Vail Ski Patrol takes to the cliffs for "high-angle’ training |

Vail Ski Patrol takes to the cliffs for "high-angle’ training

Stephen Lloyd Wood
Vail Mountain ski patrollers Brian Devan, left, and Greg Gunn practice "high-angle" rescue Sunday as part of national safety week.

Half a dozen members of the Vail Ski Patrol conducted “high-angle” rescue training exercises Sunday on what’s commonly called the “Chair 4 cliffs,” with some of them descending on ropes while others “worked belay.”

It was all part of the on-mountain activities involved with National Safety Week, a nationwide initiative sponsored by the National Ski Areas Association. The program is designed to encourage guests to consider skier and rider responsibilities on the slopes.

“It’s good for the public to see there’s more to patrolling than just taking injured people down the mountain in a toboggan,” said Patrol Foreman Billy Mattison, a 14-year veteran.

As the high-speed quad whisked chairs full of skiers and snowboarders overhead, Mattison discussed how to anchor ropes using the “dead-man technique,” meaning the rope is secured by nothing but the snow itself.

“It’s so overwhelmingly redundant, you could lower a horse with it,” he said. “Even a snowcat would have trouble pulling this out.”

That seemed reassuring as a very trusting reporter and photographer tied themselves in for the vertical journey as cheers from the chairlift filled the air.

Mattison said the Chair 4 cliffs are “perfect” for high-angle rescue training, as there dozens of cliffs just like them all over Vail. While rarely does the patrol have to lower a person or a body down a cliff, he said, rescue missions often require lowering equipment, such as a toboggan loaded with backboards, blankets and first-aid supplies. It’s been done before at locations such as Rasputin’s Revenge in the Back Bowls and Lovers Leap in Blue Sky Basin.

“Two years ago, a woman broke her pelvis on Prima Cornice. We had to lower a backboard using a tree as an anchor,” Mattison said. “We never could have gotten her out of there without a belay.”

Other safety-awareness activities at Vail since National Safety Week began on Saturday have included free helmet demos, snowcat demonstrations, binding safety checks, Yellow Jacket giveaways, Flight for Life helicopter landings and invitations by the patrol to join them in “sweeping” the mountain at the end of the day.

Also in conjunction with National Safety Week, the Vail Ski Patrol offers the following list of safety tips:

– Your safety is your responsibility. Take accountability for your own actions while on the mountain and in the national forest. Know where you’re going and respect the other mountain users. If you have a question, stop a staff member and ask. Don’t allow yourself to get into trouble.

– Only dopes cut ropes! Just because the terrain on the other side of the ropes seems to be calling, that doesn’t mean it’s safe. Ropes are there for a reason.

– Real riders know that terrain park etiquette and safety matters. For more information, check out park entrances or scope out the trail map.

– Hydrate yourself. Drink lots of water and make your day last longer.-

– How do you define your “360”? When you’re on the hill, 360 means knowing what’s happening all around you. Keep your eyes on the terrain ahead and behind, as well as all around.

– Vail’s a big mountain; always ski or ride with a partner.

– Your gear is your responsibility. Drop by a local shop to check your bindings, tune your equipment and make sure your brakes are in order.

– Prior to hitting the slopes each day, make a plan. With more than 5,200 acres, Vail is a big mountain. Establish a meeting place for you and your buddies.

– Know the Skier’s Responsibility Code, the rules of the road:-

– Always stay in control and be able to stop or avoid other people or objects.

– People ahead of you have the right of way. It is your responsibility to avoid them.

– Do not stop where you obstruct a trail or are not visible from above.

– Whenever starting downhill or merging onto a trail, look uphill and yield to others.

– Always use devices to help prevent runaway equipment.

– Observe all posted signs and warnings. Keep off closed trails and out of closed areas.

– Before using any lift, you must have the knowledge and ability to load, ride and unload safely.

Bob Cox, supervisor of Vail Ski Patrol’s Yellow Jacket program, said the promotion of safety continue never really stops.

“National Safety Week is an opportunity for our community and employees to demonstrate how important safety is to Vail Mountain,” said Cox. “Skiing and riding are outrageously fun sports, and together, through awareness and respect, we can make the slopes safer for everyone.”


Focus on safety this week

National Safety Week offers the opportunity to educate guests, the community and employees on the importance of the skier’s responsibility code, the “rules of the road” for skiing and riding.

National Safety Week also highlights the measures that resort employees practice year round.

The following is a rundown on activities through the rest of the week.


– “Keep Your Body Healthy” – from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Mid Vail, Eagle’s Nest and Two Elk restaurants, presented by the Howard Head Sports Medicine Clinic.

– Free Ski Tips – Intermediate to advanced skiers can drop by the Mid Vail Ski School meeting area at the top of the Vista Bahn Chairlift, Chair 16, from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. to take a run with a Vail instructor and receive technique tips.-

– Free Riding Tips – Intermediate to advanced snowboarders can receive free snowboarding tips from a Vail instructor. Meet at the base of the Gopher Hill Lift, Chair 12, at Golden Peak at 11 a.m.

– Ski Patrol Sweep – Sign up each day to join the Vail Ski Patrol for their afternoon mountain sweep, which signifies the mountain closing for the day. Space is limited, so reserve a spot at Patrol Headquarters located below Buffalo’s Restaurant at the top of Mountaintop Express, Chair 4, or call 479-4610.

