By G.D. Maxwell
Humans are complex, messy systems. Like any complex, messy system, humans sometimes screw up, fail, crash and burn. When they screw up, fail or crash and burn on Whistler Mountain, Ski Patrol gets the call and is first on the scene to render aid and assistance.
Like all sports, skiing includes some inherent risks. It says so right on the lift tickets, on the posters next to the ticket windows, on the signs next to the lifts and on the towers on the way up. Funny though, you wouldn’t think it’s risky given the way many people approach to it. They arrive on top of the mountain hung over, out of shape, inflexible and unaware of snow and weather conditions. They strap slippery six-foot boards onto their feet, point ’em downhill, and go like crazy. Some get hurt.
Surprisingly, they get hurt in relatively small numbers. Ski Patrol on Whistler attend to an average of about 1.7 of them for every 1,000 on the mountain. In the ski biz, anything under 2 per 1,000 is considered a good number. Whistler’s number is very good and has been trending down in recent years.
While credit for this record can be shared between the folks who lay out the runs, the groomers, trail crew and even the quality of skiers who tend to visit the mountain, Ski Patrol plays a large role in preventing accidents from happening as well as attending to them.
Between 80 and 90 times in an average ski season, this means being on the mountain extra early and lobbing up to 200 kilos of dynamite into unstable snow. Patrollers Anton and Jan, who double as Whistler’s weather forecasters, co-ordinate the bombing. The controlled avalanches they oversee mean we can ski the alpine bowls without becoming part of them.
There hadn’t been any recent bomb blasts when I joined ski patrol for a day last week to see what they do. The days had been sunny and the forecast was for Spring. The snow was stable and had been around long enough for me to be on a first name basis with it.
So when I arrived at the Alpine Bump — Patrol’s main mountain headquarters — the morning was beginning to unfold at a leisurely pace. Brian Leighton, Whistler’s Safety Manager, introduced me to Bernie Protsch, the head of Ski Patrol, and explained I’d be lurking around, probably getting in the way, but all in the name of journalistic enlightenment.
After Bernie assured me it would be an exciting ride, the day began with morning briefing. Current and expected weather was reviewed, snow and run conditions discussed, the need for seasonal signage explained, first aid training courses announced, and work details handed out.
I joined Kyle Lee for his work run. We followed the trail where Little Red Chair used to be, to Pony Trail and down to Redline. Work runs are another preventive measure to ensure we can ski down the mountain without encountering obstacles any more foreign than other skiers. Bamboo stakes and ropes are repositioned and tightened to block off potential impediments to forward motion. Signs are posted to warn of marginal conditions and hidden dangers. Other signs, too often ignored, identify slow skiing areas.
Riding back up on the chair, Kyle explained he’d been patrolling for six years, the last two on Whistler. Not surprisingly, like most patrollers, he got into it because he loves to ski and, with paramedic training, likes working with banged up people. But maybe most of all, he said, "The best thing about this job is, when I punch in in the morning, I have no idea what I’m going to be doing. It just happens."
It was 9:30 when we got back to the Bump and the mountain was quiet, no early injuries. Despite the calm, the room was busy. One group was preparing for a first aid session, another was putting the equipment together to practise chairlift evacuation. Around the room, in twos and threes, patrollers were discussing injuries they’d treated, or questioning each other on procedures they’d performed or quizzing the doctor in residence that day — the Doc du jour — on more complex medical conditions.
Hanging around the radio, like a vulture waiting for carrion, I asked Lise Anne, who was filling in on Dispatch, about procedures when calls came in. "The most important thing is to get someone on the scene as quickly as possible. They’ll carry basic first aid in their pack, do the assessment and call for whatever back-up they need," she explained.
If the injured skier needs more than basic first aid and assurance to get down the hill, the patroller can call for different forms of assistance. A "code 1" call brings a toboggan with enough gear to splint injured limbs and, as with all calls, oxygen, if requested. A "code 2" sled will be loaded with a back board and cervical collars for possible back and neck injuries. Code "3" is serious business and will include a doctor pack — a cornucopia of drugs, IV bags, and emergency intervention equipment — and, if at all possible, the doctor.
Since nothing much was happening, I decided to make my way to the other Bumps on the mountain. The Peak Bump, just to the right of the Peak Chair terminus, houses a rotating staff of two or three patrollers. They are the first to respond to injuries in Whistler and West Bowls and the terrain in between. Since this terrain is pretty self-regulating, as in not very attractive to people without the ability to ski it, the Peak Bump isn’t the hotbed of activity you might expect it to be.
This day, Peak Bump was pretty slow. Harmony Bump, at the top of Harmony Express, was too. But when I got back to Alpine Bump, around 11 a.m., things started happening. The first customer was an unfortunate sightseer who’d stopped for a bite at the Grease & Go on the way up. By the time she’d gotten to Pika’s, breakfast was preparing for the second coming. Treatment consisted of letting her do what came naturally, letting the doctor dose her with gravol, and warning her about eating at a restaurant with "Mom’s" in the name.
