When helicopters and snow don’t mix

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?

  1. 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.
  2. Take lessons from professional instructors to learn and progress.
  3. Use appropriate protective equipment to minimise the risk of injury.
  4. Before using any lift you must have the knowledge and ability to load, ride and unload safely and always use the restraining devices.
  5. Observe and obey all signs and warnings. Keep off closed trails or runs.
  6. Give way to people below and beside you on the hill. It is your responsibility to avoid them.
  7. 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.
  8. Always ensure your equipment is in good condition and use suitable restraining devices to avoid runaway skiing/boarding equipment.
  9. Do not ski, board, ride a lift or undertake any other alpine activity if your ability is impaired by drugs or alcohol.
  10. 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.

Rachael Oakes-Ash is the name behind @misssnowitall and the founder of SnowsBest.com. A long time travel and lifestyle journalist and ski writer, she's been published in ESPN, TIME, Wallpaper*, Action Asia, Inside Sport, Australian Financial Review, Emirates Open Skies, Conde Nast Traveler and more. She was the Fairfax snow blogger from 2007 to 2017 and the Southern Hemisphere editor for OnTheSnow. Rachael is also a documentary producer, author, radio announcer and humorist.

16 COMMENTS

  1. Couldn’t agreee more, I was hit by a 4 year old being filmed by the father with neither of them looking anywhere except from the camera and into the camera as they ran into me. I then got abused for hitting the child who was looking back at the parent filming them and neither of them looking where they were goin as they hit me. Point 1, 6 and 7 are pivotal.

  2. I wear a helmet (and insist my children wear one) to primarily protect me from being taken out by someone else, as opposed to the damage I might potentially cause to myself. Whilst I am reasonably confident of my own ability, I am terrified of the way other people conduct themselves on the slopes and put me and my children’s safety at risk. It’s not enough to deter me from skiing, but it definitely influences how and where I ski. God help the person/s who cause injury or worse to my family because of their own stupidity, bravado or plain dickheadedness (is that a word?).

  3. I bought my first helmet this season after the Schumacher accident and after I clocked up a few speed runs at the end of last season. It made me think about that fact that you don’t even need to break anything, all you need is a knock to the head to end it all or damage you for good.

    I was actually surprised how cheap helmets were.

  4. My dad was an ski instructor for adults in Europe. Mum banned him from teaching myself or my sister as kids and put us into ski school( at falls creek) as kids(10 and 6 years old), best desision she ever made. I remember being taught the code nearly ever class in those early years. The professional, safe, respectful to others and fun attitude to skiing was thought to me and it’s as important to me as my parallel turns

  5. It should be mandatory when hiring ski & snowboards gear a helmet should be given.
    And maybe you shouldn’t be able to get on the lifts with out a helmet on.

  6. I sat next to a girl on a chairlift once who showed me a gash in her forehead and slurred her speech like she had a bad concussion. She said she’d crashed that morning but had seen a doctor who said she was fine to keep going. I hoped she was lying because otherwise it was a dreadful lack of duty of care on the doc’s part!

  7. interestingly a number of years ago research into helmets also showed people travelled up to 30% faster & nearly 30% closer to objects.

    It would be interesting to see what else they have found more recently (besides the change in hip function of snowboarders) …might check it out next time i’m searching the database at work…

  8. I too have seen mostly children out of their depth, straight off the chair lift straight to the black run when they have never skied following their friends, I’m all for “licensing” abilities so that everyone is on the slope of their ability, will make life easier for all as we ski and board.

  9. I snowboard with my 6 year old daughter on all runs, if she had to stay on front valley she would never get better. We take our time and she is constantly learning and getting really good. I think the only being able to ride in one area is crap. However, I totally agree on out of control dickheads on the slopes. These people learning or have ridden/ski’d for years simply just need common sense. Slow down in slow areas, be extra careful when trees are around etc. I know accidents happen but a lot could be prevented if people thought about others instead of themselves. There are boarder x tracks so you can go fast. It do so at your own risk, don’t weave in and out of beginners like a hero.
    Don’t block paths on flat sections etc because as a boarder you do need to go through quickly in order to get to the lift without having to unstrap. Just use your brains people without drugs and alcohol in your system and protect it with a lid!

  10. My first trip was when I was 7 yrs old, this year in perisher was my 14th trip being a 23 yr old living in brissie. My parents booked us kids in lessons every time we went and learned the lesson the hard way about limits. Every year ive worn a helmet and still managed to get a fractured spine and my dad a badly broken collarbone. Without a helmet I wouldve been marginally worse with the head smack that went with the badly landed jump.
    Nothing opens your eyes more to the fact you’re not invincible when youre 15.
    Ive been every year since and am still a preacher when it comes to “taking it easy”.

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