Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Ski companions, helicopter pilot rescue avalanche victim

Slide occurred Friday near Galena Summit

Express Staff Writer

Sun Valley Heli-Ski pilot Lon Stickney, guides, and Paramedic Chris Stevens load to fly from the highway by Galena Lodge to rescue a backcountry skier caught in an avalanche, Friday, March 25. Photo by Willy Cook

A backcountry skier injured in an avalanche near Galena Summit Friday, March 25, was rescued by two fellow skiers and a hasty team of rescuers flown to the base of the slide area by a Ketchum-based helicopter pilot.

Ketchum resident Steve Waltcher sustained multiple fractures after being swept through the trees by an avalanche calculated to be about 140 feet wide and one- to two-feet deep. The avalanche on an east-northeast facing slope of Titus Ridge slid about 500 vertical feet, said Chris Lundy, a forecaster with the Sawtooth National Forest Avalanche Center. Lundy investigated the scene Saturday in the Boulder Mountains about 30 miles north of Ketchum.

"We were afraid for his life. He was very badly hurt and we knew we needed a helicopter," said Tom Pomeroy, who worked with his longtime skiing companion Lee Melly to organize Waltcher's rescue.

In addition to two broken femurs, one a compound fracture, Waltcher also broke his pelvis, left fibula and right wrist, said Laura Todd, Waltcher's girlfriend, who was with Waltcher Tuesday for a second surgery at St. Alphonsus Regional Medical Center, in Boise.

Flying in challenging winter conditions, Sun Valley Heli-Ski pilot Lon Stickney delivered Waltcher directly to St. Luke's Wood River Medical Center, where he was stabilized and transported to Boise in a Lifeflight helicopter that was standing by at the Baker Creek parking lot, 15 miles north of Ketchum.

"There is no question we were lucky all the way around," Todd said, explaining that doctors thought Waltcher's condition was stable enough for a second round of surgery Tuesday. "Everything could be a lot better, but it could be lot worse. His brain and his spine are fine. Fractures are his main concern right now. As far as we know he had no internal damage, just bruising. He is holding steady."

Melly and Pomeroy quickly found Waltcher in the avalanche path. He was only partially buried by the slide and called for help, they said.

Melly, a highly trained mountain guide with avalanche training through the American Avalanche Institute in Jackson, Wyo., had recently completed a Wilderness First Responder recertification course organized at the Environmental Resource Center in Ketchum.

Pomeroy skied for help, and Melly said he treated Waltcher for shock and hypothermia while preparing to spend the night outdoors with the victim.

"I was glad that over the past five years that I have been training for this situation," Melly said. "I was repeating training skills. I was glad I was able to rely on that."

Armed with a foam pad, a waterproof bivouac sack and extra insulated clothing, Melly took control of Waltcher's medical attention while Pomeroy skied out the Titus Creek basin to Galena Lodge, where he called 911 and Sun Valley Heli-Ski at about 3:54 p.m. The Sun Valley Heli-Ski helicopter and three guides were at a landing pad at Cathedral Pines south of Baker Creek when the call for help came in from Pommery.

"Everybody was standing around with their boots on, basically," said Sun Valley Heli-Ski owner Mark Baumgartner, noting that his crew was busy dismantling the operation for the season. "The biggest difference in this whole thing is that we have a fantastic pilot.

"Lon is very good at flying in snow and bad weather. It's a skill that's pretty rare in mountain pilots. It's a real benefit not only to our operation, but also when stuff like this happens. Tom and Lee did a fantastic job in getting (Waltcher) prepared for the helicopter and Tom (got) out of there quickly. That is where the success started."

Several squalls during the afternoon twice grounded the Sun Valley Heli-Ski helicopter at Galena Lodge during the rescue, said Mike Elle, Ketchum Fire Department assistant fire chief, who said Stickney arrived at Galena with Sun Valley Heli-Ski guides Pete Patterson, Bozo Cardozo and Jake Amadon about 4:15 p.m.

Stickney got to the roof of St. Luke's at 6:37 p.m. About an hour later Lifeflight flew Waltcher to Boise.

"We were so fortunate to have such a good medical response," Pomeroy said. "Sun Valley Heli-Ski Company really saved Steve's life to fly in under extreme weather."

"I was astounded at how quickly a helicopter was on the scene. That made all the difference in the situation," Melly said.

At 4:09 p.m., Ketchum Fire Department Paramedic Chris Stevens established an initial command post in the corral turnout across the highway from Galena Lodge, Elle said. When the Sun Valley Heli-Ski helicopter arrived, Stevens flew to the rescue site with the heli-ski guides, who packed out a landing area for the final pickup and flight to the hospital, while Stevens and Melly prepared Waltcher for the flight.

Nordic ski patrol volunteers, led by Miles Canfield of the Ketchum Fire Department, began a ground rescue from Galena Summit out Titus Ridge at about 4:30 p.m. Because of the weather, there was no guarantee of an air rescue, Elle said. In fact, after Waltcher was dropped at St. Luke's, the weather had deteriorated too much for rescuers to also be flown out.

Melly and the Sun Valley Heli-Ski guides skied to Galena Lodge, arriving at about 8 p.m. The Nordic rescue team got back to the command center at about 7:30 p.m.

Based on an analysis of the avalanche slide path, Lundy described the avalanche zone as an "upside-down" snow pack with fairly strong layers of consolidated snow over weak layers.

"It's like concrete blocks on a bunch of chips waiting for a trigger," Lundy said, explaining that the risks were not altogether obvious and that for the conditions the skiers practiced safe skiing protocols. "In the aftermath of the avalanche, the important thing is that the partners were really well prepared. They were more prepared than the average backcountry skiers."

Sawtooth National Forest Avalanche Center Director Janet Kellam said considerable avalanche risk on steeper north-facing terrain is likely to continue through the spring.

"It is still a concern," she said, explaining that in relatively dry snow years there can often be problems with weak layers of snow on north slopes. "It takes a lot for them to change. We have had additional avalanches that have been triggered or run naturally in the same type of terrain (since Friday)."

"It was a bad situation that could have been a lot worse, way worse," Pomeroy said, hoping that the experience can serve as a lesson for other backcountry skiers. "Even when you are so close to Galena, a comfortable place for us to ski, you knew you were in deep (when the ski trip turned into a rescue).

"The most important part of all of this is that we can teach others. During the rescue I had a purpose. I skied as hard as you would in the Boulder Mountain Tour and still be safe. I would have been terrified to have to stay with Steve. Melly did everything he could to keep that guy alive and as comfortable as he could."

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