Ten minutes later, more walk-in business. A fallen skier had used his sharp edges to carve his thigh instead of a perfect turn. The laceration was long and deep but came up short of muscle. Sometimes it pays to carry a few extra pounds. He was cleaned up, bandaged up, taped up and back out skiing in 45 minutes. After all, it was the first day of his holiday. As he rejoined his friends, I heard him say, "Boy, I bet that’s gonna start stingin’ around Miller Time."
About 11:30, almost simultaneously, a sprained shoulder and a twisted ankle limped through the door. Since they were on two separate people, the examining rooms were beginning to get really crowded. And I was beginning to think the Bump was a walk-in clinic. Then a call came in: skier down on Enchanted Forest, patroller in attendance, code 1.
I followed Tim Rickli out the door. He grabbed a toboggan and splint bag and tossed me a bag containing a cylinder of Entonox, a 50-50 mix of nitrous oxide and oxygen. Half way down the upper pitch of Enchanted Forest, we found Joe Lammers attending a British visitor with a dislocated left shoulder.
Joe administered the Entonox — the mixture relieves nausea and imparts a sense of well being, if not pain relief — while Tim prepared an inflatable splint. Half an hour later, they’d managed to immobilize the injured skier’s arm and manoeuvre him into the toboggan with as little discomfort as possible.
Joe drove the sled down while Tim and I packed up unused gear. As we started to ski down, Tim began saying something about the conditions being pretty good for that kind of injury. He didn’t get the full sentence out. Just over the next roller, a woman was lying face down, a small crowd around her. She and another skier had broken the law of physics about not being able to occupy the same space at the same time.
Her penalty for breaking that law was a pretty good blow to the back of the head. The other skier got off with a serious worrying. Tim examined her head and neck, took her pulse, quizzed her as much for coherence as history, and called in a code 2. By the time we carefully got her on her back, Atsu and Dave arrived with the sled.
They fitted a collar around her neck, rolled her up on one side and got a back board under her. Her arms, legs and head were isolated with rolled blankets and she was gently lifted into the toboggan. Later in the day, Tim discussed his decision. "It was a judgement call. She probably wasn’t hurt that badly, but you don’t want to take that chance with head and neck injuries. I’d rather do the safe thing."
Back at the bump, waiting for another call, I cornered Matt Rodgers. I’d been told Matt had an interesting story to tell. Matt was a bit reluctant to tell it and when he did I could understand why. It was more than an interesting story. Hell, it was more than two interesting stories.
I had heard, a couple of weeks back, there was a man, an older gent from Sweden, lost on the mountain. I knew he’d been found but that was all the story I’d heard. As it turned out, he’d been the subject of a significant and fruitless search in the hours after he’d gone missing. Day turned to night and no trace was found. On a hunch, Matt took another look off the old Blue Line road, above the weather plot. The 71 year old was hanging, head downhill, covered with branches, in deep woods. Chances are good he wouldn’t have survived the night.
This in itself was meritorious, if a bit spooky, but the story got better. Matt’s been a patroller for 16 years. He’d never had an experience like that before. Except two weeks earlier he’d found another person. This one wasn’t even missing. She was a young snowboarder whose friends were boarding in front of her in West Bowl. They never saw her fall into the treewell and get stuck, head first. No one saw it; no one reported it.
On his way to another call, Matt noticed something unusual. It was her. She was grey, unresponsive and not breathing when he dug her out. Today, she’s pink, breathing and unbelievably lucky. Five minutes earlier or five minutes later, the story would have had an unhappy ending. And Matt’s got quite a story to tell, if you can get it out of him.
I was still pondering the nature of luck when another call came in. I stepped into my skies and flew down the hill after Rick Lowe. Going from a sitting position to flat out has to be one of the harder parts of patrolling. A boarder had taken big air. "He flew real good, dude, but he missed the landing," one of his friends explained.
He’d been unconscious for five minutes but had come to and was being worked on by Dave McPhee when we got there. Nick showed up with the sled and it took everybody’s best efforts to isolate him on a back board and get him into the sled.
On the ride back up, Rick explained, "A lot of times, people with head injuries get combative and unco-operative. It comes with the territory." Rick is one of about 60 volunteer patrollers. The vollys work a day a week in exchange for a pass. Ski patrol, with about 40 full-time patrollers, couldn’t do the job without them. They meet the same qualifications: strong skier, occupational first aid certificate, knowledge of mountaineering techniques, snow and avalanche understanding, good interpersonal skills. Oh yeah, and it helps if they’re comfortable with dynamite.
Meanwhile, back at the Bump, it was time for the sweep. The upper mountain had already been done and I joined Lise Anne to sweep Whiskey Jack and Ptarmigan. On the way down, we’d stop every so often and shout into the trees, "HELLO. THIS IS THE SWEEP." The mountain reverberated with other voices, other shouts. A few stragglers were accompanied to Olympic station but mostly the mountain was still in the growing alpenglow.
It was a long day. It was an interesting day. It’s a damn hard job. And I’m glad someone’s doing it.