The Job We Do

Between the months of November and April I am busy with a job that is and needs to be all-consuming. I neither have time to climb nor maintain my personal life and when time does present itself, I spend it sleeping, reconnecting with friends, or doing some form of therapy. Despite the expectant and ardent nature of ski guiding, the rewards and challenges keep me inspired. However, sometimes I find myself questioning whether it is worth it.

A reminder of why it is worth it

December 6th:

“They die quick” Jeff Boyd, emergency doctor and long time CMH mountain guide making a point about tree-well victims.

We had just started our season at CMH Galena. The snow was deep and  the stability hazard was low. Undoubtedly, a spectacular start to the season. Midway through the week, on the first run following lunch, a father and son were skiing at the back of the group. The stronger skier, the son, was skiing in front of his father when he heard his father scream. He then heard nothing, just the fading echo of the guides yodel. The clock started ticking…

I was in the back seat of the helicopter working as the second guide when I heard the call. We needed the Resuscitation kit and the AED. Two of the guides on the scene extricated the guest from the tree-well, cyanotic and not breathing — luckily, he started breathing spontaneously. We had the guest loaded and flying to the emergency in Revelstoke in 30 minutes. The response was quick, as it needed to be.

February 3rd:

I skied into a cut block at about 1400m when the snow fractured around me. I was working as the snow safety, looking for instabilities in the snowpack. My primarily concern on this particular run was wind slabs in the alpine and at tree-line. So, when I entered the cut block, with the hazards well behind me, my guard was down. The hazard was right below me. The snow fractured and the slab started to carry me down a 40 degree slope. I quickly started to tumble out of control. Every time I flipped back towards the slope, I plunged my arms through the snow, reaching for the bed surface, fighting to stop. Somehow I had enough strength and timing to stop. I found myself standing outwards as I watched a healthy size 2 avalanche rip down the slope for another 200 metres. The ‘cut block surprise’.

 February 10th:

A week later, a friend and fellow guide was leading his group down the second run of the day. He organized them at the top of a steep entrance and gave instructions to space out vertically. He then turned and started skiing. On the second turn, the snow checkered around him and a wind slab over top of preserved stellers started to slide. He made the quick decision to ski out of the slide, which meant going mach speeds down the short slope. He managed to ski out, but just when he thought he might make it, he flew off a hidden kicker and launched into the air. He landed hard and yard-saled down the slope into a ditch. He stood up and had just enough time to look over his shoulder as the avalanche slammed into him. He was buried over his head with his hand sticking out above the surface. A full response was quickly initiated but in the end was not necessary. His group skied down and brushed him off. Besides a lost ski and a bruised ego, he was fine.


March 17th:

Franz arrived at the pickup and slid towards where I was standing. It was the first run of the week. He stood their slouched over his poles looking at me, staring at me but not seeing me. Something was up but I couldn’t tell what. I waved the helicopter off so I could have more time. Another guide and I looked at each other with furrowed brows. Franz spoke to us in his broken english “ Thanks for treating me…like a mother treats her baby”. We see alot of weird shit at CMH, but this was different. We continued to remove his skis. And asked his daughter to help us load him into the helicopter. We were unsure of what was happening but made the quick diagnosis that he was having a stroke. Everything escalated at a drastic pace. Franz could no longer walk and started vomiting as we loading him into the 206. We changed our transport decision and loaded him into the 212 , flying straight to the helipad on the roof of Kelowna General. We arrived, expecting an entourage of medical professionals to help us but there was no one — except security guards taking pictures with their iphones. This is when Franz stopped breathing. I ran towards the roof top entrance still in my ski boots and grabbed a stretcher, as I spun the stretcher around I slipped, flying into the air and landing on the tile floor flat on my back. The security guards still watching. The CT scan showed that Franz had a major hemorrhage in the right side of his brain. Unsurvivable. Franz’s last words to his daughter were “No one can take this run away from us”.

 March 21st:

“Hello Galena Lodge, this is Great Northern, we have a tree well incident with a non-responsive guest, can you respond.” I was in the front seat, lifting from a pickup after having one of those incredible runs. This wasn’t how the day was supposed to go! We start flying towards the accident scene, formulating a plan along the way. We manage to locate the scene even though we are flying in a spring squall, snowing 6 cm an hour. I ski down with the Resuscitation kit and AED. I arrive on scene and my heart drops. CPR has already commenced. After doing our best to revive the guest, the doctor on scene pronounces him dead. The CMH guides leave the scene and everything is over in under an hour. My first tree well fatality but I’m thinking it is not going to be my last.

March 23rd:

I left the lodge at the end of my shift. I was encouraged by the senior staff and management to take some time off, even if it meant canceling a week of work at CMH Revelstoke. After years of dealing with these events, they understand the importance of taking the time to reset and decompress. Todd Quyn , Safety Czar for CMH, made reference to his experience in 2008 when he responded to four separate incidents involving multiple fatalities — including the massive Boulder Mountain wreck, “It wasn’t the individual events that pushed me to the edge, it was the accumulation, I was totally fried by the end of the season”. I knew that everyone in Revelstoke would understand but I wanted to check-in and say hello before heading home. As I walked down the halls of the Regent Inn, I ran into Jorg Wilz, a friend and senior guide with CMH — someone I respect immensely for his devotion to his family, his guiding career and personal climbing. He told me about his previous training as an emergency paramedic and how that has helped him with the job. He summed up his experience as a CMH guide with a simple sentence — “It is the job we do”.

2 Responses to The Job We Do
  1. Robert Lavigne
    March 27, 2013 | 4:02 pm

    Happy to hear that you’re off the mountain Josh…there are times to give and times to receive……… is as important as the other…call me when you can 🙂

  2. craig
    April 5, 2013 | 9:12 am

    Thanks for that great insight into what you guides do. Great summary and video, inspiring and heart breaking stuff.

    Regarding the cut block incident, I remember my AST 1 course the guide saying he always calls them hoar frost farms and to approach them with caution. Glad you escaped that one.

    Can’t wait for more of your climbing vids!