for those in the snow

Knowing when to call ski patrol

Featured Image: Crater Lake Ski Patrol.

Forgive me any spelling errors from my hand trembling but my snow knowledge and experience was seriously put to the test today (Thursday, March 3 2011), and not in a good way.

We all know if something is going to go wrong it’s going to go wrong on your last run or your last day of your ski trip when you’re overtired but want to squeeze the life out of the last bits of pow before you pack those ski boots away till the next season.

This is why I chose not to ski the final run before the lifts closed on a bluebird day in Whitefish Montana last week, knowing I was overtired and that I still had the steeps and deeps of Red Mountain Resort to come.  I wish I had chosen the same today, my last day of a two week USA/Canada ski tour. Let’s just say I must have been a good girl this last year as every time my plane touched down this season it began to snow.

I was welcomed to Sun Valley, Idaho at the beginning of my trip with a three day snow storm followed by a blue bird day just as the helicopter rotors started turning for some backcountry ski fun.  Whitefish in Montana also turned on the goods with uber cold temperatures and lots of dry fluffy powder for the tree skiing they are famous for.

By the time I got to Red Mountain Resort my teeth were sore from smiling so much.  It began to dump the day I arrived and it didn’t stop for days.

Add two and a half full on days of cat skiing at Big Red Cats with expert skiers like world champion Anna Segal and I was totally beat.  Happy, but beat. Waking up this morning to blue skies and a late evening flight home I was happy to take it easy.  Little did I know the day had other plans.

Those who read my column in the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age in Melbourne will know my thoughts on both backcountry and in bounds off piste safety but an innocent decision to ski with a local today ended in a call to ski patrol. I had spent yesterday trying to keep up with a world champion skier for a photo shoot for Powderhound Magazine in some seriously wicked powder terrain in the backcountry and the lactic acid build up in my thighs wasn’t pretty.

You know that dull ache that feels good because you had fun creating it but stops you from doing anything near as fun the next day?  I had it.

Heading up the Motherload chair at Red Mountain I informed my buddy that I was knackered and that my legs were fatigued and could really only take a couple of cruisey mellow groomed runs before lunch on the Paradise Lodge deck on the mid mountain to finish off what had been an excellent trip.

I had gone from expert to latte skier in twenty four hours and I wasn’t afraid to admit it. My friend, however, had other ideas.

Eager to show me the mountain on the only bluebird day I had scored this week (and who can blame her for wanting to show off her resort in near perfect conditions) she took me to where the groomers don’t go and down a black run my legs simply could not cope with.

I, foolishly and blindly followed her assuming she had a trail map in her head as I didn’t have one in my hand. I am used to skiing all sorts of  off piste terrain, some fun some not so fun, and I usually train for twelve weeks prior to any overseas ski trip that will test my energy levels and muscle skills. This trip, however, was a last minute decision and the training just wasn’t done.

So in order to help reduce injury risk I stayed off the booze on the trip but even with a clear head the body is not always able and fatigue can be a killer. If you have been lucky enough to ski Red Mountain Resort you will know the joy of the steep pitch, tree skiing and open powder bowls that make the locals here such damned competent and enviable skiers.

It’s a fantastic resort with hardly a lift queue in sight. We were in  ‘The Slides’, an open area lined by tree skiing on either side.  Half way down my legs were about to give way due to the fatigue I had already acknowledged,  the black daimond terrain was bumped out by skiers who had stolen most of the powder the day before and it wasn’t doing me any favours.

Recognising the increased risk of serious injury I stopped and asked if there was another way out of this area as I simply had to get to a groomed intermediate run. My ski partner, who later admitted she didn’t know the mountain that well, suggested traversing left through the trees until I hit Rino’s Run, a groomed beginner’s run that would take me back to the base lodge.

Trouble was, ‘left’ led not to a groomed run but a series of tree runs on terrain that got steeper and steeper into the Cambodia and Roots areas. Now, I know not to ski the trees alone and I know not to ski off piste terrain without someone competent in that terrain.

I know to keep an eye on my ‘buddy’ and keep them in line of site, to make noise and to listen for noise back and I know to ski at the pace of the slowest person in the group.  Time on snow with good guides has taught me that.

As I traversed across I noted that my partner was below me but was soon out of sight.  My instruction had been to keep going left so I figured she must be doing the same after calling out without a response.

The hairs on the back of my neck went up and I could feel a rising panic as the trees got closer, the pitch got steeper, my legs got weaker and my partner didn’t answer my calls.

Gut instinct told me to stop and this time I did.  Experience taught me that if you can’t see over something don’t ski it and I was now in an area where I could not see the drop below but I could see ice waterfalls to my right which meant I couldn’t traverse back as I was now lower and would surely slip off the waterfall cliff. Put simply, I was pretty much ‘cliffed out’ and there was nowhere for me to go.

I kept remembering the three blokes who went out of bounds at Revelstoke a year ago without a local guide, got cliffed out and took their skis off , two died and only one survived. My thoughts turned to the Aussie snowboarder inPortillo, Chile who got cliffed out in 2008 and took his board off before falling to his death.

I rang a local guide I trusted and knew was on the mountain, Mark Impey from Canadian Ski Quest. I described where I was and got the ski patrol number from him.  I rang ski patrol and again calmly described what I thought was my location.

Their answer?  “Oh, yeah, you’re in trouble, we’ll send someone to get you out of there’.

I asked them to track my friend’s number down and call her to see if she was all right as I had lost sight and sound of her. Little did I know she was already down the mountain, having seen the cliffs ahead of her and gone back right instead of continuing left.

