World Cup – Helicopter Rescue

When ski patrol responds to any accident on the ski hill, they generally respond with a toboggan that will allow the patroller to package the patient and transport them to one of our two infirmaries. On your average groomed run, one patroller is enough to package and transport the patient. On steeper or more complicated terrain, two or more can be used – one to “drive” the toboggan, and the others to act as belayers, holding a thick rope that’s attached to the rear of the toboggan. This is especially important in bumpy terrain, since at times only parts of the long metal steering fins are in contact with the snow, and a loaded toboggan has a tendency to swing around and end up on the downhill side of the driver if those fins aren’t digging in.

A belayer can also be helpful when the terrain is icy, since steering is more difficult on firm surfaces. A belayer can help moderate the speed while keeping the toboggan pointed the way it’s suppose to be going. If edging is uncertain for the patroller, each toboggan also has a chain that can be deployed as a brake.

When it comes to icy conditions, there’s no better example than the course set up for the World Cup speed events that are currently taking place at Lake Louise. Racers love a hard, icy course, and crews will even inject sections with water to make them even harder. And while this may result in ideal racing conditions, it is not ideal for the patroller looking to transport an injured racer off the course in a toboggan. It can be extremely difficult to control speed and direction, even with a belayer. Even if it was an option, it would be slow process to ensure the safety of patrollers and racer. Time is an issue since it delays the race, and could also compromise a more serious injury if the racer doesn’t receive prompt care.

During the Men’s speed events this past weekend, one racer crashed and injured himself enough to require evacuation from the course. As soon as the racer crashed, the rescue team jumps into action. Ski patrollers stationed on course get to the patient first, assessing the injury and performing any required first aid. At the base area, the helicopter pilot starts his machine, and the public safety specialist from Parks Canada prepares the long line that will attach him to the belly of the helicopter. Within minutes, they’re in the air, and the pilot flies to the location of the injury and places the rescuer on the ground close to the patient. Once the rescuer is detached from the long line, the pilot climbs higher to avoid blowing snow all over the scene, but stays in the area so he’s ready to pick up his cargo.

Once the injured racer is stabilized, rescuers package him on a backboard and inside a bag that will cover him as he is flown through the air. The Parks rescuer then signals the pilot to return, and then he and his patient are attached to the long line and slung back to the base area, where a doctor awaits to provide further treatment. On standby at the base is an ambulance, which will be used if the patient needs to get to the hospital in Banff. For more serious injuries, a second helicopter is also on standby to transport the racer directly to Calgary if needed. This allows the first helicopter to remain on site so that racing can continue.

Injured racer is flown off course and down to the base.

Parks Canada public safety warden with bundled patient.

If transport to Banff is required, but time isn’t a big issue, then ground ambulance is used. Even though the helicopter has one side of its seats removed and can accommodate a patient on backboard, there isn’t much space for the doctor or paramedic to work. So, despite its obvious speed advantage, the helicopter isn’t always the best way to go. Ambulances have much more room and equipment, and medical staff have much greater ability to deal with complications as they arise.

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