SKIER DOWN!

The one question I’m asked more than any other is, “How many of your stories are based on real life?” And the answer is, Lots of them! Many of the incidents in my dinosaur books were even inspired by actual (and usual ridiculous) events. (The adventure with”Vampire Wasps” in Time Jam was actually inspired by a memorable and–yes–painful experience.

Anyway, the ski resorts all shut down early this season, but in a normal year things would have just wrapped up. With that in mind, I’ve attached a tale from my Ski Patrol novel, Outtabounds. This is one that was indeed based on an actual, harrowing, and very nearly tragic incident. (Names and places have all been changed, of course!)

Chopper

A PATROLMAN at the bottom of the mountain was pulling the canvas cover over a snowmobile when he noticed a man approaching. The patroller smiled and said: “Hi. Can I help you?”

“I certainly hope so.” The man spoke with a distinct New Zealand accent. “One of our mates seems to be missing. We were wondering at what point we should push the panic button.”

“Oh? When did you last see him?”

“About eleven-thirty. He skis better than the rest of us, so he nicked off. Our car’s still in the lot and he’s got the keys, so we know he hasn’t returned to the hotel.”

“Have you looked into any of the bars? Restaurants?”

“We’ve nipped in and out, yes, but there’s no sign of him.”

The patroller—a man named Hardman—sighed. Most missing adults eventually turned up at home or in a nearby watering hole. Chances were this one would too. But the car in the parking lot was a disturbing detail.

Worse, Lower Sweeps had already begun: there wasn’t much time left to mount a search.

He took a notebook from his pocket. “What’s your friend’s name?”

“Wendt … Jonathan Wendt.”

“Age?”

“Thirty-eight, give or take.”

“What’s he wearing?”

“Um, red coat, black pants … black helmet.”

“And where did you last see him?”

“About halfway down the run. The one you call … what is it now? Rodeo?”

“Does he have a cell phone?”

“Yes.”

Hardman lifted an eyebrow, but the man shook his head.          “We’ve been ringing him for the best part of an hour, but he hasn’t responded.”

Hardman nodded. “Okay.” He lifted his radio, then changed his mind and pulled out his cell phone. With the amount of information he needed to convey, the phone would be more efficient. He scrolled through his list of contacts, pressed CALL.

The phone rang three times.

“Dispatch, this is Ben.”

“Hi, Ben, this is Jeff. I’ve got a possible missing person.”

He heard a soft curse from the other end. “Okay … what have you got?”

Hardman relayed the information, then heard muffled voices as patrollers at the dispatch desk talked it over.

“Jeff?” Ben finally asked.

“Yes?”

“Can you stay with your guest?”

“Sure.”

“Okay. Why don’t you take him over to the clinic. Call us back from there.”

“Okay. Thanks, Ben.”

Hardman could picture the chaos he’d just created around the dispatch desk. Chances were, the missing man was lounging in a nearby bar, working his way toward a mild hangover. But until he was located, sweeps would be interrupted, dozens of sweepers placed on standby, and plans made to sweep the entire mountain again.

Even as he thought this, his radio rasped to life.

“Patrol Dispatch to all patrollers. We have a possible Code Green”—patrolspeak for a missing person—“stop all sweeps and stand by.”

Hardman looked up into the darkening sky. The sun had already set and it wouldn’t be long before the mountain was cloaked in blackness. Decisions would have to be fast and furious. On top of that—

There was a sudden burst of noise from the New Zealander’s coat.

“Ruddy Rudy,” the man said, fumbling for his pocket. He looked at his phone and shouted, “It’s him!” He punched at the screen. “Hello? Jonathan?”

Hardman could hear a voice, barely audible, rasping from the phone. “ ’Ello? ’Ello? Are you there?”

“Jonathan?” The man from New Zealand practically shouted at his phone. “Jonathan? Is that you?”

“Nathan …”

Hardman could hear the injured man gasping, could hear pain and confusion in the distorted voice.

“Nathan … I’ve … I’ve taken a bit of a spill.”

