Learning First Hand About Emergency Preparedness

Posted by: | November 23, 2010

Skinning up Whirlwind, to get some great turns on the way down.

Last weekend I took Friday off so that I could join in my friend’s annual “Skiing’s Better Than War” trip to the Whistler backcountry for four days.  The trip is a celebration of the gift that others’ sacrifices have given us: the freedom to live our lives the way we want.  The trip is also my friend’s annual start to the ski season.  Four friends in the backcountry, skiing and cooking in a hut with no wood stove: this is how I like to spend my time in the winter!

We spent Thursday to Sunday in the Russett Lake area (which is about 14 kms from Whistler village, off the Singing Pass trail).  It was an adventure, to say the least.  We were able to spend two great days of skiing, one long first day of slogging in with too much weight on my back, and then the final night of our trip, we were given a surprise.

On Saturday morning, we noticed another group of four hiking up the Banana Chute of Mt. Fissile, which is an impressive mountain right above our hut.

View from Friday's skiing on Whirlwind. The beauty in the backcountry is truly breathtaking.

It’s an area that we had considered an option, but decided against skiing because of a lack of snow and iffy snow conditions.  It turns out we had good judgement, as a snowstorm hit Saturday afternoon, followed by the sight of a limping skier being helped by his three friends across the valley towards our hut.

So I ended up spending Saturday night and early Sunday morning, tending to a stranger in the hut who had ripped open his hip in a skiing accident.  He had kicked off an avalanche at the top of the chute, which he managed to avoid being caught in, but then skied into some rocks.  I haven’t ever been called upon to do emergency first aid, and I am ashamed to say that I was ill equipped.  My friend, however, had emergency first aid training and led the way for us all, in terms of doing our best to keep this young, charismatic stranger from ending up a dead body in our hut that night.

The party of four strangers weren’t prepared for an overnight stay. They had hoped to ski Mt. Fissile and return to drink a beer and eat burgers in the Whistler village that night.  Instead, they had a few small (useless nutritionally) trail mix bars between them. They maybe had one good down jacket, beyond the clothes on their back.  The hut we were staying in had no heat source, so if we had not been there, with gas stoves, hot food, water, down sleeping bags, I know that the three uninjured guys likely would have lost their injured friend, and possibly could have faced frostbite in their own hands and feet as well.

I have always envisioned that if I were to get hurt in the backcountry, a helicopter ride would save me.  But that night, in the midst of a snowstorm which turned to freezing rain, a helicopter wasn’t flying to the rescue.  The next day, when it was clear, sunny and wind-free, the helicopter still couldn’t get to us.  We faced the possibility that the injured skier was going to be staying another night with his friends there, but that second night would be far worse. Infection would set into their friend’s wound. We were running out of gas for the stoves that provided hot water bottles and warm food. We were out of the majority of food.  We could leave some of our supplies to help them stay warm, but with less people in the hut, there would be less heat as well.

I’m happy to say that Whistler Search and Rescue was able to get a helicopter into the hut around noon, and I was able to visit my newest friend in the Whistler Clinic on Sunday afternoon, after they surgically removed the pieces of rock that were embedded around his femur.  He was all smiles (but that could have been the morphine).  Last I heard, he was at home, with a set of crutches and the expectation that all will be ok after some major healing.

Whistler Search and Rescue doing its job well.

I share this story with you because I want to ask everyone of you: How are you preparing for the worst situation (but planning for the best outcome)? Whether you’re a hiker or a skier or a biker, or spend all your time in the city, I wonder how you’re prepared if the things you expect (like safety and security and good health) all fall away?

Just to let you know what I’ve learned: I’m signing up for my wilderness first aid course. I’m re-evaluating who I’m spending time with in the backcountry: can they save me, if I get injured?  I’m also always being willing to take extra food and warm clothing on my trips (I usually did before), and encouraging my friends to do the same (extra weight in our packs is not an excuse not to be prepared!).

I’m also spreading the word: don’t wait another minute to get prepared.

You can learn more about emergency preparedness (including a First Aid course) at UBC, by checking out our website as well:    http://www.hse.ubc.ca/emergency-procedures

On another note, I received a nice reward for the sleepless, freezing cold night of caring for an injured stranger: my first helicopter ride.

Relief and joy are visible at the end of my emergency backcountry experience and my first heli ride.

Filed under: Suzanne Jolly | Tags: , ,

4 Responses to “Learning First Hand About Emergency Preparedness”

  1. BCP says:

    It was an awesome trip, great skiing, good weather, & good group. Everytime I go out I hope to have a succesful trip like that, but having seen the other side of the coin unfold alongside ours I know that the difference between a good trip & an epic starts at home with planning, preparation, and the right mix of partners & skills.

  2. erin king says:

    Thanks for sharing that story, Suzanne! I thought I’d also share the link http://www.emergency.ubc.ca. It has all the information you could ever need to prepare for an emergency here at UBC.

  3. Mel says:

    Thanks Suzanne! Quite an adventure you had. yikes! I am very glad to hear everyone came out ok, sometimes trying to save another person causes great risk to the rescuer(s). I doubt UBC offers Wilderness First Aid, only Occupational First Aid. I have done both, although now this reminds me that my Wilderness FA has expired, you are supposed to renew every 3 years. It is an excellent course, particularly in teaching skills in how to get people out of remote locations, and how to make braces and other first aid equipment out of anything nearby.
    Thanks for sharing the pictures! I am glad you got a heli ride! What is your next adventure?
    I was at Whistler for opening weekend last weekend. Pretty mild compared to backcountry. Hope to see you in-bounds sometime this season!
    Mel

  4. Dan M. says:

    Thanks for sharing this post, Suzanne! It’s always great to hear of other staff members who enjoy skiing fluffy powder. Your experience definitely reinforces preparedness and taking responsibility for your own risk when heading into backcountry. I did my AST 1 avalanche certification last weekend, which will be helpful in keeping me safe. Perhaps a first aid course should be part of the requisite education as well, certainly not a bad idea in any case.

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