Rescue toboggan

Members of the Big White ski patrol practise strapping a patrol member into a rescue toboggan, also known as a rescue sled or emergency rescue sledge, a carrier for transporting an injured person on snowy or icy surfaces. Bars can be extended from one or both ends of these sleds so patrollers can safely snowplow down the slope.

Minor injuries from skiing and snowboarding in B.C. were down last season. But major injuries requiring hospitalization were up.

At Big White Ski Resort, there has been a small annual increase in treating skier/boarder injuries, says Kris Hawryluik, ski patrol director for the past 12 years and a professional ski patroller there for 30 years.

However, a recent assessment by Trauma Services BC (TSBC) “definitely hits the nail on the head,” he said this week.

TSBC, a program of the Provincial Health Services Authority, says that despite an encouraging 12 per cent drop in injuries during the 2018-19 winter season, statistics gathered over five years show the rate of hospitalizations for ski and snowboard injuries is increasing.

“B.C. is home to some of the best ski resorts in the world, and skiing and snowboarding are a great way to stay active during the winter season. But it comes with an element of risk,” said Dr. David Evans, TSBC medical director and a trauma surgeon at Vancouver General Hospital.

“The good news is that most injuries are preventable by simply wearing a helmet, avoiding excessive speed or reckless behaviour, and learning how to reduce the chances of injuries, lengthy hospital stays, permanent disability and even death.”

What has changed is the level of care that professional ski patrollers can provide, said Hawryluik. “With most injuries on a skihill, people are walking away from them (with a referral to a doctor) after seeing a higher level of care. They are not necessarily life-changing.”

During his 33 years as a ski patroller, the ski industry has increased patroller training at the individual ski resort level “in order to provide good quality care in the field and also to sustain life in the field,” said Hawryluik.

“It’s a lot different from what we used to do when I first started. Hopefully, the length of hospital stays will start to decrease due to the care that we can provide in the field. Big White is 100 per cent supportive of that, providing the training and paying for our upgrading which is a great thing for the guest. It’s also a really great recruitment and retention tool for us.”

Younger skiers have a higher risk tolerance so they are more likely to get hurt and require hospitalization, he noted. It’s difficult to be too specific, but skiers are more likely to have lower limb injuries like knees and ankles while boarders are more likely to have upper limb injuries when they put their hands down as they are falling, for example.

“When we see that high-risk-tolerance group going a little too quick, behaving recklessly, we’re finding that education goes a long way; enforcement really doesn’t work too well.

“We use the Alpine Responsibility Code as our go-to rules of the road. A lot of the times, they just don’t know that you’re supposed to give the downhill person the right-of-way. They don’t know that you’ve got to yield to oncoming traffic when you enter a ski run. With education, we’re not seeing repeat offenders.”

Understanding your own abilities is also key, said Hawryluik, recommending anyone — no matter how good a skier or boarder — should get a lesson refresh from a professional instructor every once in a while.

“That goes a long way. To understand when you are tired that it’s maybe time to call it quits. Bottom line: it’s up to the individual to behave responsibly and respect each other on the hill.”

Everyone should always be aware of changing snow and weather conditions, he added. “We see a really high compliance rate with helmet use which is a good trend.

Tree wells are an issue across the province, thanks to this winter’s heavy snowfalls, he said. Video links on how to avoid them are posted on the safety pages of major resorts like Big White. “Own your craft on groomed runs before you start venturing into the trees.”

As well, “leaving the resort boundary is definitely a bad idea until you get to that level with a trained, experienced mentor where you are able to self-rescue and not rely on an outside organization like search and rescue or trained patrollers. And understand what level the avalanche risk is through public bulletins at avalanchecanada.ca.”

During the 2014-15 winter season, 418 people were hospitalized in B.C. with injuries caused by skiing or snowboarding, according to B.C.’s provincial trauma registry.

Over the next three winters, the number of injuries steadily increased, peaking in 2017-18 with 573 people requiring hospitalization. In 2018-19, that number dropped to 503, a reduction TSBC hopes will continue.

According to the BC Coroners Office, there are about 10 deaths from skiing and snowboarding each year in B.C.

Males are hospitalized twice as often as females.