“Are you all right, Jonathan?”

There was a lengthy pause before the halting voice returned. “I’ve taken a spill, mate. … My head … I seem to be bleeding …”

“Where is he?” Hardman prompted Nathan. “Ask him where he is.”

“Jonathan, I’m with a medic. We need to know where you are.”

They waited, but there was no response.

“Try again,” Hardman prompted.

“Jonathan? Jonathan! Are you there, Jonathan?”

There was no response.

Hardman lifted his radio as Nathan continued calling to his friend.

“Patrol Dispatch, Seven Sixty-two.”

“Dispatch.”

“Ben, we’ve made contact with the missing man. He’s still on the mountain and he’s hurt, but we’ve lost contact again. We don’t know where he is. Stand by and we’ll get back to you.”

Hardman looked at the New Zealander, who shook his head: he’d been unable to regain contact.

 

FARTHER UP THE mountain, Chase listened to the radio traffic: even though most patrollers carried cell phones, important traffic was usually broadcast over the radio so others were able to keep track of what was happening. By keeping informed, patrollers could often anticipate and even prepare for calls before actually receiving them.

Like everyone else, Chase had stopped his sweep; he was standing at the top of a steep, empty run. He knew things would be happening fast. Worst case, everyone would be transported back up the mountain by snowcat or snowmobile so every run could be swept again. If the missing man was not found, helicopters with infrared, thermal imaging, or whatever they used would be called in.

Everyone was in for a long night.

Which would be even worse for the injured guest.

 

NATHAN’S PHONE began chirping and the New Zealander punched at the screen. “Jonathan?”

“ ’Ello?”

“Jonathan? Jonathan! Where are you?

“I … I’ve been trying to … to make my way down the hill.”

“Jonathan, listen carefully: do you know where you are?”

“I’ve reached a lift. It’s closed. There’s no one here.”

“Look for a name, Jonathan! Do you see a name on the lift?”

“Says Quickdraw.”

Hardman stabbed at the transmit button on his radio, completely ignoring correct radio protocol.

“Ben! This is Hardman. The missing man is at the bottom of Quickdraw. He’s hurt, he’s bleeding, he’s barely functioning.”

“Ten-four!”

“Keep him talking,” Hardman urged Nathan. “Tell him to sit down and stay put. Tell him help’s on the way.”

 

CHASE DIDN’T HESITATE. As soon as he heard “Quickdraw”—the lift at the bottom of the box canyon—he turned his skis and shot down the hill. He reached up and keyed his radio as he skied.

“Dispatch, Seven Forty-seven: I’m on the ridge just above Quickdraw. Be there in five.”

He sliced through the snow, feeling neither the wind nor the snow on his face. He topped a rise and spotted a lone figure sprawled on the snow near the bottom of the lift.

Chase swept up to the man, popped off his skis, and knelt beside him. There was blood on the snow, blood on the man’s face, coat, and snow pants. Chase tapped the man lightly.

“Sir? Hello? Can you hear me?”

No response.

Chase glanced at the man’s chest, saw it expand and retract again.

Still breathing!

He popped off the man’s skis, carefully eased him into a supine position, and gave him a quick once over. He noted the blood frozen and crusted around the man’s nose, ears, and mouth, which he recognized as classic signs of head trauma. The bleeding seemed to have stopped. Chase didn’t see signs of bleeding anywhere else, and there weren’t any obvious deformities—signs of broken bones—in any of his extremities.

Chase leaned back and keyed his radio.

“Dispatch, Seven Forty-seven.”

“Dispatch.”

“I’m with our injured guest. I need a trauma pack and backboard, and let’s bring in an air ambulance. We can land it here below the lift. Guest is male, about 40 years old, breathing but unresponsive, probable head trauma. Vital signs to follow.”

“Copy your backboard, trauma pack, and air ambulance. Patrollers en route.”

Because of the severity of the man’s head injury, Chase knew the spine was also compromised. Under normal circumstances he would have directed someone to hold the man’s head still until he was secured to a backboard. But by himself he didn’t have that luxury.