– “Trivial Pursuit” – Tune in to TV 8 each morning to play “Trivial Pursuit”. The first caller who contacts the station with the correct answer wins a group lesson for eight at Vail.


– Terrain Park Etiquette – Stop by the Golden Peak Superpipe from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. under the Riva Bahn Express, Chair 6, or the Bwana Terrain Park under the Eagle Bahn Express Gondola, Lift 19, to learn more about park safety and etiquette from one of Vail’s world-class snowboard instructors.

– Free Ski Tips (see above).

– Free Riding Tips (see above.

– Vail Ski Patrol Sweep (see above).

– “Trivial Pursuit” (see above).


– Safety Booths – Stop by the Great Yellow Jacket Safety Booths at the Vista Bahn, Chair 16, in Vail Village and the Eagle Bahn Express Gondola, Lift 19, in Lionshead and sign up for the Great Yellow Jacket Give-away.

– Kid’s Safety Week Coloring Contest – Local students have submitted entries that will be judged based upon safety messaging and creativity. Winners will be announced on TV 8 at 9 a.m.

– Free Ski Tips (see above).

– Free Riding Tips (see above.

– Vail Ski Patrol Sweep (see above.

– “Trivial Pursuit” (see above).-

For information on current snow conditions and the latest activities at Vail, visit or call 1-800-404-3535.


((((SIDEBAR-696 words)))))

“Extremely lucky’

Comedy of errors in the backcountry nearly claims a skier’s life

By Stephen Lloyd Wood

Daily Staff Writer


“From the beginning, they did everything wrong.”

– Julie Rust, director, Vail Ski Patrol

photo: BC warning signs.JPG (Special to the Daily/Vail Mountain)

cutline: Signs posted at gates leading from the ski resort into the backcountry clearly list the risks involved, and once you head out of bounds you’re taking your life in your own hands.

Vail Ski Patrol Director Julie Rust is very serious when discussing a recent backcountry rescue operation that saved the life of a skier and taught his friends a serious lesson.

Eight men from the Front Range headed out of bounds from Belle’s Camp, above Blue Sky Basin, in the middle of the day on Jan. 10, and one of them – his first name is Brady – nearly didn’t make it back alive.

“From the beginning, they did everything wrong,” says Rust, equating their experience to a dangerous comedy of errors, beginning with not even knowing where they were going. “They were extremely lucky.”

Apparently, the “leader” wanted “to show his friends the “backcountry experience,'” Rust says, so he went first, quickly leaving two members of the group, both snowboarders, far behind.

Brady and the rest of the group, meanwhile, followed the leader to a location above a band of cliffs. The leader and most of the others found a way to ski around the cliffs, but Brady and another skier – his first name is Matt – decided they could jump the cliff. Matt went first, landed safely in chest-deep powder and descended another 20 to 30 feet to wait.

Brady, however, “hooked a tip” on his descent, Rust says, sending him head-first into the deep, “rotten” snow.

Although Matt seemed close by, he told patrollers it took him nearly 20 minutes to crawl up the slope to his buddy, who by then was unconscious and not breathing. Somehow Matt had the wherewithal to do the right thing, Rust says, digging an “airway” through the snow and using the only piece of safety equipment on hand, a cell phone, to call 911. The rest of the members of the group, meanwhile, were nowhere in sight.

“They were all lucky he had cellular service and a charged battery,” says Rust.

The the call to the patrol came from a dispatcher at about 12:30 p.m. “We called Matt back, then sent out the first wave of people,” Rust says.

Rust says it took four patrollers nearly 45 minutes to locate the two skiers, mainly because Matt had no idea where he and Brady were. During that time, however, patrollers kept Matt on the phone, talking him through getting Brady out of the snow, upright and breathing.

“By the time we got there, Brady was sitting up and fully conscious,” Rust says.

While Brady did not appear seriously injured, the patrollers were able to transport him in a toboggan to the bottom of Earl’s Express Lift, Chair 38. They ultimately took him to Vail Valley Medical Center.

“Brady was really lucky his friend was nearby and knew what to do,” Rust says. “Matt was a real hero; he saved his buddy’s life.”

Nonetheless, Rust says, the story is a perfect example of how mistakes can turn good intentions into tragedy.

“When people go into the backcountry, they need to be self-sufficient,” she says, listing the group’s many errors. “They didn’t stay together; they didn’t ski to the ability of the least-talented person; they didn’t know where they were going or where they were; they didn’t have any of the recommended safety equipment, like avalanche beacons or shovels.”

Rust says signs posted at every gate leading to the backcountry list the risks involved, and once you head out of bounds you’re taking your life in your own hands. After all, she adds, the ski patrol is staffed for covering the resort’s more than 5,200 acres of open terrain – not the entire national forest – and having four patrollers on a backcountry rescue puts serious stress on operations.

“All our signage says you’re beyond our services in the backcountry, and we’re under no obligation to go back there,” she says. “We had to shift a lot of manpower around on the mountain for that rescue to happen at all.”

Still, Rust says this particular rescue – though nearly tragic – was a worthwhile experience for everyone involved.

“At the end of the day, all eight of those guys were completely aware of the magnitude of what happened,” she says. “And Brady was incredibly thankful.”


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