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Ski Patrol Rope Rescue Program

Posted 14 September 2021

By Jordan O'Neill, Assistant Patrol Director, Mt Hotham Resort

On Wednesday 18 August, as part of the shooting of a ski safety awareness film, a mock tragedy occurred at Mt Hotham.

A life-sized, 80kg dummy dressed in ski gear including boots, skis and poles, known affectionately as Simon, took a dramatic fall off the cliffs below Australia Drift. Simon slid down the precarious and steepening entrance to the cliffs before accelerating, tumbling and smashing into rocks. Eventually he came to a stop well below the rocky outcrop minus a ski, his goggles and suffering severe trauma from his misadventure.

Lucky for Simon the Ski Patrol rope rescue team were nearby

Part of Mt Hotham Ski Patrol’s (MHSP's) specialist skills involves rope rescues. Roped extrication of injured or stranded guests from extreme terrain within the ski area and the nearby backcountry is usually required five or six times each winter. The technical skills involved require regular practice and refresher training.

All of the paid ski patrollers and some of the volunteer patrollers are part of the MHSP rope rescue team. Many ski patrollers have skills relevant to rope rescue from their lives outside of Ski Patrol. These skills include rock and ice climbing, mountaineering, firefighting, swift water rescue and Industrial Rope Access.

The Ski Patrol training progresses patrollers through three levels of expertise from ‘assistant’ to ‘operator’ and finally to ‘supervisor’.

All northern resort Ski Patrols take part

Each year representatives from each of Mt Buller, Falls Creek and Mt Hotham Ski Patrol meet for a week and train with the Search and Rescue Police High Angle Rescue team. Each mountain takes turns at hosting the training week. The training is an opportunity for each patrol and the police to share techniques, developments, new equipment, lessons learned through job experience and to further develop skills.

The resort closure in mid August gave the ski patrol a very rare opportunity to facilitate time and resource demanding training while the mountain had a mid-season snow cover.

A complex rescue

For Simon’s rescue, anchors were selected among the snow gums above the cliffs and two patrollers were lowered down towards the victim. At just over 100m down, Mark, one of our supervisors, made himself safe by a set of trees and set up a deviation anchor.

At this point the ropes were to take a turn to the right. The deviation would safely allow the remaining patroller, Adam, and the rescue ferno (rescue litter) to descend down the steep and icy “rabbit's warren”, towards the patient.

After lowering approximately 250 m of rope from the anchor station, Adam came across our casualty, the sorry and decrepit looking Simon. After safely securing Simon into the ferno, the trip back to the top began.

This involved a steep walk/scramble for Adam. For the remaining seven patrollers at the top, Fran, Tim, Gianna, Phoebe, Mick, Gary and yours truly, it was time to begin 50 minutes of heaving and hoeing.

With the added complexities of wearing crampons, using the deviation, passing knots through the systems, excess rope management and directing a larger than normal rescue team, the operation delivered plenty of learnings for the team.

Shortly after being brought back to safety, Simon was seen relaxing on the ski patrol balcony, thawing out and recovering from his ordeal.