We heard the chopper blades before we saw them, the ominous sound of whirring air that signals the change in someone’s life circumstance. Helicopters only land in New South Wales ski fields for one reason, rescue.
I knew the Snowy Hydro South Care chopper would be for the snowboarder that had run into a tree a mere ninety minutes prior, attended to by an off duty patroller who held his hand while he regained consciousness and struggled to remember his name as ski patrol made their way to his aid. It wasn’t pretty, head injuries never are.
Witnesses said he was out of control, out of his depth, without a helmet, and his mates who were better boarders than him, had naturally ridden ahead, unaware of what was left behind. There are no winners in this story, just devastated mates worried for the state of their buddy on a snow trip gone horribly wrong as he was intubated and airlifted to Canberra hospital.
The single chopper available for care rescue was already at Perisher air lifting a child with another injury and the child’s no doubt terrified parent to the same hospital. I would say this was lucky for the snowboarder as it meant precious travel minutes would be cut but luck seems so benign in this story for all involved.
The parent of the child in Perisher apparently had to exit the chopper at Thredbo to make way for the critically ill snowboarder and with offered support find an alternative route to get to Canberra to be there for his child. When life is touch and go the critical take priority.
Few snow revellers on the slopes of either resort would have even been aware of the drama unfolding and the fellow snow comrades who needed help. The sky was blue bird, the snow chalky white and dry from a fresh dump overnight. In other words a perfect day.
I am unaware of the fate of either patient though I obviously hope that a full recovery is in both their fates. What little I did know has stayed with me and niggled under my skin for days as it could so easily be any of us or someone we know.
It has got me thinking about safety and friends and helmets and responsibility and the precarious nature of a sport I love and then ultimately the Alpine Responsibility Code.
How many of us can honestly quote the ten elements of the Alpine Responsibility Code and how many of us have broken them before we even click into our skis or snowboards?
- Know your ability and always stay in control and be able to stop and avoid other people or objects. It is your responsibility to stay in control on the ground and in the air.
- Take lessons from professional instructors to learn and progress.
- Use appropriate protective equipment to minimise the risk of injury.
- Before using any lift you must have the knowledge and ability to load, ride and unload safely and always use the restraining devices.
- Observe and obey all signs and warnings. Keep off closed trails or runs.
- Give way to people below and beside you on the hill. It is your responsibility to avoid them.
- Do not stop where you are not clearly visible from above. Look uphill and give way to others when entering/exiting a trail or starting downhill.
- Always ensure your equipment is in good condition and use suitable restraining devices to avoid runaway skiing/boarding equipment.
- Do not ski, board, ride a lift or undertake any other alpine activity if your ability is impaired by drugs or alcohol.
- If you are involved in, or witness an accident or collision, alert Ski Patrol, remain at the scene and identify yourself to the Ski Patrol.
Most of the code is not enforceable. You can’t get booked for not wearing a ski or snowboard helmet in Australia despite it being compulsory to wear one on a motorbike, nor can you be fined for learning to ski or snowboard from your friends who think that because they can get down a hill in one piece they can teach you how to do the same badly.
Ski patrol can of course take away your pass for ducking ropes, entering closed trails, skiing and snowboarding too fast. However policing the influence of alcohol on the mountain is pointless when the mountain restaurants rely on serving it to make a living.
In a nanny style state how much is the code the responsibility of the resort and how much of it the responsibility of the individual? How much does peer pressure play a factor and what about the cost of both keeping equipment in good nick and taking lessons?
Perhaps skiers and boarders need to pass a Code Test in order to graduate from the bunny slopes to the blue runs and lift passes can prevent them from accessing certain chair lifts until they have.
I have taken many lessons in my lifetime, some group, some private, but I have never been ‘taught’ the mountain’s code of conduct by my instructors who were too busy keeping me from falling into a ditch, knocking someone else over or being knocked over myself.
This season alone I have stumbled upon the recognisable aroma of burning marijuana while in the boundaries of a resort, watched in fear as someone was out of control on the slope below me while travelling on the chairlift overhead, followed a peer under a rope to access a second groomed run (it was only for a moment but it only takes a moment, right?) and ‘liked’ images on social media of people skiing terrain that is out of bounds.
Clearly the codes are made to be broken by some but even those of us with time on snow, experience and the ability to ski the entire mountain and remain in control while skiing but not while falling are not immortal. The mountain always wins.
What do you think about the Alpine Responsibility Code? Should it be legally enforceable? What should be added to the list and what do you think is irrelevant?
Make a donation to support the Snowy Hydro SouthCare chopper here.