SNOQUALMIE PASS, Wash. — Dylan Currie knows what it’s like to get into trouble in the backcountry.
About a decade ago in British Columbia, on Currie’s very first day of backcountry skiing, another group of skiers set off an avalanche from above that partially buried one of his partners, causing him to break his leg. While the other group went to get help, Currie used basic first-aid skills to stabilize the injured skier and attached ski poles to his backpack so his partner could hang on and ski out behind him on one ski. They reached a road, where rescue crews were waiting, about two hours later.
Currie’s partner recovered, and, as far as avalanches go, their ordeal had a favorable outcome. But for Currie, the experience was a wake-up call, and he decided to pursue more medical and emergency training.
“It was kind of like, ‘Oh wow, that’s what can happen out here,’?” he said.
Today, Currie is part of the Cascade Backcountry Ski Patrol, a group of 70 volunteer ski patrollers who cover out-of-bounds areas around the Central and North Cascades. On a typical winter weekend, at least a dozen radio-carrying patrollers are available at Stevens and Snoqualmie passes to assist with emergencies involving skiers or snowshoers. In their backpacks, they carry much of the same first-aid gear that’s available to patrollers at inbounds ski areas: medical tape, gauze and splints for stabilizing broken bones.
But rescuing someone in the backcountry isn’t always as simple as loading the victim into a rescue sled and skiing down to the base area. Professional medical help can be several hours or even days away, so backcountry patrollers are also equipped with the gear and skills to make an improvised sled or hunker down for a night in the snow.
Born in the 1970s
A group of cross-country skiers started Cascade Nordic Ski Patrol in 1976 with the support of the U.S. Forest Service. Jonathan Olds, whose father was a patroller at Hyak (now Summit East) in the 1970s and ’80s, was first drawn to the Nordic patrol because it was seen as a counterculture alternative to the inbounds crew. He joined in the early ’90s.
“It’s a way of contributing and doing something you love doing,” he says.
Over the last couple of decades, advances in equipment and easier access to information has drawn more and more skiers into the backcountry. The patrol, meanwhile, has grown in numbers and shifted its focus to align with the growing popularity of alpine touring, changing its name to the Cascade Backcountry Ski Patrol in 2005. (Alpine touring is rooted in cross-country skiing but uses an alpine ski with a binding that lifts up for uphill travel and locks in place for downhill turns.) Today, the patrol works closely with local search-and-rescue organizations and also provides education and data collection on behalf of the Forest Service.
Andy Hill, the group’s assistant patrol director, thinks the increased accessibility of backcountry skiing is generally a good thing. Most people who get into the sport are doing so with the proper equipment and safety training, Hill said. But more skiers means a higher likelihood of accidents, “just by the numbers game.”
“The whole threshold for danger has continued to move,” he said. “All those things that were once out of bounds for us are now pretty much in play.”
A training day
On a training refresher day at Snoqualmie Pass in early December, about 60 patrollers broke into small groups to run through a handful of rescue scenarios that are common during winter in the backcountry.
Zane Davis, the son of a patroller, acted as an injured skier who was stuck in a patch of trees. The first team on the scene evaluated Davis’ injuries and bundled him in a sled with a sleeping bag and tarp to protect him from the cold air and steady rainfall. A second team of patrollers attached ropes to the sled and devised a way to securely lower him down the steep, slippery slope.
Elsewhere on the mountain, another team practiced searching for avalanche victims using transceivers, probes and shovels.
Along the way, the volunteers worked through the challenges of radio communication, talking to witnesses, and balancing the medical needs of multiple victims. It’s not the only training the patrollers get (about 100 hours of first-aid, CPR and mountain-rescue instruction is required), but the day allowed them to refresh their skills and apply what they’ve learned to a group-rescue scenario.
“It’s just like anything. If you’re not using it, you can get rusty,” Olds said.
A couple of weeks later, several patrollers had a chance to put their training to use. A backcountry skier crashed into a tree between Snow and Source lakes — a popular area for winter recreation at Snoqualmie Pass — and suffered a pelvic injury. Working with other search-and-rescue crews and Snoqualmie patrols, volunteers from Cascade Backcountry Ski Patrol used a full-body vacuum splint and custom-built toboggan to ski and pull the injured man about 1½ miles back to the parking lot, where medics were waiting.
Not just rescuers
The mission of the Cascade Backcountry Ski Patrol goes beyond rescuing people. Like inbounds patrollers, they are available to answer questions about the terrain and conditions. They also help keep other backcountry users safe by engaging them in friendly conversation about their gear and travel plans.
And, as the U.S. Forest Service’s resources have dwindled, the volunteer patrollers help rangers collect demographic data — how many people were out, their mode of travel (ski, snowshoe, hike, snowmobile), and where they were headed. All of that information helps backcountry users justify the need for winter access and resources.
“It’s a symbiotic thing,” Hill said.
There are personal rewards to the experience, too. Kasia Nowinski started as an inbounds patroller in 2005, following in her father’s footsteps, and is now in her first season as a full backcountry patroller. Nowinski, who lives in Mount Vernon, said she appreciates how the group has connected her to ski partners with similar levels of experience and safety training.
“It’s nice to give back and help out, but it’s also a group of like-minded people to ski with,” she said.
For Hill, volunteering is something that helps him continue to find fulfillment from a sport he’s loved for many years.
“You do something for your own purpose . and then after a while, you kind of scratch the itch,” he said. “You’ve got to give back for it to stay around. It’s a big circle.”