Backcountry rescue drills keep Stowe first responders on their toes

Published: Feb. 2, 2023 at 6:13 PM EST
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STOWE, Vt. (WCAX) - Search and rescue calls have been increasing over the past few years in our region. Calls for help can range from a cardiac arrest on the top of a mountain during the summer to an injured backcountry skier lost in the woods. And when it comes to central Vermont, it’s often Stowe Mountain Rescue crews that are the first to respond.

“That alarm can go off at any time of the day or night,” said Jon Wehse, Stowe Mountain Rescue’s chief. In the winter, Mount Mansfield, Vermont’s tallest peak, can go from crystal clear visibility to lost in a snowstorm in minutes -- which can leave even the most skilled hikers or skiers in trouble. So, when the call comes in, Wehse and his crew start to plan and execute a rescue. “There’s a rush of adrenaline, then your instincts kick in,” Wehse said.

In recent years, calls for help have increased significantly. Before 2020, Stowe Mountain Rescue averaged 30 to 35 calls a year. Last year it spiked to over 60. Wehse points to the pandemic as a key reason for the increase in calls. “More people who are finding themselves cooped up inside due to COVID restrictions now want to get outside,” he said.

On this day, the crew is just taking part in a training exercise. “No chance of getting lost today. We are only going up into the woods a little bit,” Wehse said. Joining the crew is a group of future doctors. “We are not doctors. We are EMTs or advanced EMTs providing a certain level of care.”

Sarah Schlein, a professor of emergency medicine at the University of Vermont Larner College of Medicine, is leading a course on wilderness medicine. She brought her students and staff to see what Stowe Mountain Rescue is capable of. “The amount of skill and expertise and training and so much that goes into bringing someone from the backcountry, eventually into the doors of the hospital,” she said.

“The intent is to show all of you what happens pre-hospital,” Wehse explains to the group. And with that, he kicks off the practice scenario. “I’ve got a 67-year-old male ski accident; lower leg injury; extremely cold; has been in the snow for a few hours.”

Every mission starts with loading up the proper gear. And even though it’s practice, the crew has to carry dozens of pounds of gear needed to treat a patient and make sure every member of the rescue team stays safe. “It’s not going to be easy either way,” Wehse said.

With the students in tow, the rescue crew enters the woods. On the hike in, Wehese explains that he likes to go over the plan in his head and what could go wrong. “I start thinking about plans B and C. What happens if something goes sideways? What if the patient is in more critical shape?” he said.

When the patient is located, rescue tech Stella Richards takes the lead. “As you approach the subject, the first thing you do is look for life threats,” she explained. Today, the patient is being “played” by another crew member. Once the patient has been evaluated, they are loaded onto a litter to start the journey back down the mountain to safety.

Crew members carry and pull the litter through the snow toward the fastest and easiest way off the mountain - in this case, a 30- foot, ice-covered cliff. They set up a high-angle system with ropes attached to the litter at the top and bottom of the cliff. The journey down begins, with slips and obstacles to overcome along the way.

Back on level ground, the crew unwraps their actor-patient and everyone finishes the hike back out of the woods. “So, what you just saw coming down the hill -- we would take him all the way out to a waiting ATV or to the ambulance,” Wehse said. He says while the exercise was shorter than most of their actual rescues, what the students saw was real. “We did not fake anything there. It was all real tactics that we would use to extract a patient from the backcountry in the wilderness in the winter time.”

“Pretty amazed, impressed,” said Alex Cavert, one of the UVM meds students taking part. “We kind of learned the medical side, but to see the teamwork -- the ropes aspect and the communication of a high-functioning team -- was impressive and exciting.”

“Being able to understand the scenarios that patients find themselves in, what they would be going through in those scenarios,” added UVM student Daniel Castro.

Wehese’s main message for would-be adventurers heading into the mountains -- be prepared for the conditions but don’t be afraid to call if you have an emergency. “Go enjoy the backcountry, but do it in such a way where you’ve got a good plan,” he said.

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