Meat Wagons & Courtesy Rides

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.

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One Comment on “Meat Wagons & Courtesy Rides”

  1. ALAN WEBSTER says:

    Surrey , BC – 11 02 03

    Hi guys and gals of the Lake louise Ski Patrol – again ! And especially to “Andy ” who single handedly brought me down from the Grizzly run, in his toboggan- with my right elbow completely dislocated from an unfortunate encounter with some bad ice conditions- and a rather large snow board that came down the same uncontrollable conditions, that I was trying to ski .An unfortunate first physical encounter that I have had with a snowboarder – and conditions that neither of us could handle .

    I am in reasonable condition now – having had very good repairs , initially by Andy on the hill ( it must have been very noisy with all that moaning that I was doing ) and later in the ski patrol hut at the Lake louise ski area . Later at the local Lake louise clinic, Dr Page gave me some initial treatment that allowed me to be driven by my son Cameron to Banff , where more permanent ” reductions ” were completed by Dr Michael Shuster and his very professional staff at the Banff Mineral Springs Hospital .

    I would appreciate knowing Andy’s proper name – as well as the unfortunate snowboarder who ran into me – and who stayed with me until help arrived , and did the responsible thing by reporting the incident at the ski patrol hut- but left before I could properly thank both for their help. – on the day of the incident – Saturday. January 29 th .

    Meanwhile . I will be unfortunately off my skis for the remainder of the winter here on the west coast, but I will be celebrating a wonderful long weekend et Lake Louise with my Calgary family for the annual Heart and Stroke fund raiser – especially on next April 23 rd which will be my 72 birthday !

    Thanks again to all my newfound friends at the Lake louse Ski Patrol – it was a heckuva way to introduce myself – but you all were superb in helping me at my time of need on and off the slope .

    Ps- my ride in Andy’s toboggan was definitely not one of those “courtesy rides ” that this article mentions above – more like the “meat wagon” run – with Andy tying his best to smooth out the run on all that new snow for the meat ( me ) in the wagon!

    Alan Webster


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