My first backcountry tour was one of the most terrifying and eye-opening experiences I’ve EVER had in my life. It was a rude wake-up call. It raised the question, “Even with avalanche training, how well prepared are you when things go sideways?” Besides avalanche training, EMT certification is something ALL of us should have not just for skiing but for heading out into the wilderness be it hiking, biking or even camping. Luckily in the end, it was a great learning experience for everyone involved.
Note: All the student’s names in this article have been changed to protect everyone’s identity.
The Final Descent Is Oh So Sweet
After three full days of learning non-stop, it was finally time to get some skiing in. The next question comes up: “Movie Screen” or the “Glades?” Multiple people raise their concerns about the “Movie Screen” line being too steep for them. So, we as a group decide to split up since we have radios and the snow is relatively safe. Our group decides to drop into the “Movie Screen”. Turn after sweet turn comes easily as we slash our way down this perfectly pitched face. We slap high fives at the bottom and hike our way to the next descent point, only about a thousand yards away. We regroup and one after another drop down into the last face. The snow is thicker and stickier than the top. You could feel that we were a little too late that day.
It’s No Longer A Drill… This Is Real!!!!
Everyone is waiting at the bottom except for Sean, the tail gunner, and the last person in the group. Over the radio we suddenly hear a calm Sean say, “Um, we got an emergency.” We all think, “Are you kidding me, another drill? We’re exhausted and just want to go home.” With a solemn face, Richard confirms that this is no longer a drill. This is real! Richard gives everyone the option to leave since a few of us have work commitments we need to be at. The entire crew looks at each other and agree that the right thing to do here is to stay and help. Staring up at the massive hill we had just skied, we begin to climb back up to Sean and Mary. Looking around at everyone, the group disintegrated into pure chaos. Some were going straight up, while others zigzagged one way or another.
Broken Leg??? Real-life Backcountry Emergency
As we reach Sean and Mary, our concerns became confirmed. She had broken her leg. We were soooo close to finishing up the weekend backcountry tour and heading home but yet so far. Only a mile away from the Visitor Center, we could SEE the building but it could’ve been Antarctica for that matter. We had a team-member with a broken leg which meant a challenge to get out. What were our options? Fortunately, Richard and Sean were prepared. Richard made the decision to ski out and talk to the on duty National Park Ranger to see if we could get a sled while Sean stabilized Mary. Sitting there, we try to comfort her with some jokes and help keep her warm. After about an hour, we get confirmation that a Ranger will be snowshoeing up with a sled so we can snowboard out with our injured person. Two people volunteer to meet the ranger halfway to help carry the sled back up.
What The Heck Is A Dead Man’s Anchor?
While we wait for the sled, we begin to make a dead man’s anchor to help lower the sled safely to where she is lying. Most of us in the group stare at Sean when he utters those words. “What the heck is a dead man’s anchor?” It’s when you bury a pair of skis, tied with a rope, deep in the snow to make sure we don’t lose the sled as we lower it down. Wow! All I can think of is how unprepared for the backcountry tour I really am. Over the radio, we hear Richard asking if we should call for a helicopter. With the sun setting, time is of the essence. We get confirmation that a helicopter is on its way.
Woop, Woop, Woop – A Helicopter Approaches
Before we can see it, we can hear it approaching. *woop**woop**woop* The sound echoes off the surrounding peaks. In the distance, a small speck appears becoming bigger until we can see it’s the helicopter. Doing a large swoop over us, it doesn’t even attempt to land. Our hearts sink. The pilot is uncomfortable with landing on the side of the mountain. “What are we going to do?” Over the radio we hear that the California Highway Patrol also has a helicopter in the vicinity and can attempt a rescue. We see another helicopter approaching. Hovering only 50 feet above us, they lower the basket to her and help load her into it. As they slowly rise from the side of the peak, she dangles hundreds of feet off the ground as they fly her out. They safely land at the visitor center so that they can actually put her inside the helicopter for the ride to the hospital.
With Darkness Coming We Need To Move Quickly
As we wave our goodbyes, we can tell the amount of sunlight is dwindling quickly. Both Sean and Richard yell for all of us to pack our bags and gear up quickly. Darkness in the backcountry is very different than at home. Once it goes dark, everything becomes a bigger challenge. Geared up and with lanterns on our heads, we slowly snowboard down the cat track. In the moonlight, we skin the remainder of the way down to the parking lot. The plan may have been to leave at 3:00 p.m., but when an emergency happens on a backcountry tour, your 9-5 work life takes a back seat to leaving safely.
Was It Worth It?
In the end, this class couldn’t have been a better learning experience. It taught us a ton about avalanche safety, but the real danger isn’t just avalanches… it’s the backcountry as a whole. Besides understanding the snowpack, it’s a good idea to take a Wilderness and Remote First Aid Course as well. Sean’s words continue to ring in my ears to this day, “Hope for the best and prepare for the worst.” This is something all of us should consider when playing in a place as dangerous as the woods. And, it’s always a good idea to be surrounded by individuals that are calm and collected.