The Aftermath – Mt. Rescuers Pay the Price

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Rescuers also pay a price so we can play in the mountains.

backcountry rescue

Large numbers of skiers are socially distancing themselves from ski resorts entirely this winter, but how prepared are they for what lies beyond the ropes?

Avalanche Skills Training (AST) providers have been seeing a significant uptick in enrolment, which has meant a similar uptick in people exploring new terrain. A probe, shovel, avalanche beacon and introductory AST course might begin to prepare you for the terrain you’ll experience in the backcountry, but none of these fully prepares you for the emotional toll of what you might experience when things go wrong.

I spent nearly 20 years as a heli-ski ski guide, at one of the most safety-conscious companies in the business. I worked for an owner who was committed to keeping guests and guides safe in the mountains. We trained often, had detailed safety and rescue plans, and had access to some of the best equipment on the market. Our pilots were highly qualified to fly in mountain environments. If things went sideways, you knew the cavalry was coming, and coming quickly. I also worked with guides who had careers much longer than mine; there were, collectively, hundreds of years of experience around the guides’ table on any given day. Yet, accidents and close calls still happened. I’ve witnessed and experienced first-hand how these sometimes close calls, sometimes tragic incidents can linger and reappear, months or years later. From being “just shaken up” to flashback nightmares, ski guides can be left with undiagnosed PTSD.

Before I started my career as a ski guide I was an instructor, which involved the regular annual migration to Australia for the Southern Hemisphere ski season. The little resort where I worked was only accessible by over-snow transport; all staff and guests stayed in accommodations at the base of the lifts. One night I was greeted at the door by a couple of teenagers telling me their friend had been in an accident. They downplayed the severity, so much so that I agreed to help with what I thought was a minor injury.

As it turned out, the accident was much more serious than they originally let on. They had decided to use the lift tower pad as a toboggan and proceeded to slide, at speed, into the steel tower they had removed the pad from. Their friend had injuries that were far from minor; in fact, his injuries, including major head trauma, were life-threatening. The following hours were a frantic fight to keep the young man alive and airlifted to a higher level of care. Luckily, a resort doctor and one of the ski patrollers knew his way around the small clinic. I was in the room as an untrained helper. At the time I had no first-aid training so I was simply an extra set of hands.

In hindsight, this experience was probably my first real taste of stress physiology, or stress response, a term that refers to the body’s response to any stressful situation. My physical and emotional reaction was very typical of what happens to a person when they go into “fight or flight” mode.

What I remember was a heightened awareness as we performed first aid on the victim. All of my senses were hyper alert. This lasted for the entire time we were in the treatment room, at least a couple of hours. When the patient was finally stabilized and I was able to return to my accommodation, the first thing I did was head for the shower. There I remember one of the most startling parts of the experience. I began shaking uncontrollably and the tears started flowing. At the time, I didn’t fully realize what it was; later I understood that what my body was doing was a natural reaction to the hormonal changes that occur as a result of stress. Essentially, my shaking and emotional reaction was my system’s way of dealing with the epinephrine, cortisol and other hormones that were released.

The big part of the equation that I missed, and possibly the part that’s missed often, is how I handled things in the hours and days that followed. Instead of finding someone trained in dealing with trauma, or even talking with an experienced listener, I went to work the next day, and to the pub that night. I remember the GM of the ski area buying me more than a few beers, which I readily accepted, to say thanks for helping. Then I went to work the following day, and the day after that. I really didn’t give it further thought until another incident, years later, triggered a similar response. It was only then that I sought answers and help.

The incident I’ve described is obviously a traumatic one; it had a cause, a result, and ultimately a positive outcome for both the patient and me. His injuries were visible and external; mine were not. I suspect his physical injuries healed before my emotional ones did. Some chain of events end in tragedy, while others get stopped somewhere along the way and we might experience them as a close call. These are the things that ski guides and patrollers see on a regular basis. It’s not always the big stuff. Sometimes the day-to-day stress of working in a complex, and sometimes dangerous, environment will take its toll. Having the tools and resources in place to help people cope is essential, as is the understanding that this isn’t something that we can soldier on through.

The professional guiding industry is evolving and learning lessons from other front-line professions where stress is a daily way of life. This evolution, I believe, is borne out of knowledge, necessity and sometimes tragedy.

In February 2016, a group of 10 experienced backcountry skiers, along with a hired ski guide, began a week-long ski-touring trip in the mountains near Golden, B.C. An avalanche that was triggered on the first run of the trip tragically claimed the life of one of the group’s members, Doug Churchill. The avalanche, while undoubtedly tragic, could have been far worse. It left scars, both mental and physical, on everyone involved.

In an effort to find meaning and to have more open dialogue, the surviving members of the group started an organization called Backcountry Safe. The goal of this organization is to promote an open exchange of ideas, from professionals and recreationalists alike, to make the backcountry safer for everyone. The experience taught the group some valuable lessons that they’ve shared on their website, like knowing yourself and your group, getting to know your guide, having a plan for when things are going right and when they go wrong, and understanding the role of the guiding certification organization in the safety process.

So what’s the takeaway here? Before you embark on a backcountry trip, or before you start your dream week of heli- or cat-skiing, do you need to do a psych evaluation on your guide? Of course not, but asking a few questions isn’t unreasonable. Do you have a critical incident plan in place and what resources do you have in place if an incident does occur? How open are you, the guide, to input from the group? If you need a day off, is there someone qualified and available who can take your place? If we have a close call, how do we deal with that?

The way a company or individual answers those questions would do wonders for either gaining or eroding my trust. Keep in mind that a rescue plan and critical incident plan are often different documents. A rescue plan deals with the physical and immediate parts of a rescue; a critical incident plan is a way of dealing with the aftermath. If I were involved with, or witnessed, a traumatic event, the last thing I’d want is for those hired to wing it or make things up as they went along. Operations that have resources like professional counsellors on speed dial should be the norm, not the exception, and ones that hold space for their staff and guests to properly deal with stress, in all its forms, need to be the future.  

from Winter 2021 issue

from the archives

Ron Betts
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