With two deaths in the snow-laden Australian high country, another two within resort bounds and several other close calls, was it good luck or good management that Mt Hotham avoided casualites or a serious incident during the 2014 ski season?
Perhaps a bit of both; but it certainly helps when you have a man like Bill Barker in charge of your ski patrol.
Barker heads into his 25th year as a professional patroller this season, having skied and patrolled around the world from places as far flung as Kashmir and the Pyrenees. His days are long but the work is varied at the Victorian ski resort, which has a reputation for some of the steepest terrain in Australia.
“I could go from 6am to 7pm,” Barker says. “It depends on the weather events of the day; whether we are out there doing avalanche control or whether we are out there setting up the mountain. On a typical day we could respond to 20 call outs, on a busy day we can do 40. Our busiest days are usually sunny, good snow days. People tend to stay out there longer and get tired.”
At Mt Hotham Barker manages a team of 23 paid patrollers and 40 volunteers as they spend the best part of four months a year ensuring skiers and snowboarders can ride the resort in relative safety – as well as be on hand should something go wrong. Like it did in 2012. A gun local skier decided to jump off a cliff band that year, sticking the landing but releasing one of his skis in doing so. Then, at the bottom of a long gully where he attempted to collect his ski, his knee collapsed. There was no helicopter available and the skier was so inaccessible that Barker was left to coordinate a 10-patroller operation to winch him out. It became a tricky rescue that involved making a track with a kassbohrer (oversnow vehicle); having three anchor points and then winching the skier up on a sled with ropes.
Barker said the key to managing such a situation was playing to individual strengths within the team.
“Some are great at first-aid skills. Some are more comfortable or confident with rope rescues – they may be rock climbers in summer. You assign the people to where they are best utilised.” That also goes for the volunteers who are trained in the same manner as the ‘pros’. “We’ve got police search and rescue choppers, we’ve got surgeons and doctors and nurses and paramedics and ‘firies’ – a lot of our volunteers have extra skills that our paid patrollers don’t have.”
In Australia … we don’t have the huge avalanches that we see overseas but there are lots of terrain traps.
Far from being treated as outsiders, the volunteers are made to feel very much part of the group and despite only working less than two weeks in total per season, Barker says their presence is vital in other ways. “I can’t stress enough what the volunteers bring. Each week we have a constant influx of fresh personalities, which is great for the team. Instead of having 23 pro patrollers working together as a team for the whole season and getting a bit niggly with each other, we have these [volunteers] come in who really help break down any personality clashes in the patrol.”
As well as tending to more fundamental tasks such as signage, slope maintenance and the regular run of injuries (snowboarders commonly hurt their wrists while skiers tend to damage their knees), ski patrollers are very much into hazard mitigation. When significant snow arrives that invariably involves avalanche control. That can mean anything from closing off areas within the resort boundary, to ski cutting (skiing across a slope to potentially trigger a slide) or even bombing some terrain so the snow releases. While last year’s conditions weren’t unique for Australian ski areas and the Snowy Mountains, the two significant snow storms in June/July that in some areas dumped more than 150cm of snow, did present some problems. The lure of outstanding early season snow coverage is catnip for powder hounds.
Enthusiasts at the top of the village chair lift
“We might go for two seasons without having a serious avalanche danger day but then in saying that the next season we may have a dozen days in the season where there is serious danger,” says Barker. “In Australia we don’t have those big slopes – we don’t have the huge avalanches that we see overseas but there are lots of terrain traps.”
One event ended better than it probably should have last year. Skier Mike Grace, looking for some fresh powder turns with snowboarding mate Nicholas Bennett at the NSW resort of Thredbo, ducked under a rope of a permanently closed section of the resort just off a main run. Grace followed Bennett and triggered a substantial slide from the short but steep slope. He was buried under three metres of snow. Managing to get an air pocket, Grace was ultimately rescued by ski patrol when his friend triggered the alarm.
Others weren’t as fortunate that season. A Perisher resort employee died while snowboarding during his time off, apparently hitting an embankment and landing in a creek. At Victoria’s Mt Buller a seven-year-old boy was suffocated when snow fell off a chalet roof and buried him. Then, outside the resort boundaries, there was more tragedy still. Two snowboarders tackling the steep terrain of Mt Bogong in the Victorian Alps died when swept away by an avalanche. On the right terrain at the wrong time under deep and, for Australia, relatively light snow, it was something of an accident waiting to happen.
“It doesn’t take a big avalanche to be fatal,” says Barker, who in all his ski years has only been buried once – and that was in Australia. “It’s easy for Australians to get caught off guard about it. But I think more and more people are becoming aware of it, the events of last season brought it home to a lot of people.”