The emergency responders on hand to help Rotorua's cyclists

by Gareth Eyres / 06 May, 2018
Photography by Gareth Eyres
Peak Safety director Mark “Budgie” Woods (left) and operations manager Nick Morrison on a training exercise in Rotorua’s Whakarewarewa Forest.

Peak Safety director Mark “Budgie” Woods (left) and operations manager Nick Morrison on a training exercise in Rotorua’s Whakarewarewa Forest.

Rotorua’s Whakarewarewa Forest is becoming a magnet for cyclists, but injuries in remote terrain create logistical issues for riders and rescue crews. Gareth Eyres profiles a new First Response Unit on call for emergencies.

Going for a ride after an arduous night shift seemed like the ideal wind-down for 32-year-old Zoe Gilmer. It was 8.30am on a Sunday, early in November.

Gilmer, a keen mountain-bike rider, headed out to Rotorua’s Whakarewarewa Forest for a spin down K2, one of the forest’s Grade 5 expert rides. For the St John paramedic and the two mates riding with her, Andrew Hedge and Shaun Neill (also a paramedic), it was a good challenge and well within Gilmer’s skill set.

Astride her new $5500 full-suspension, carbon mountain bike, she negotiated the challenging sections of the trail with ease. “Yeah, we cleaned it,” she says. “All the drops and the hard stuff are early on, and then you can cruise out the next bit. I came in a little hot down a straightaway [straight section], which had a couple of small logs across the trail. I was bopping along and just ran over the two logs, and unexpectedly got out of sync and bounced off.

“I put a foot down a hole that was a bit off-trail and spongy – my foot stayed, my body and bike went forward... and that was it. My first thought was, ‘Ohhhh, man, I need an ambulance.’ I clutched my foot, which was at right angles to my leg. There wasn’t much pain yet.”

The three riders were about 200m from the nearest forest road. There was no way Gilmer was going to walk out, and the pain would soon kick in. “I knew it was bad due to the angle and the fact there was a bit of bone sticking out and a hole in my ankle where there shouldn’t be.”

First, they contacted St John. “Call Scottish Graeme,” she told her mates. “I know he’s on duty. Tell him I need methoxy and bike patrol with their stretcher… there’s no way we can get a helo in here.” (Methoxyflurane is a quick-acting inhalation analgesic for short-term pain relief.)

Gilmer had grabbed just one hour’s sleep the night before; her job as a paramedic had kept her busy most of Saturday night. Now here she was, calling in her own emergency. Like many medical professionals, she had the slight out-of-body experience that comes with a personal injury. It’s as though the accident involves someone else, she explains, and your professional calm stays with you – an observer at your own calamity. “I told Shaun to call [the First Response Unit’s emergency hotline] 0800 WHAKA 1 and speak to Michelle. I knew she was on.”

Neill’s message began: “I’m out riding with Zoe on K2 and she’s fallen off and broken herself. Looks like a badly deformed ankle.” The victim even managed a joke, a favourite quote from the movie Fargo. “Zoe says, ‘Tell them it’s funny lookin’…’” Neill then walked out to the forestry road to wait for help to arrive. “Andrew stayed with me,” says Gilmer. “I lay down in this patch of sun and started plaiting blades of grass together. It wasn’t long before I heard the sound of the First Response Unit buggy coming to save me.” She grins.

Volunteer Michelle Robinson, an emergency department nurse, hopped off the buggy and jogged through the forest trail to the crash site. On her back she was carrying a first-aid backpack. The ambos weren’t far behind, with a Ferno Mule 2 stretcher – essentially a large, all-terrain, wheeled device that’s a bit like a double-ended wheelbarrow and can be handled by two people, making it useful for accessing out-of-the-way accidents. 

Zoe Gilmer.

Rotorua paramedic Zoe Gilmer in hospital, after calling in her own mountain-biking emergency.

Gilmer again took control of her own condition, assuring the others she could take methoxyflurane without contraindications. “I took two breaths,” she says, “and right away I was happy about life again.”

The ambulance crew arrived and with it “Scottish” Graeme Dalziel. “Graeme gave me a large dose of ketamine, then re-aligned my foot and put it in a splint. For a couple of minutes after that, I have no idea of what went on.”

