By NICK CUNKELMAN
The call came at 9:18 a.m. on November 7 in Maine’s Carrabassett Valley, without a foot of snow in sight. “We’ve got a derailed Sawduster and Snubber,” said a voice on Sugarloaf’s Ski Patrol radio. “Signal 1000, all stations, signal 1000.”
Two hundred yards downhill from the base lodge, close to 30 people were strewn on the ground, beneath the point where the two chairlifts cross. A cacophony of cries split the grey November air and Ski Patrol moved quickly to assess the scene. Others who were not injured offered to help, often holding patients’ heads while trying not to lose their own.
“That guy has blood coming out of his head!” a man yelled. “That guy’s unconscious!” To his left, a woman sat with red liquid covering her leg. Uphill, some victims were already being tagged for bodybags. And above, dangling in the air from one of Snubber’s towers, like a worm barely hanging on a hook, was the figure of a mountain maintenance worker who was knocked off the lift when Sawduster derailed and came crashing down. “53 to 4 do you copy?” came a voice on the radio. “We’ve got a man hanging from 19.”
In actuality, the man of tower 19 would be real. But on this day, he was a dummy, and Sugarloaf was merely testing its emergency response procedure. The mock was hatched in October 2009 at one of the mountain’s tabletop drills, where ski patrol and emergency workers discuss how they would handle such situations should they actually occur.
“But we recognized that this county and this area has a tremendous amount of services,” said Earl Warren of Sugarloaf Ski Patrol, who spearheaded the drill, “so when we tested at the table top, we wondered aloud, saying, ‘Could we do that full scale?’”
And indeed, after the initial call of 19 casualties went out, the services poured in. At 9:40, fire trucks and ambulances arrived, soon joined by Eustis first responders from Kingfield and Rangely and Northstar-EMS. Tri-county medical services had a triage center set up by 10:00, and as the morning turned to midday, patients of the highest priority were shuttled to Franklin Memorial Hospital in Farmington, 40 minutes away. This tiered response then continued “downstream” with “mirror” patients already stationed in Farmington, allowing the staff at Franklin Memorial to determine for themselves who they needed to send out for further treatment.
“The idea of this exercise is not just to test Sugarloaf but to see how everyone would respond to a situation like this,” said Ethan Austin, Sugarloaf’s Communications Manager. “And this was intentionally made much larger than any incident we would expect. It’s good to prepare for it.”
Sugarloaf even left a few ambulances and intentionally did not call Maine’s LifeFlight helicopter to allow for the possibility of any real-life emergencies arising during the drill, and sure enough, NorthStar used the LifeFlight chopper on a call—one that all mock responders heard on their radios. “’Cause if this were really happening,” said Austin, “the rest of the world wouldn’t stop.”
On the mountain, those in chairlifts downloaded via either fire truck bucket or rope harness, and the drill finished at around 11 a.m., two hours earlier than expected. Back inside the base lodge, volunteer participants warmed up while emergency responders debriefed. Delinda Smith of the Sugarloaf Ski Club was the last one off Sawduster. “It was cold,“ she said. “But it was fun.” Joked her husband Peter, “I volunteered her.”
At the debriefing, responders noted room for improvement—pieces of advice such as moving beyond the everyday response system by using other radio stations—but the general consensus was of a successful drill. “A good sized-city wouldn’t be able to provide this many EMS-trained personnel,” noted John Tobias of Carrabassett Valley Fire. Added Austin, “I was at the command post, and you could just hear the calls coming in.”
Still, as both Warren and Austin noted, this was only a drill. “In designing this, we very quickly realized how far-reaching it would go,” said Warren. “And it’s impossible for something like this to go exactly as planned.”
And in addition to volunteers, responders, and Ski Patrol—257 participants in all—both the Maine Emergency management Association and the National Ski Patrol observed to provide their own feedback should something happen like the downloading of Sugarloaf’s Superquad. “And that,” noted Austin, “would take a lot longer because it’s a bigger, longer lift with a lot of tricky terrain underneath.”
But MEMA’s presence was also educational, as it was, in essence, for all. “The lessons we learned today can be applied to a number of different scenarios,” said Warren, “it doesn’t have to be a ski area.”
* Nick Cunkelman is a senior at Colby College in Waterville, ME who grew up skiing at Vermont’s Mad River Glen, a mere three-hour drive from his home in Acton, MA. His writing has appeared in The Colby Echo, The Jackson Hole News and Guide, and The Boston Globe Sunday Magazine.