He slipped off his backpack and med pack, then pulled off his coat. He molded this firmly around the man’s head to keep it from moving. That done, he assessed the man’s breathing and heart rate—both elevated as his nervous system compensated for the loss of blood—then made another search for injuries. There was a soft spot on the man’s head—just above the left eye—which Chase recognized as a depression fracture.

He checked to be certain the man’s airway was clear—that it wasn’t obstructed or filled with blood—then began checking more closely for any less-obvious injuries. After several minutes a patroller skied up with a trauma pack strapped to her back.

“Still unresponsive,” Chase reported as the other patroller kicked out of her skis. “Hypovolemic, probable skull fracture. Let’s get him in a C-collar, and then get some Oh-two onboard.”

“Ten-four.”

Two more patrollers skied up. Then three more, one towing a toboggan loaded with additional supplies.

“SkyRescue is inbound,” one of the new men reported. “Be here in five.”

Two patrollers were already positioning chem-lights to mark the landing zone in the growing twilight.

“Thanks,” Chase said.

As the first responder, Chase took charge of the scene, directing the other patrollers as they tended to the man’s injuries, affixed an oxygen mask, and then secured him to a backboard. It wasn’t long before he heard the thump of rotor blades and looked up to see a red, black, and white helicopter swooping low over the ridge with landing lights ablaze. He checked over his shoulder, glad to see two patrollers scrutinizing the landing zone, checking for debris.

There was a rush of wind as the helicopter settled onto the snow, and then the engine noise quickly died.

Chase looked through the swirl of snow. The pilot was his friend Taylor, the man as focused as a laser beam as he shut down his machine. A flight nurse and paramedic leaped from the chopper.

“Probable depression fracture above the left eye,” Chase warned, though he knew the flight crew wouldn’t take his word for it—they never did—and planned to assess the patient themselves.

“Okay, got it.”

Chase stepped back as the nurse and paramedic took charge and finally allowed himself to relax. He stretched a kink from his back, then walked over to the helicopter. Whiting had stepped from the chopper to watch the action.

“Working a little late, aren’t you?” the pilot asked.

“Yeah, well, things were a little too quiet. Just thought I’d liven things up a bit.”

The two shook hands.

“Well, ’preciate your thinking of us. A little flight time always beats sitting around playing cards … even in this weather.” The pilot nodded to the where the nurse and medic were working over the injured skier. “So what’cha got?”

Chase quickly recounted the tale, earning a whistle from the pilot.

“Wow,” Whiting said. “Guy’s lucky you found him.”

“No question. If he hadn’t regained consciousness we might not have found him ’til spring.”

The flight nurse whistled for the pilot’s attention and made a quick twirling motion with his finger.

“Oh, oh,” Whiting said. “Looks like we’re going hot.” He shook hands again with Chase. “Guess I better get serious.”

“Yeah.” Chase jerked a thumb toward the clouds. “Feels like the wind’s picking up. You be careful up there.”

“Always.” He turned back toward the chopper. “Least I won’t be fighting the crazy holiday traffic.”

Patrollers and flight crew quickly loaded the injured skier into the chopper and—minutes later—Whiting skillfully lifted the helicopter into the air. In seconds it had disappeared into the gloom.

Chase looked around. For the first time he realized he and his crew were stranded in the bottom of the box canyon. He’d no sooner had the thought than the growl of snowmobiles filled the air, the machines apparently dispatched to tow the rescuers back up the hill.

Ah, he thought. Good to know Ben’s on the ball tonight.

 

An investigation showed the the injured guest crashed in the trees high up the mountain. He was unconscious and hidden when the patrol sweepers skied by. No one’s fault, and just one of those things. The scary thing to me was that there was no warning. One minute we were closing down the resort at the end of a long but exciting day, and the next we were racing to save a man’s life. It was a lesson to me on the importance of always being prepared. And always remembering, “Today could be the day you’re called to save a life. Will you be ready?”

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