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Mountain biking on Park City's crowded trails: fun, popular, dangerous

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Park City Mountain Resort
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Park City Hospital sees hundreds of mountain bike crash victims every month. With crowded trails and more accidents in remote areas, emergency service crews have their hands full. A Park City Hospital ER doctor has advice and words of wisdom on what bikers should know when they head out.

Greater Park City is home to more than 400 miles of single-track mountain bike trails. As the area’s population has boomed, so has trail traffic. Between newcomers to the sport, wildlife, and crowded conditions, accidents are on the rise.

Dr. Austin Smith, medical director of Park City hospital’s emergency room, sees it all, including what he calls the worst of the worst. He said the hospital sees about 20 cases each month of level 1 or 2 trauma; that’s the most severe. Overall the emergency room gets 800 visits per month. About a third of those are mountain-bike related.

“These aren't trails made to hurt people," Smith said. "It's folks that are getting onto these trails very frequently that have either never been mountain biking and say, Oh, I can do a Black Diamond skiing so I can do a black diamond on my bike. And maybe they've never been on a bike before. It's usually when people are defying gravity - when they're up in the air and going off these huge jumps. That's when we're seeing a large portion of these injuries.”

He said advancing bike technology is moving people into harder to reach areas than before, and most injuries occur when riding downhill. He named two local trails riders frequently injure themselves on: Tsunami and Tidal Wave.

Smith’s advice to riders new to those, and other steep trails, is to ride them at least once without attempting to get air, to get the lay of the land.

Lynn Ware Peek, a longtime Parkite and expert mountain biker who recently had a serious crash, said more accessible trails contribute to crowded conditions.

“The trails have changed," she said. "They've changed in such a way that the degree of the angle of the slope is much less and so it opens up the sport to many more people. You know, 30 years ago in Park City all of these trails were so steep that it was only the gnarliest of people that can be out there mountain biking. Now it's everyone.”

Smith said the hospital sees frequent head-on collisions between bikers. Those can happen when people aren’t paying close enough attention, not yielding right of way and not knowing one’s limitations.

And then there’s the occasionally dangerous matter of sharing the dirt with wildlife.

“Certainly there are some just bizarre injuries and wildlife is one of them," Smith said. "I have a friend that was riding down a beautiful trail and suddenly there's a porcupine in the middle of the trail and you know, what do you do? When you see a porcupine you slam on your brakes and he said he endoed and almost landed on the porcupine and that would have been a an interesting, interesting injury to see.”

Head injuries are the most common, Smith said. Clavicle injuries are also frequent.

He praised the constant efforts of Summit County Search and Rescue along with the Park City Fire Department to find hurt bikers and transport them safely. Crews with those agencies must use motorcycles, ATVs and UTVs just to locate someone hurt. Then they must use extreme care when moving someone who may have spinal or organ damage.

He offered basic tips for minimizing the risk of a crash, and for maximizing chances of surviving crashes.

Before heading out, confirm bikes are in good working condition. Be ready for big rides by hydrating and having enough energy. Crucially, know your helmet is properly fit and is at its best. Helmets must be replaced after even minor crashes as their effectiveness declines in ways that aren’t visible.

When you hit the trails, above all make sure someone knows where you’ll be. Carry a communication device, and ideally a backup device too. And for especially remote rides, prepare for weather conditions and carry at a minimum, snacks and an extra layer.

Michelle, who joined KPCW in 2021, arrived in Utah in 2018 by way of Massachusetts, where the skiing was icy and the mosquitoes formidable. A former daily newspaper reporter and editor (at the Visalia Times-Delta in CA) and columnist (at The Cohasset Mariner in MA), Michelle has been a writer and editor for decades. She holds a journalism degree from CSU Fresno and has worked as a journalist, freelance writer and web content creator, reporting extensively on education and youth along with general assignment and breaking news.