Words by Matt Coté
Eight years ago, at the bottom of a giant, beautiful mountain my long-time friend Andrew Jones and I were about to climb and ski, he turned to me and asked, “Hey, do you know what to do if I get hurt?” We’d been backcountry skiing together forever, so his question gobsmacked me. Not because it offended me, but, because… I kind of didn’t.
One week earlier, Jones—an avalanche and visitor-safety technician in Glacier National Park—responded by helicopter to a badly injured avalanche victim in Rogers Pass. It turned out to be one of his best friends. The guy had been pummeled down a 400-metre rocky couloir by hang fire (the unstable upper fragments of an avalanche crown). He suffered a broken femur, shattered thumb, five broken ribs and a partially collapsed lung. He survived because, even though he and his group made a mistake, they knew how to deal with it. They had first-aid training—and kits—and stabilized their friend until rescue came. Just as important, they had a way to call for help, and knew who to call. The technical term for arranging all these things in the right order is called triage, and they nailed it.
So when, a week later, Jones straight-up asked me if I could do the same for him, I understood why. But it was still stunning we’d somehow never gone over this before. He was a bona fide rescue professional; I was then a ski-shop manager and part-time writer. Any deficiency in our group would point in my sole direction. Save for an old Avalanche Safety Training (AST) course and basic two-day first-aid course, all my mountain experience was informal. I could probably remember CPR, I had a way to call for help, I had a calm head, loads of common sense, and a couple years of experience helping patrollers package wrecked mountain bikers in Kicking Horse Mountain Resort’s bike park. I offered this mess of an answer to Jones, tripping over my words.
It passed, but just barely. Really, we both knew it wasn’t good enough. The indictment stayed with me all season, like a hot wound. So the next fall, before the first snow hit the ground, I signed up for an 80-hour first aid course—even though I’d never use it professionally. It was expensive, it was hard, and it consumed two weeks of my life at a time when I didn’t feel I had two weeks to spare. Basically, it sucked. Except I now had my partners’ backs.
We talk a lot about avalanche education in our sport, and that’s great: the best first line of defense is always to not make mistakes. But we’re human, we’re going to make mistakes. That’s why first aid is as critical as avalanche education. Yet it’s critically overlooked by far too many of us. That’s a cultural problem. For some reason, we don’t express urgency for first aid the same way we do for snow knowledge. But it’s not all our fault: there are basically no joint recreational avalanche and first-aid course opportunities out there. There’s nothing to prompt us to get first aid savvy along with snow savvy when we’re just weekend warriors. Even though being one without the other is like having a transceiver with no shovel or probe.
In the words of my friend Jones (now an avalanche technologist for Glacier National Park), “People think once you’ve got the person out of the snow the rescue is over. But what just happened should have taken less than 10 minutes. Now you’re into a possibly multi-hour part of the rescue. To move them out of that situation, and to stabilize them in that situation, is so difficult. If you’re not ready for that and you haven’t thought about it, it’s going to be problematic.”
That’s the reality for even the most casual backcountry user. So maybe the industry will wise up at some point and bridge the training gap for recreational skiers. In the meantime, 20-, 40- and even 80-hour first-aid courses (along with refreshers) will continue to be daunting side projects. But, however gruelling the process, it’s on us to have each other’s backs.