Apparently she called out but her voice was hoarse from illness and clearly I did not answer. I kept my skis on, kept my helmet on, ensured I was close to and above some sturdy strong trees and sat down to wait.

Trouble is I had watched this ski footage the night before of a skier falling off a mountain top and my panic was rising.  So I called my boyfriend in Australia asking him to keep me calm.

Ski patrol arrived.  The wonderful Andy Holmes, a local artist who does good for the community and survived a backcountry avalanche with fourteen broken bones and a second life.

He was calm, assured and attentive just like every knight in shining ski armour should be. Together we got me out of the cliffed out zone, away from the ice waterfall by skiing under logs, through some sketched out trees and down to the bottom of the hill.  By this time I was drenched in fear sweat.

Looking back up at the terrain (and the giant ice waterfall) I had found myself in I could see why.  One wrong turn and I would have been flying home in a body bag.

My ski friend was down there waiting for me on the groomed run below.  I suggested hot chocolate, knowning that warm drinks or warm food helps ground a person in shock.  She suggested my original lunch at mid mountain Paradise hoping it would soothe me but this would involve skiing so I emphatically said ‘no’.

My legs, my legs, my legs, how many times do I have to say my legs!

I suspect we both learned a number of lessons today which will help us in the future and this blog is in no way meant to point the finger as my ski buddy and I both made choices that resulted in me needing ski patrol.

However I was fortunate to know when to call ski patrol, not to let my ego get ahead of me, not to let my legs keep going down a run they couldn’t cope with and to keep my skis on, not take them off.

If this had happened a few years ago when I was less experienced it would have been a different outcome. Each ‘adventure’ in ski resorts and out in the backcountry certainly helps build our experience levels and hone our gut instincts.  Thankfully those gut instincts prevented me from falling off a cliff today on my last run of the season.

Hopefully this blog will help others who find themselves in hairy situations or better yet, prevent them from getting there in the first place.

I would show you the footage of my saviour, Andy and the terrain he saved me from but it would appear my shaking hand didn’t press record on the video camera and I was left with a blank screen (guess I had other things on my mind!)

Have you had to call Ski Patrol? What happened?

Featured Image: Crater Lake Ski Patrol

10 Responses to “Knowing when to call ski patrol”

  1. Mel

    As a 1-run-then-latte beginner married to an extreme expert, i felt physically ill reading this. Big props to you for doing what u needed to do to get home safe. Hope your pulse rate is close to normal by now!

    Reply
  2. Stephanie Beamish

    Glad to hear you got out OK. One thing I have learned over the years is to stop skiing when you’re tired. This is when your decision and risk taking is flawed and you will hurt yourself. My yoga teacher always says – there’s no prizes for injuries! I’d rather stop after half a day skiing, than injure (or kill) myself and never be able to ski again!

    Reply
  3. LexyB

    Bless you Rachael. Wouldn’t it be easier to just go to the movies for some fun? I’m glad I wasn’t with you. Well, mainly cos I couldn’t even get off that magic carpet. But CALL ME SOOOOOOON, we need to chat so I can tell you how lucky you are.

    Reply
  4. Natasha Ridley

    So glad you are ok! There is nothing wrong with calling it a day when you’re tired or otherwise distracted. It doesn’t take much for things to go horribly wrong. And there’s nothing wimpy about taking the chair or gondola down either when conditions are dicey. Learned this the hard way this year when my other half hit some ice, caught an edge and tore his ACL on day 5 of a 5 week ski trip!

    Reply
  5. Bill

    There is an additional problem which has received some attention lately in Europe. Some people delay or refuse to call mountain rescue even when they are injured because they are afraid of being backcharged, especially if they need to be heli-ed out. It is recommended to be properly insured, and to read the fine print on the policy (eg “Off-piste” may only refer to making a few turns off the side of the piste, not backcountry skiing).

    Reply
  6. Lorem ipsum

    Just found your blog via SMH. Spent 2010-11 season at Red and cliffed myself many, many times, even skiing with born and bred locals – including where you were, Sarah’s Chute and others. What makes it an awesome resort also makes it dangerous. Though at the moment it’s a trail running and MTB paradise – though the MTB trails are just as technical as the ski runs!

    Reply
  7. kittykaty180

    Glad u r got out okay. Scary stuff.
    I used to be a pretty decent skier when i was younger, with alot of faith in my abilities. Over the past 5-10 years my knees have both deteriorated due to arthritis, and my quads are very weak. Ive gotten back into skiing after meeting my ski-mad bf three years ago, and expected my abilities to be much the same after a bit of warming up. in 2010, my first ski trip in 7 years, I got half way down a run at Thredbo that i would have previously sped down, my knees gave out and i had to walk the rest of the way down. My knees took a few days to recover. Worse though was the realisation that i was 24, and my knees were in the condition of someone who was 70. The bf and i had been planning a season in Tahoe at the time and when the knee specialist told me skiing would be out of the question pretty much for ever i wasn’t too keen to go(we postponed). Long story short, i’ve kept at it and basically gone back into it with a fresh mind and clean slate, im a beginner again, and im learning to ski differently. Im loving being on the snow even if its only half days on green runs. I just have to keep in mind i don’t want to over do it – im going to try to ski for a long time yet. Though i don’t see myself doing any backcountry skiing any time in the future haha, so luckily when my legs give out Ski Patrol will be nice and close!

    Reply
  8. Angels or demons? Skiers versus patrols | Travel

    […] Bravado doesn’t belong on a mountain and it’s hardly a word you want on your epitaph. Knowing when to call ski patrol is far more important than maintaining your ego – as I personally found out when ‘cliffed out’ in Red Mountain. You can read about my harrowing experience and the man who saved me, and my ego, here.  […]

    Reply

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