Sunday March 22, 2009, marked a special day for the Lake Louise Ski Patrol, and for the larger Lake Louise family as well. Peter Spear, a member of the Canadian Ski Patrol System and Calgary resident, patrolled his last day at Lake Louise after an amazing 45 years on the patrol. With knee surgery quickly approaching, Peter though it a good time to hang up his pack. He fully intends to be back on the slopes once the recovery is over, just not in a patrol jacket.
Peter has seen the Lake Louise Ski Area evolve from two little and separate ski areas into what it is today, and is full of amazing stories about how it was to patrol over the decades. For example, he estimates that over those 45 years he drove 130,000km to and from Calgary, and has ridden a total of seventeen lifts in various places and incarnations at Lake Louise. Peter was also the one who resolved the mystery of where the Paradise Pocket avalanche path got its name when I wondered about it in an earlier post (Avalanche Areas Below Tree-Line).
Much to my delight, Peter has agreed to spend a bit of his recovery time writing about his time patrolling at Lake Louise so that I can post it here. His great memory and deep involvement with the ski area will provide lots of interesting stories, and I look forward to being able to help him share them. His presence on the Ski Patrol will be missed, but we look forward to seeing Peter on the slopes of Lake Louise in the near future.
As the temperature plummets back to familiar territory this season, we are reminded of one of the good things that comes from very cold weather – fewer injuries. This can largely be attributed to the fact that there are fewer people out skiing on cold days, but there are other reasons, too. On cold days, people go slower so they don’t experience too much wind chill, and colder snow is sticky, making it harder to go normal speeds. At the same time, patrol coverage has to be the same as it usually is, since getting to an injured skier quickly and therefore reducing their exposure to cold is crucial.
On any given day at Lake Louise, you’re likely to observe a guest being brought down the mountain in one of our thirty patrol toboggans, and while it may seem a safe bet to assume the guest is injured, there is, to the surprise of many, an equal if not greater chance that they are not in fact hurt, but have broken equipment, or are too tired, too scared, too frustrated, too cold or otherwise unable to continue. Rather than make our guests find their own way to the base, transportation of non-injured guests, or “courtesy rides”, is a service we provide to try and make a day that may not be going that well for someone a little better.
During a typical ski season at Lake Louise, the Ski Patrol will deal with anywhere from 1500 to 2000 injuries. Of these, the vast majority are what we call “green” injuries; that is, stable, likely to remain so, and a visit to a doctor is probably unnecessary. Things like sprained knees, small cuts or abrasions, and even stable leg fractures fall into this category. Next up the scale are “yellow” injuries, which are stable, but there exists a chance that things will change in the next forty-five minutes to an hour. Ambulances are called in these situations, and back injuries requiring backboarding, less stable fractures, and altered levels of consciousness are examples of yellow injuries. Finally, we have “red” injuries, which are unstable and deteriorating. Ambulances are always called, and helicopters may be used as well. Unconsciousness, fractures of major bones (femur, etc), and compromised breathing will get the red designation.
Helicopters can be used for a number of reasons. If transporting the patient by toboggan to the base is not possible (too painful, not fast enough, etc), a helicopter will be used to sling the injured party to our infirmary at the base, where they will be stabilized and transferred to ambulance for the trip to Banff. Contrary to popular opinion, helicopters take as long as ambulances to get to the resort, since they come from Canmore, and the pilot needs to go through a pre-flight routine every time he flies, which takes time as well. It’s getting back to Banff, and sometimes Calgary, that the helicopter really shines, making the trip in fifteen minutes or less, as opposed to a forty-minute drive. Another disadvantage to helicopters is that the paramedics have little room to do their thing in-flight. If the patient is at all unstable, they’ll transport by ground and have all the tools and space they need in the ambulance.
In order to provide thorough coverage at Lake Louise, the patrol each day is divided into four teams, each one responsible for one section of the mountain. Injuries tend to occur to beginner and intermediate skiers and riders, and because most of the runs accessed from Glacier and Grizzly lifts are rated green or blue, this area is the busiest for accidents, and gets the largest patrol team. Another team is stationed at the top of Paradise chair for all runs accessible from that lift. Summit has another team, and while the section they cover is the largest of the four, they also experience the fewest number of accidents. And, last but not least is the team on Larch, which is responsible for runs leading from Ptarmigan and Larch chairs.
It’s quite rare for a patroller to happen upon an injury while making their rounds. Almost all injuries and requests for courtesy rides are reported to other staff, usually lift operators. The information, such as location, description, and nature of injury, are relayed to patrol dispatch, who then calls the patrol team responsible for the area. Except for Larch, there’s always a patroller at the top of each area doing a hut duty so that they can get to any spot in their domain quickly, and with the equipment they need (the Larch patrollers have a snowmobile that allows them quick access to all spots in their area). That’s why you’ll see patrollers at the tops of Summit, Paradise, and the Grizzly Gondola. If you don’t, they’ve just left for an accident, and their backup should be arriving soon to cover their hut. Dispatch will always call the patroller on hut duty to respond to an injury report, though if another patroller is closer they can call them off and respond themselves.
The resort’s main infirmary is Whisky Patrol, which is located near the base of the old Olympic chair. It has four regular beds and a trauma bed, which has easy access to all the special equipment we have and are trained to use. Whisky Patrol also contains the staff locker room and patrol office. Next to the base of Larch chair is Temple Patrol, which, with two beds, is a smaller version of Whisky Patrol. Patients and courtesy rides who end up at Temple Patrol are taken to the main base area by company vehicle traveling down Temple Road, which runs parallel to the Ski Out. This vehicle also facilitates transfers to the Lake Louise Medical Clinic, which is helpful for things like relocating dislocated shoulders and applying stitches. They have no X-ray, however, so all suspected fractures head straight to Banff.
We have a great relationship with the Lake Louise Medical Clinic. Dr. Brian Page holds court there, and comes to a morning patrol meeting once a week to discuss significant injuries and answer any questions the patrollers might have. Lake Louise is unlike many other large resorts, since our closest hospital is not that close, and patrollers must be prepared to treat patients for close to an hour if waiting for an ambulance to come from Banff. Many resorts have clinics or ambulance service right at the base of their mountain, which helps to ensure a quick and smooth transfer.
So, you may ask, what are the craziest injuries we’ve experienced here? While that may be a conversation best left for a lift ride with a patroller, it’s probably safe to say that if you can think of it, we’ve seen it, plus a whole bunch more. Let’s leave it at that as we wish for the warmer temperatures to return.