Here is everyone in the class. The two instructors are Bill Person (far left side front row), and David Stepner hiding in red hat in the back row second from left next to me. This is the barren mountain base at Donner Ski ranch where we spent most of our days...
However, this is what we were all imagining as we suffered through the dusty eyes, splinters, and pebbles in knees working on our scenario training.
Early morning light looking east over Donner Lake from Old Route 40 near Donner Summit. We've had two solid weeks of bluebird days, temps in the mid-50's with nights below freezing. Some mornings the whole valley below is concealed in a bank of fog, while the summit is bright sunshine.
View from our bedroom deck - late afternoon light - alpenglow on the south face of snowless Castle Peak.
Another view of Donner lake showing the historic arch bridge and the scenic old highway winding down the steep slope to the hamlet of Truckee - gateway to the Lake Tahoe ski resorts.
It’s been a hectic, exhausting, and very educational two weeks. I've been enrolled in an intensive Outdoor Emergency Care (OEC) class- the rite of passage for everyone wishing to break into the world of ski patrolling. All that reading for the last 6 weeks and book learning is behind me and this two week all-day, everyday class is all about hands-on muscle memory learning. Last Sunday was the mid-term practical exam, then a few hours off (for the first time in 7 days) and then a celebratory party at another cabin where a group of the other students are staying. Things are pretty common sense, but there are many protocols and procedures to practice, and commit to memory involving lots of quick synthesis of limited information to determine the most appropriate course of treatment and “extraction” of injured or sick skiers.
As you can imagine there are a myriad of circumstances contributing to a skier becoming a “patient”, some involving basic ski accidents, up to collisions of several different types and complications from a wide range of medical conditions. We are learning an assessment technique to rapidly narrow down symptoms to select a combination of available emergency treatments, followed by a range of “packaging” techniques to move disabled skiers off the mountain and on to definitive care.
This system is very well thought out, but requires lots of thinking along the way. Patients do not always sufficiently self-diagnose, and one injury or medical condition can often mask other, possibly more life threatening conditions. There is a whole radio protocol, and then second responder roles to play when following up the first responder’s original assessment.
Many procedures require team work to perform, like back boarding (more common than you might imagine) and certain complicated extractions, splints and bandages. We’re learning to administer oxygen – in and of itself not complicated, but made much more so by the conditions under which you need to keep a slippery patient connected to a slippery toboggan connected to a slippery oxygen tank and associated rescuers all in a logical configuration on the cold and slippery side of a mountain.
As well as individually learning the flow, diagnostic, and treatment procedures, we are learning to work in close teams to complete complicated maneuvers in short time frames. There is a speed element to everything we are learning as reducing the time from injury to delivering the patient to more definitive care makes a huge difference to the eventual outcome in many circumstances.
Yesterday, with only one last class day left before the final we integrated all of skills into speed drills – sort of a blend between tag, wind sprints, charades, and demonstration of newly learned unit and team skills into a smooth flow on different patient scenarios scattered around the base of the mountain.
When they called this two week class the “intensive 2-week OEC class” they were not kidding. I’ve been living, eating, breathing and thinking outdoor emergency care for almost two weeks straight now. I cannot think of a better way to drill this information into my brain.
Now, all we need is some snow, and ski resorts to open so I can put all this to good use.
Friday: at last, the blue sky has been pushed aside and a curtain of gray cloud cover has concealed the stars and planets. A three day snow storm is in the forecast and I feel like I'm ready. Tomorrow is my first day of real patrolling - although I suspect we'll be hiking more than skiing as the snow cover is sketchy at best and there are lots of lift towers to pad, and hazards to mark.
It has taken me these two weeks to adjust my body's metabolism to the higher elevations (7,200 feet) and the chilly temperatures. The house seems very quiet and empty, as I am here in the mountains alone, awaiting Diane - who will join me in a week. My schedule is closely matched to that of the daylight and the needs of the woodstove - the sole source of heat keeping us from freezing up at night. The house gets a big solar lift on the sunny days, and I am looking forward to the insulating layer of snow which is bound to bury the bottom 1/3 of the house within a month.
Here on the summit, it is not uncommon to get over 800 inches of snowfall in a season. This all accumulates between late December and March - and conceals the soil well into May before most of the piles have melted. So far, there is only a pile on the north side of the house which slid off the roof over three weeks ago and has still not melted despite the warm days since then.