Ski patrol: To serve and protect

by Devin Foxall | 1/14/03 6:00am

On a windy day last January, Bret Anderson '05 was in a shack at the top of Holt's Ledge with a few other members of the Dartmouth Ski Patrol when a call came over the radio. Someone on a chair-lift had witnessed a violent collision -- a skier was badly injured.

Moments later, Anderson was responding to his first accident call. A man was grasping his knee and "screaming his lungs off," Anderson remembered. "What's frightening about arriving on that situation -- especially without having added medical training -- is to see the patient in such pain."

As an "apprentice," Anderson was not allowed to have patient contact, so he immediately handed medical supplies to the two "full patrollers," advanced members of the Ski Patrol who are allowed to work directly with patients.

Anderson gave the full patrollers a leg splint to immobilize the patient's leg and blankets to retain his heat. They loaded the injured man into a fiberglass toboggan and ferried him to the aid center at the bottom of the hill.

Through the entire process the patrollers continually conversed with the patient, asking him about his injury and explaining step by step what they were going to do for him. "What bothers them most is when you stop talking," Anderson said. "Then they refocus on their injury."

Anderson's story is one thread in the Gore-Tex tapestry of the Dartmouth Ski Patrol. The patrol serves the Dartmouth Skiway and is responsible for both everyday tasks, such as opening and closing trails and responding to injuries, and for spectacular acts such as performing technical rope rescues and automated external defibrillation.

Members of the patrol often will not know how serious a situation will be when they are first called, meaning that each incident requires an emergency response.

"You don't know what's wrong with the patient when you approach them," Patrol Equipment Officer Erik Carlson '03 said. "In our eyes it is always an emergency. You don't know if it will be someone with a sprained ankle or a kid with a huge gash on their head."

The patrol is primarily composed of volunteer students, all of whom are certified as Outdoor Emergency Care Technicians.

The road to become a full patroller begins early freshman year and continues over a year of training and simulated exercises.

Between 50 and 80 freshmen apply before the Winter term for Ski Patrol "apprenticeships." Through a selection process run by the Patrol Officers, this group is winnowed down to 40, Carlson explained.

During their freshman fall, apprentices go through orientation events and learn basic first aid, CPR, evacuations and other aspects of emergency medicine. During the Winter term they are required to work one shift per week during which they shadow the more experienced patrollers.

Based on their performance and attitude, around 15 apprentices are selected to enroll in the Outdoor Emergency Care Course during Spring term. After they complete the course, they become Candidate Patrollers.

During the fall, Candidate Patrollers have their medical proficiency tested to determine if they are to become "vested," the Ski Patrol's term for becoming a full patroller. Full patrollers oversee emergency response and working directly with patients, and are the only ones allowed to be the first to a scene.

The Dartmouth Outing Club funds the patrol, while its medical supplies are provided by the Skiway. However, it is a volunteer organization and each member has to pay for dues, gear and ski equipment.

Most patrollers work 15 hours a week and often during the early morning. Carlson said that many patrollers cut back on the time spent with the organization due to the amount of time required -- there are usually only six or seven consistently active senior members.

But many stay, sometimes past graduation, because of the feeling that they have helped others. Anderson said that at the end of each call he feels an "emotional release."

"You took care of somebody who desperately needed your help."