“It hurt like hell,” said John Urdi over the phone Tuesday morning. “I seriously cried.”
For the past 35 years Urdi’s been rallying people to come ski in places like Attitash, Vermont’s Sugarbush and currently California’s Mammoth Lakes.
Now he’s telling visitors to stay home.
On March 18, Urdi, the Mammoth Lakes Association executive director, sent word via email and social media to people telling them not to visit.
That was aimed largely at 24 million Southern Californians.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom issued a stay at home order March 19.
“We just knew in order to protect our residents and businesses it was the responsible and right thing to do,” he said en route to oversee the second day of a local food bank drive with some $25,000 of donated goods for the largely unemployed four-season ski town.
“The reason is simple: as a small, remote mountain community our health-care facilities lack the capacity to handle a widespread outbreak of COVID-19,” read the statement.
Urdi says the community has seven ventilators and 17 hospital beds.
He doesn’t believe visitors realize the strain they could put on the mountain town's health-care and EMT networks.
“I think they assume they are not going to get hurt,” he said. “We have a ton of people wanting to go to the mountain, the backcountry. But if they break their leg and take up a hospital bed, now we have 16. If they need search and rescue and an ambulance that is one less ambulance for someone who is critically ill.”
Urdi spent 12 years as Attitash marketing and sales vice president from 1993 to 2005. He’s a sushi-loving straight shooting die-hard Red Sox fan. My wife and I last skied with him at Mammoth Mountain in April of 2013.
Earlier this month, Urdi was at northern Idaho’s Schweitzer Mountain Resort for his daughter’s ski race. He caught up with a bunch of Red Parka Pub loving skiers like owner Terry O’Brien and bartender Jerry Montague there on a ski trip. Urdi also hung out with former Attitash president and general manager and current Schweitzer CEO Tom Chasse.
Located in the Eastern Sierra about a five to six hour drive from Los Angeles, Mammoth Mountain is 11,053 feet high. The resort enjoys an average snowfall of more than 33 feet with a season into June.
Urdi got some flack from people for the stay home message. Many second home owners didn’t appreciate it. Others didn’t think the message should come from the tourism sector since it’s supposed to encourage people to visit with “happy messages.”
“That’s why I thought it should come from us,” he said. “If my job is to convince people to come here and I tell them not to come, people will be like, ‘Oh (expletive). If that guy’s telling me than it’s real.’ We wanted shock value.”
He sees the Mount Washington Valley as comparable to where he lives.
“We are similar to the valley in that we have no real agriculture, technology and manufacturing,” he said. “Everybody works in tourism.”
The town is about four square miles with about 8,000 residents. On busy weekends the population can swell to some 40,000 people.
“I think the valley is in the same boat,” he said. “People need to take this seriously. People have to show leadership right now. Shut things down quickly. Be smart quickly.”
On the bright side, when this all blows over he anticipates a surge in visitor returns and he wants his valley friends to know he’s thinking about them.
In the valley, Granite Backcountry Alliance urged free-heelers Monday in a Facebook post to consider the potential impact of travel on small mountain communities and your underlying social responsibility to remain in place for the betterment of the whole.
“We just want people to recreate close to home and limit travel,” emailed board member and Ski the Whites owner Andrew Drummond.
With Tuckerman Ravine season here, the Mount Washington Avalanche Center will continue to forecast avalanches and hazards but posted on its website changes to operations that are designed to protect snow rangers, ski patrollers and the public.
One change is this: “Risk: Consider the added consequences of a trip to the hospital as you make your decisions in the backcountry. Now is a good time to dial it back.”
So start dialing. Just not 911 from the backcountry.