Column: Eagle County Paramedic Services asking backcountry users to consider risk tolerance
Eagle County Paramedic Services
On Dec. 7, Governor Jared Polis proclaimed last week (Dec. 7-13) Colorado Backcountry Winter Safety Awareness Week. This past spring, as COVID-19 closed ski resorts, we saw more and more people venturing into the backcountry. As this ski season starts with limited capacity and reservation protocols, the number of people — experienced and novice — in the backcountry continues to increase. Backcountry recreation can be dangerous and requires certain safety precautions and equipment to ensure a safe outdoor experience.
When you’re prepared (carrying the proper gear and knowing how to use it, doing the research and anticipating conditions, not exceeding your experience level, etc.), most excursions are memorable only for the fun that you have. But when something goes wrong, it’s an entirely different story.
Eagle County Paramedic Services currently has 12 search and rescue paramedics. These men and women work alongside Vail Mountain Rescue Group to provide support to those injured in the backcountry, whether it’s from motorized or non-motorized excursions.
To prepare for this season, our search and rescue paramedics recently conducted an on-the-snow backcountry training at Vail Pass. These search and rescue paramedics come from a variety of backgrounds: All but a handful are former ski patrollers; we have three American Avalanche Association pros; several are active backcountry guides. This peer-driven group gathers to share knowledge and resources and review skills that are not par-for-the-course training for 911 paramedics — these are highly skilled and trained paramedics with a variety of avalanche, winter and wilderness medicine training. If you need them, you’ll receive exceptional care.
However, our search and rescue paramedics respond from an off duty status: When a call comes, they drop what they’re doing and respond. But it’s not as easy as jumping into a fully-stocked ambulance. Responding to a backcountry call includes: coordinating the response with Vail Mountain Rescue Group’s mission coordinator; driving to the trailhead (which could be as far as Tennessee or Cottonwood Pass); getting snowmobiles and equipment as well as gearing up for the weather; locating the patient; and deciding which resources are needed to get the patient out of the backcountry, etc.
You could be a short distance from the trailhead and it could take anywhere from four to eight hours (or more) to get you out, depending on how severe your injuries are. And what would be a minor injury at a ski resort can be a limb-threatening injury. For example, we can attempt to reduce a dislocated shoulder on Vail Mountain, even in the Back Bowls. However, in the backcountry, that same injury could risk long-term nerve damage because of the time it takes to respond.
The quality of the response is always good, but we’re not able to provide a 911-time frame emergency response in the backcountry.
We recognize that there are going to be a lot more novices and people in general in the backcountry this winter and with that comes the likelihood of increased call volume.
Please: Consider your own risk tolerance. Our hospital and search and rescue operations are already stretched to their limits. We at Eagle County Paramedic Services prioritize our 911 and critical care transport responses – these are the patients that depend on us daily. Our search and rescue paramedics respond as another tier of service. But it’s the first thing that goes away when the medical system is stressed.
So before you head into the backcountry this winter, consider your own risk tolerance. Responses are always delayed and may be impacted by the larger health care system picture this winter.
Graham Kane is an Eagle County Paramedic Services clinical specialist, B.S. NRP, P-CC, CCP-C, FP-C. He is also an American Avalanche Association Pro and an avalanche course educator at Bluebird Backcountry as well as a teacher of professional avalanche search and rescue at CMC.
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