Vail Valley docs on call for race accidents |

Vail Valley docs on call for race accidents

Chris Outcalt
Vail, CO Colorado
NWS BOP Doctor 1 DT 12-5-08

VAIL ” Bill Sterett has been on the side of the course for every Birds of Prey race.

Sterett, head team physician for the U.S. Women’s Alpine Ski Team and the chief of surgery at the Vail Valley Medical Center, always hopes it’s a quiet week but is prepared for the worst.

Sterett, along with a couple other doctors, inspects the course prior to every race. They try to identify steep spots, icy spots and difficult turns, and then position themselves right above those areas on the course.

“We’re always at the top of The Brink,” Sterett said. “We always joke that they put their worst skiers at the most dangerous spot.”

The local ski patrol is equipped to handle most of the on-hill incidents, Sterett said, but the doctors on the course are all competant skiers, too. Sterett looks for spots where fresh snow is piled up on the side of the course.

“From our standpoint, that’s where it gets real dangerous,” Sterett said. “They might be going 70 mph down an icy pitch and, a little bit off the course, catch up in 6 inches of fresh snow, and real bad things can happen. We need to know where those spots are.”

If a racer does fall, the doctors have to wait for the course to be closed and determine whether the athlete needs their help before leaving their post on the side of the course.

“Once you’re down, you can’t get back up. You’ve lost all your altitude.” Sterett said. “They want to make sure they actually need you because they’ve got all the racers behind.”

Three or four doctors are typically positioned on the side of the hill for the Birds of Prey races. Injuries to racers range from dislocated knees and shoulders to neck injuries.

“We’ve had some pretty horrific injuries that you don’t always hear about,” Sterett said. “Unfortunately, the things that make these guys daredevils are also what make them great ski racers. If they weren’t a little bit crazy, they wouldn’t want to go 70 mph down the hill with nothing but Lycra on.”

Doctors are required to take a two-day course called Medical Emergencies in Ski and Snowboard before they’re put on the side of a hill for a race.

The course is run by Vail cardiologist Larry Gaul and is taught in Beaver Creek. Jack Eck, a Vail doctor and the medical director of the Vail Ski Patrol, helps Gaul run the course, which is designed to expose doctors to the conditions and scenarios they might encounter on the course.

“A lot of what we do is we’re waking them up to the fact that they have no idea what they’re doing,” Gaul said.

The course started in 2004 and is taught both in a classroom and on the race hill at Beaver Creek.

“They’ve been in nice, warm operating rooms. Now they’re out in snow,” Eck said. “These guys don’t even think of it, not because they’re not smart guys, but they’re never exposed to it.”

Only about eight people took the course the first year, and now it’s capped at 50 participants.

“It’s a network of doctors that like skiing,” Eck said. “Most of them are skiers and probably helped out the ski patrol in their areas or were ski patrol guys themselves.”

The doctors also learn what drugs not to give the athletes because they’re banned on the World Cup skiing circuit.

“It teaches the doctors some of the skills, and it makes them rethink some of the things,” Gaul said. “A lot of the uncontrolled stuff is out there in the field, that’s why we run the course the way we do and try and help the doctors be helpful instead of hindrances and in the way.”

Staff Writer Chris Outcalt can be reached at 970-748-2931 or

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