The day was unfolding like so many before. A foot of fresh snow in the last 24 hours made for excellent skiing. It was snowing hard with moderate visibility. We had skied two runs and a third sounded good.
The shot in mind was similar to the last two. But what looked like a well filled-in slope was actually new snow over an old slide that had run to the ground. As I made a ski cut across the upper slope, the bare rock stopped me dead. I was launched headfirst and landed hard upon more rocks downslope. After an initial assessment from my partner, we determined that my back was OK. The pain in my leg was below boot level and I was able to ski out on my own. We covered a mile and descended 1800′. The broken fibula healed well.
It is amazing how things can go from an ordinary day to “we have a problem” in the blink of an eye. I am lucky that my injury was relatively minor. My back was OK and I did not break my tibia. If I was unable to ski out on my own, things would have gotten serious in a hurry. Storm conditions and less then two hours of daylight might have meant an unplanned bivy.
The likelihood of a traumatic injury on a backcountry ski day is low. But the consequences of a winter bivy with a patient going into shock are quite high. We can rely on good judgment, strong bodies, and a little luck to get us home safely most of the time. This experience has made me think harder about not making it home.
American Avalanche Institute avalanche courses focus on terrain, snowpack, weather, and decision-making in avalanche terrain. But, what about all the outdoor skills that precede those avalanche skills? A few that come to mind for me are staying warm and dry, carrying the right gear, map reading/navigation/compass use, and first aid skills. We touch on these skills during a Level 1 Avalanche Course, but they are really outside of the scope of the avalanche curriculum. Some of these skills may help prevent an accident, others will be invaluable if and when one happens.
Here are a few ideas for learning some of these basic outdoor skills.
A mentor is a friend or colleague that has skills and/or experience in a particular area. But, a mentor not only has the skill, but is also able and willing to take the time to coach and teach you. Mentors are invaluable in learning outdoor skills.
Time in the mountains in summer:
Winter is a harsh environment where a small accident can become quite serious. Hiking and backpacking in summer allows you to learn to take care of yourself with a larger margin for error if mistakes happen.
Map reading/compass skills:
Practice and mentors will help you learn to use a map and compass. Here are a few online tutorials to help get started with the basics.
There is no substitute for first aid training. A Wilderness First Aid or a Wilderness First Responder course will help you be prepared to deal with injuries/illnesses in the backcountry. Check out Wilderness Medicine Institute for a list of their courses.
Thoughts on gear and preparation for winter touring:
For winter ski tours I think, “What will I do when my injured partner is going into shock, we are a few miles from the road, and a cold winter night is approaching?”
For me it is unrealistic to carry a stove, shelter, and sleeping bag on every tour. But, I do carry a repair kit, bivy sack, 1st aid kit, fire starter, headlamp, cell phone, and some extra clothes in addition to standard gear one would carry on a ski tour.
Injuries could result from a ski accident or an avalanche. In dealing with trauma in winter a 1st aid kit may help, but emergency gear to prevent hypothermia may make the difference. A rescue sled is part of my guiding kit. It is now part of my kit for longer personal tours. Getting the patient out of the mountains is the best option if the conditions and injuries allow. If you can’t get them out, having enough gear to stabilize and keep them warm will help keep a patient alive.
The gear needed to “self rescue” will vary depending on terrain, season, and the group. Knowing that an accident can change circumstances very quickly, being aware of escape options, and having some extra gear on hand will go a long way if things go bad.
-by Don Carpenter