higher than New York. At times this county of 22,000 people was even on par with Italy and Wuhan, China.

Unfortunately, mountain communities like Sun Valley have been wrongly painted as idyllic spots to ride out the coronavirus pandemic. With all this open space and fresh air, surely COVID-19 can’t come to a place like Sun Valley? Except it has. That mountain paradise where you feel so “safe” starts to resemble your worst nightmare when you discover that rural hospitals only have a handful of ICU beds and ventilators. By April 11, Blaine County tallied 452 COVID-19 cases and five deaths. It’s a haunting scenario playing out in other ski resort communities in California, Colorado, and Utah. Right now Mono County, the home of Mammoth Mountain Ski Resort, leads California with the highest per capita COVID-19 infection rate. Higher than San Francisco. Even higher than Los Angeles. When you factor in the tourism-dependent economies it’s easy to connect the dots. This constant flow of people and travel creates the perfect storm for this invisible wildfire to rapidly spread.

Back home, Sackbauer traded her Gore-tex bibs for a hospital gown. Mittens for yellow rubber gloves. A buff and goggles for PPE. Even though her trip was cut short, transitioning back into nursing was seamless for her. Normally, she works in the ER and post-anesthesia units but to keep healthcare workers safe, her hospital closed the inpatient and surgery units. Only the ER is open now, and when she resumed work all her patients were sick with COVID-19. “It was nice that we could focus all of our time and resources on them because they were sick. They required a lot of attention and were decompensating quickly,” she says. 

Thankfully, both the hospital and community are coping well and taking the stay at home measures quite seriously. “The situation is shocking because we are such a small community, and our resources are limited,” she emphasizes, but people have also really stepped up to do their part. Local small businesses are scheming on how to help their fellow healthcare workers. For example, Wild Rye, a women’s mountain apparel company, launched a campaign they’re calling, “Masks for Mountain Towns.” Through a few different initiatives, the brand hopes to get crucial PPE into the hands of workers in towns like Sun Valley, Truckee, or Park City. Meanwhile, many locals are busy sewing reusable face shields to use at the grocery store or the gas station in hopes of keeping the disease at bay. Signs have popped up around the town thanking the healthcare workers for all that they’re doing. “I feel well supported. Both by the community and my hospital,” explains Sackbauer.

Sackbauer and her co-workers are hard at work caring for the sick in Blaine County. Lucy Sackbauer Photo.

In the streets of Ketchum—which neighbors Sun Valley—a traffic sign displays an eerie message: Be ready to self-rescue. It’s a blunt warning to backcountry users to not stress the medical system. The last thing Sackbauer and her fellow nurses need is someone to come into the ER injured from skiing a dangerous line, which would take away resources from someone dying from COVID-19. This scenario, unfortunately, recently played out in Ophir, Colorado when an avalanche incident strained already limited medical resources, prompting 36 SAR volunteers to find one victim in the backcountry. The victim was found and eventually helicoptered to a hospital. The local Sheriff in Ophir even pleaded for people to start “using their friggin’ heads.

Take it from someone like Sackbauer, who normally is a complete charger on skis—remember when she sent it huge in Corbet’s Couloir? Now more than ever, she argues it's time to tone it back if you’re still playing outside. For her that’s meant picking extra mellow ski tours, catching up on housework, or getting her bike ready for the summer. 

If you're really keen to help your fellow healthcare workers, the easiest way is to stay home and social distance, she emphasizes. If we can each do our part now, then it means that hospitals won’t get stressed to their breaking points. “Also take this time to check in on family, friends, or community members. This is going to be a hard time in regards to mental health, and I worry about it,” she says. Don’t forget to let people know that they’re being thought about—especially if they’re alone right now.

As for her winter, it certainly didn’t pan out the way she was expecting. Sackbauer remains optimistic though. If the world regains any sort of normalcy soon she knows where she’s headed: Alaska. “I still want to go skiing! Who knows what the next few months will bring, but I’d love to get a couple more skiing missions in,” she says. If not, her bike is already dialed and ready to go for one well-deserved mountain bike ride. 

About The Author

stash member Katie Lozancich

TGR Staff Writer and photographer. Fond of bikes, pow, and dogs. Originally from Northern CA, home for me has ranged from the PNW to a teepee in Grand Teton National Park.