Teen skier rescued from ‘The Land of the Little People’ at Steamboat Ski Area
Steamboat Springs — Lying in the deep snow in a lightly-skied corner of Steamboat Ski Area Dec. 28, Rye Kirchner realized he could be in a serious jam.
The 15-year-old skier’s head was downhill from his feet. His left ski was snagged on an aspen trunk and his knee was pumping out pain alerts. Just in time, Kirchner recalled seeing a snowboard instructor floating through the powder in his peripheral vision.
“I went off this drop, and I saw him down to the left of me,” Kirchner said. “Right after that, I dropped off this log, my right ski popped off, and I started to bomb the hill straight down, unable to turn. I tried to jump (away from a tree) at the last second and that’s how I hit my knee.”
Kirchner, was born and raised in Steamboat. He had been skiing alone the Wednesday after Christmas in a powder stash known as “Land of the Little People,” off the side of the black diamond Rolex trail.
Some Steamboat locals claim the hidden powder run is named after a small, boulder-studded clearing near the top of the run where the snow-capped rocks resemble gnomes. Others say it was inspired by the fact the aspen trees there are so tightly spaced you have to make yourself small to ski between them.
In either case, visibility was not good in the Land of the Little People on the day Kirchner was injured. Wind-driven snowflakes swirled amongst the skeletal aspen trunks.
It turned out that when the skier’s left knee struck the aspen tree, he broke his femur just above the knee at the growth plate. Crippled by the pain, there was no way the aggressive teenage skier was going to reach uphill to release the binding of his left ski. He couldn’t even reach his cell phone in the pocket of his ski pants.
Fortunately, he cried out just in time to catch the attention of the snowboard instructor, who summoned Steamboat Ski Patrol.
Rye’s mother, Paige, said she was throughly impressed with the way ski area employees took care of her son in difficult circumstances.
“The instructor stayed with Rye, which is amazing,” she said, and ski patrol managed to get the rescue toboggan through the aspen forest. “I really thought it was important to emphasize how hard they worked. The things these guys do and go through, I think they’re really great people.”
As luck would have it, the first patroller on the scene was a family friend of the Kirchners’, Paul Draper. The veteran ski patrolman actually contacted Rye’s mom from the accident scene.
“He called me from the trees and said, ‘Hi Paige, this is Paul, I’m calling from the Land of the Little People.’”
I said, “Hi Paul. This can’t be good news.”
Draper responded, “I’ve got Rye, it’s his knee, and we’ve got to haul him out of here. It will be a little while, but I’ll meet you down at Fetcher (Base).”
Ski Patrol has been busy this week responding to holiday skiers with a variety of injuries. Minor head injuries seemed to be the injury du jour on Dec. 29, based on emergency radio scanner traffic. But Steamboat Ski Patrol Director John Kohnke said the last week of December hasn’t stood out as being unusually busy for his patrollers.
Toboggan run through the forest
Paige Kirchner said she was impressed with the ability of ski patrollers to navigate the steep slope and the tightly spaced aspen trees where her son was hurt. But Kohnke said his patrollers have a system for handling just such a scenario.
The second patroller on the scene, Luke Cutler, already had a sense of where Draper had entered Land of the Little People, and Draper guided him closer by blowing on a rescue whistle he always wears around his neck.
Every ski patrol toboggan is fitted with a trailing rope attached to the back of the sled, Kohnke said. One patroller grasps the handles at the front of the sled, taking confidence from knowing that the other is in the rear, hanging onto the tail rope.
“It’s a challenge,” Kohnke said, “but when you’re negotiating the sled through tight trees, the person in front can go almost straight because the guy in back will side-slip with (a tight grip on) the tail rope to control the speed.”
The patroller bringing up the rear also steers the tail of the sled from left to right to snake it though the aspen trunks.
A friend in powder is a friend in need
Kohnke acknowledges the old saying, “there are no friends on powder days,” but said it’s always wise to ski with a companion. And he also had some good news for Rye Kirchner.
Before he left the scene with his patient tucked into the toboggan on Dec. 28, Draper tied strips of bright surveyor’s tape to some aspen trunks to mark the area where Kirchner’s right ski remained hidden beneath he snow.
“Of course, Paul’s focus was on the injury at the time,” Kohnke said. “But he went back in there and found the ski. That’s amazing. That’s above and beyond.”
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