Tyson and I attended the NH AMC ski leader risk and safety training, and here are some of the things we learned.
First we started with an overview of risk. The types of factors to keep in mind are environment, equipment, and people.
Fall on Hillman’s
Last year, a group of friends skied from Gulf of Slides to Hillman’s on Mt Washington. One of the members fell and slid down most of the gully. He required a helicopter evacuation. Full accident report. We used the video retrospective as a spring board for discussions.
Specifically analyzing this incident, the big errors we identified were
- Not evaluating a slope by skiing up it before skiing down it.
- Attempting a slope that had refrozen in the shade.
Backing up to the bigger picture, we focused on planning.
- When you are in the back country, it’s like a chess game. You have to think three steps ahead.
- Make a good plan at home when you have access to lots of resources and have the time to think through all the possibilities. Set a turn around time or other metrics to verify your trip is on track.
- If you do replan out in the woods, make sure your new plan is just as diligent. Don’t get caught up in summit fever.
Then we questioned how to improve our judgement. And how to handle defeat.
- Go out for a beer (or other social context) right after a trip to discuss the trip with the other participants. What wouldn’t you do again next time? Are there any decision that only worked out because of luck?
- Be supportive when friends make the hard choice to turn back.
Leaders demonstrated their favorite ways to evacuate an immobilized skier. Of course, the absolutely preferred option is ABC. Ambulate Before Carry. On Tyson’s 2013 Oakes Gulf trip, one of the participants broke her ankle on the way out. By leaving her foot in the boot, she was able to limp out. That kept everyone else on the trip much safer.
Back to sleds. The first option presented by Ted was to use an avalanche shovel with all the nuts and bolts included. The second option was to lash ski poles to the skis and use rope tension for stability. In either case, the key features were
- Rigid bars connecting the tips and tails of the skis. To attach anything here, you have to drill holes in the tips and tails of the skis. The shovel handle bolted on. The ski poles were tied on.
- Then some rigid structure tied between the bindings. Either the scoop of the shovel or more pole pieces. In the case of poles, stretchy ski straps hold really well.
- Torsional stability. The shovel sled used poles lashed on in an X shape. For the pole and cord sled, you cross the cord over between each of the pole segments and pull tension.
For both of these sleds, you then put a tarp, foam pads, and pack on top for the person to sit or lie on. Then you need two people up front pulling ropes and one in back for steering and braking. The problem with both these sleds is the person’s weight ends up dragging between the skis creating lots of resistance.
Scott pulled out an alternative. The $4 flying carpet roll up sled. It’s fast to deploy and slides readily. The only issue is it doesn’t provide as much stability. I am thinking of adding it to my safety gear.
Blood and Guts
Ok, that’s always my response to wilderness first aid. Ick!
All the participants in this seminar are experienced backcountry skiers, so we did not focus much on hypothermia. However, I will here in case you don’t know how to deal with it. Hypothermia should be one of your top concerns on a trip. Always have a foam pad for people to sit on instead of getting chilled sitting on snow. Watch out for people in your group who get the Umbles — grumbles, stumbles, mumbles. There are many fixes to mild hypothermia. Make sure they are eating and drinking. Get them up and moving. Put more jackets on.
Beyond that, I would highly suggest taking a wilderness first aid course. Solo in North Conway offers a good course. But here are some skiing specific tips and tricks that were mentioned.
- Metal edges can cut, so make sure you have bandages to deal with lacerations.
- Wear eye protection when skiing down hill. Otherwise you’ll have to listen to Scott describe sticks poking out of eyeballs. Should you forget that advice, cut the stick short, but leave it in. Then immobilize the stick and cover both the injured eye and the good eye to prevent sympathetic motion.
- You can make an impromptu arm sling by pulling the patient’s shirt or jacket up from their waist and safety pining it to their shoulder.
- You can make a leg splint by securing one leg to the other.
- Always take your pole straps off when skiing downhill to prevent a dislocated shoulder. If you forget this advice, the patient can sometimes get the shoulder back in by raising their hand up and placing it behind their head. Then immobilize it in a sling and ski out.
- Beware of inflammation from injuries cutting off circulation leading to frost bite. Check frequently that the patient can feel and wiggle their extremities.
Poles break and bend. If they bend, put them in the crook of a tree and bend them back. Fixing a break depends on the pole type.
- For aluminum poles, you make a wood core composite at the break site. Cut a half foot of green branch. Whittle it until it fits snugly inside the broken sections. Now your pole is connected together again. To hold it together, wrap the break in metal flashing and tighten hose clamps around the metal flashing to hold it in place. That’s good for another 20 miles of skiing.
- Carbon fiber pole with a clean snap: the above aluminum technique works.
- Carbon fiber pole with a split or crushed area. The carbon still has torsional strength, so all you need to do is hold the fibers together. You can do this with either tightly wrapped duct tape or flashing and hose clamps.
And, if you only have a half mile out to the car, the quick fix is to lash the pieces side by side with stretchy ski straps. Also, always bring a spare pole basket.
Bindings break and pull out. The easiest solution is to bring spare parts for your binding. Also bring a little tee handle screw driver and spare screws. In a pinch, though, people have used duct tape and cord to walk out.
Modern skis don’t tend to break. If they do, you can use some of the flashing to splint them back together.
[Update 2019] For an updated, more comprehensive list, see my post on Emergency Gear for Backcountry Ski Trips.
Then there is the miscellaneous group gear.
- Pack saw for trail maintenance, getting out of binds, and building a fire.
- Substantial knife for repairs and splitting wood.
- Stove or fire starting material.
- Sugary drink mix.
- Tarp for shelter or wrapping up an immobilized patient.
- Bothy bag for better group shelter. (Also useful for lunch time with kids.)
- Dry, functional cell phone that someone can use to call for help when they reach signal.
- First aid kit.
And, of course the personal gear
- Head lamp
- Spare batteries
- Foam pad
- Spare socks and plastic bags in case you fall in the water
- Spare base layer
- Enough warm layers to stand around all night.
- Food and water that won’t freeze.
- Map and compass.
- Sunglasses and safety goggles.