Backcountry skiing is dangerous. Avalanches are our primary concern, so we gear up with beacons, probes, shovels and airbag packs. But what about conventional injury? Do you pack what you need to treat broken bones, debilitating illness, or have the means to move an immobile victim out of harm’s way? I experienced this scenario on a recent ski tour and it opened my eyes at how unprepared I am. So below I’ve made a list of the backcountry ski rescue gear you didn’t know you need.
It was a warm, sunny day in Big Cottonwood Canyon when my buddy, Mason and I toured in Powder Park, located within Mill D North Fork. After a few runs on low-angle terrain, we decided to head home around noon. While we were exiting, I stopped because I thought I heard something. Listening, I heard it again – a woman on the mountain crying out for help. We quickly put skins back on our skis and climbed to her. The woman was with her boyfriend and she was lying in the snow, screaming in pain. She had broken her leg.
Luckily, a local backcountry ski guide was also in the area and he had a Garmin inReach to call for rescue (since there was no cell service). The problem was our location. The victim was lying on a slope with nowhere for a helicopter to land. We needed to get her to a more open, flat place. That’s when the guide reached into his pack and pulled out rescue gear that made all the difference for the victim.
Backcountry Ski Rescue Gear
Sawyer SAM Splint
The first thing we had to do was split the broken leg so the victim could be moved without causing too much pain. The guide had just the thing in his pack – a Sawyer SAM Splint. It has an aluminum alloy core sandwiched between 2 layers of closed-cell foam to provide support. The Sawyer SAM Splint can be used on nearly any bone and folds up small enough to fit in a first aid kit.
Collapsible Ski Poles
Most backcountry skiers I know already use collapsible ski poles. But if you don’t, consider this: your poles can be used as a splint as well. In addition to the SAM Splint, the guide took the victim’s poles and split them apart, then used the top sections to further stabilize the leg. I’d suggest the Black Diamond Expedition 3 ski poles because they break down into three sections for even more versatility and utility.
While most splints are held together by medical tape, in the backcountry there is one thing every skier should have in their packs anyway – a bunch of Voile Straps. With the SAM Splint and ski poles, we used a half-dozen straps linked together to cinch everything down. The setup made the victim’s leg totally immobile so we could move her without causing further injury. I keep a minimum four straps in my pack, but it’s a good idea to carry even more in a variety of sizes.
Brooks Range Eskimo Rescue Sled
The piece of gear that wowed me the most was the Brooks Range Eskimo Rescue Sled. This one-piece “drag bag” packs down small so it easily fits into a backpack. Using the victim’s skis to stabilize the sled, it’s a no-frills but effective way to transport someone either lying down or sitting up. There is no assembly required, and the Eskimo Sled is designed with a center of gravity to aid stability.
The patient is protected by a water resistant, breathable snow guard against rope abrasion and snow drift. The Eskimo Sled features both front and back tow loops, as well as eight head and side handles to carry the patient. In addition, the Eskimo Sled can be used as a bivy sack, gear sled or an emergency shelter.
In our case, we had to move the victim downslope to a more open area where we could dig out a landing platform for a helicopter. With the woman packed tight and her skis placed inside for stability, the guide and Mason carefully skied her down to the landing zone. Without the sled, our ability to move the victim would have been severely hampered.
Of course communicating with rescue crews is of utmost importance. But what if you have no cell signal? The guide had a Garmin inReach that allowed him to send out an SOS and communicate the victim’s location to responders. Within about an hour, ski patrol from Park City skied down from the nearby resort, and a LifeFlight helicopter arrived. We didn’t know it at the time, but Salt Lake County Search and Rescue was also mobilizing on the highway 3 miles away.
I was impressed with the swiftness of the emergency response that would not have arrived nearly as quickly if there was no way to ask for help. The Garmin inReach made that happen.
American Alpine Club Membership
After the victim was flown away from the crash site, I asked her boyfriend if she had good insurance. Medical helicopter rides are very expensive and can ruin a person financially. But she was well covered as a member of the American Alpine Club. Among the many member benefits is $12,500 of rescue coverage. Whether you are rock climbing, mountain biking, hiking, or backcountry skiing, the AAC has your rescue expenses covered as long as the accident happened while you were engaged in human-powered, land-based activity beyond the trailhead.
Membership costs $80 per year for an individual, $45 for students. Family plans are also available at various levels of cost. It’s a small price to pay to put your mind at ease that you’re covered if you ever need to be rescued from the backcountry. As I learned on that day, a simple broken leg is all it takes.
In the end, that woman was very lucky a professional guide was nearby with the tools needed for a successful rescue. I can’t imagine what it would have looked like if it were only myself and Mason who came upon her. Mason did have an inReach, so we could have called for help, but getting the victim to a place where the helicopter could land would have been impossible. The guide and his magic pack of emergency gear made me rethink what to pack into the backcountry.
It’s time to go shopping before my next ski tour.
Am I missing anything? What other emergency gear should backcountry skiers consider packing to treat injury or initiate self rescue? Let us know in the comments below.