Ketamine is an anaesthetic that allows the patient to stay awake during painful procedures. It can cause disconnection between the mind and body, and a brief sense of euphoria. Gilmer shows me a photo on her phone. She’s lying in a grassy swale, a splint on her foot, looking like she doesn’t have a care in the world.

Soon after, she was successfully stretchered down the forest trail and into the ambulance, then transported to Rotorua Hospital. “The team just wheeled me out... I remember thinking, ‘It’s not that bad; it’s only my foot. Thank God, it’s not my neck or my head.’

“The First Response Unit got there so much quicker than anyone else could have,” Gilmer says. “They’ve taken a lot of pressure off the St John crews. And the fact they’re active bikers [and know the terrain] makes it so much easier to recover bikers who have crashed.”

Mark Woods

Ski-patrol veteran Mark Woods rides for fun when he’s not on the job at Peak Safety, a network of 30 professional safety and medical personnel.

Last year, there were an estimated 500,000 biker and recreational user visits to Rotorua’s Whakarewarewa Forest and its 180km trail network. The town has become a mountain-bike mecca. But as the numbers and network of trails have increased, so has the injury count.

To cope with the pressure, in December 2016 the Rotorua Mountain Bike Club sourced national funding to pay for a professional arm to work alongside its voluntary First Response Unit – enabling a local safety operator, Peak Safety and Emergency Management, to become involved on a paid basis (the scheme now gets substantial backing from ACC).

This patrol system was created initially to cover weekends but, due to demand, their services were extended over the holiday period. This meant two Peak Safety patrollers were on call during daylight hours to help cover any incidents. Over summer 2016–2017, the crew was called out 98 times.

Peak Safety is the brainchild of longtime Whakapapa Ski Area safety services manager Mark “Budgie” Woods. Formed in 1996 as a two-man show, Peak Safety is now a network of 30 professional safety and medical personnel, providing safety and education services for events, the film industry, adventure tourism operators, ski areas and training organisations. Woods is a 35-year veteran of the Whakapapa ski patrol; the 2017 season was his last. “It will be great to be able to go to Ruapehu and just ski for fun.”

Mountain biking is another passion for Woods, and that was a factor in his relocation to Rotorua in 2006, well before he became involved with the First Response team. “With Crankworx returning this year, it’s going to be full on. We’ll be providing safety for the event and it’s professionally challenging. It’s critical we get it right.”

He says the skill set from years of ski-patrol work translates well to this type of event. “There are bits of terrain that are pretty technical to extract injured people from. We’ve done a lot of planning to make sure we have every eventuality covered, including roped lowers for some situations.”

Last year, the Peak team introduced some creative Kiwi ideas that Crankworx has adopted worldwide. “We’ve developed a robust concussion protocol for assessing the athletes after an injury, which determines if they’re fit to continue riding or not,” says Woods. “This was driven by our medical directors, Ben McHale and Tom Reynolds. These guys are decent athletes themselves.”

Accident statistics from 2017 show most riders who needed help from the First Response Unit were in the 10-19 age bracket, followed closely by the 20-29 and 40-49 groups. Many were locals, which reflects how the sport is taking off in Rotorua. On average, the unit responded to more than one incident a day, with several days including four or more rescues.

Back in Rotorua Hospital, a few days after her crash, Zoe Gilmer is on bed-rest and a lot of pain-relief medication. A volunteer patroller herself, she’s philosophical about facing a three-month break from the bike. “Yeah, I’m getting the hang of this now,” she says, admiring her fresh purple cast.

“I was in here not long ago when I broke my arm [in another mountain-biking accident]. They’re really good people. They manage your pain well and there’s TV to watch. You just have to get your head around it.” 

If you’re mountain biking in Rotorua and have an accident in the Whakarewarewa Forest trail network, phone 0800 WHAKA 1 from your cellphone. Always follow simple safety procedures: ride to your ability (start on easy tracks); wear a helmet and appropriate gear for the conditions; check your bike (make sure the bolts are tight, brakes are working and tyres are correctly filled). Rotorua has nine bike shops if you need any help.

This was published in the March 2018 issue of North & South.


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