Author’s Note: As snow piles up (depending on where you are) it can sometimes be hard to imagine that it is still early season. The legs are attempting to prove themselves worthy after some time focused on non-ski/snowboard related activities, objects are still sneakily hiding under thin layers of snow, and thoughts of rationality with regard to making wise decisions may be a little dusty. As mountain folk, this is what we live for — we desire and thrive on the winter snow, and when it doesn’t fall, traveling to higher elevations or other destinations is a must. When doing these sort of activities, it is important to keep safety in mind.
I remember coming into the hit with way too much speed. After coming off the lip, there was absolutely no chance of bailing. A set of trees that once seemed further in the distance was now in my face. I attempted to throw my board up as protection but the momentum was fierce. The very tip of my snowboard locked in tight between two trees, I heard a snap and slid ten feet down the rugged pole of jagged bristles. My head slammed face up in the snow while my legs stayed hung up in the tree.
Pain sharply pulsed in my lower extremities.
After the powder-filled winter of 2010-2011 in Tahoe, a dwindling snow accumulation trend crept into the region at the beginning of the 2012, so I headed north with a crew of friends to get a taste of Mt. Baker and Whistler-Blackcomb’s early season wet powder. The conditions were good for early season — the snow had filled in well and nearly all the runs at Whistler were open and accessible; there was soft snow to be had and an enormous mountain to explore. On day three we were flowing, discovering the chutes, the many bowls, the pillow lines, and off-piste delights. Still a bit of early season sloppiness, but it was much better than what we had back home.
Off the backside of Blackcomb, out of bounds, we came across a 15-foot cliff that had a subtle take off and a steep fluffy landing. We slapped down the snow a bit to form a ramp and took to the sky. It was all so energizing. All of a sudden we were amped up again, even after a full day of riding. We were ready to throw in the towel when I made that obnoxious “one more run!” announcement — a superstitious no-no in the snow sports community.
And I paid for it.
Perhaps a high ankle sprain, maybe a little break; everything will be alright, I thought. I looked up to see that my left leg was still in the binding but had been split in half just below my snowboard boot. My knee was aimed towards the sky while my foot was turned down to the ground in the total opposite direction of normal. I tried to convince myself that it wasn’t broken, but realism came into play.
Your leg is just dangling there wrapped around this tree. Your leg… is wrapped around this tree. Shit!
Panic and pain set in. I grunted. I moaned. Like a bear caught in trap. The shots of agony jarred my senses — somebody put my leg through a wood chipper. As I yelled for help, the urgency kicked in as one of my partners scurried ten yards up hill to the cat track to get help and the other rushed to assist me. No cell phone reception eliminated a quick and simple form of communication.
The pressure on my legs was a consistent stinging sensation, held together only by muscle and tissue. As I waited for my partners to arrive time slowly ticked away. I couldn’t take any more of the pain; I knew I had to be the one to undo my binding to release this unwanted weight pulling on my lower half. I made the lunge, leaned up to climb the tree and undo my binding. Each little movement sent jolts shooting through my body. As I unclicked the straps my foot came loose, it dropped four feet to the ground like a dam releasing water – the pressure subsided and my leg slapped onto the snowy ground. My partner, Miles, had reached me and the other partner, Ryan, had managed to track down a passing skier to pass the word along to ski patrol at the bottom of the hill. As I lay there they calculated their moves. Miles (fresh from a wilderness first responder course) created a bed out of skis underneath my body to keep me elevated the cold snow. With every movement, he offered words of encouragement and calm. He then snapped my leg back into alignment, setting it in a raised make shift splint until help could arrive.
As the first ski patroller arrived I was relieved. Soon after, a doctor with morphine; I was even more relieved. I suffered from a dull but persistent state of shock as my body shivered extensively from the cold. Heat packs kept me warm. The morphine sent me temporarily to cloud nine. The emergency team had created a pulley system by wrapping a rope around a sturdy tree on the nearby cat-track up above. Two patrollers attached the rope to a toboggan, lowered down to my level, and tucked me tight into the sled before moving me to a vertical position. As they proceeded to lift on counts of three through the thick snow, four patrollers heaved the sled up to flatter grounds. From there the bumpy ride to an ambulance and the Whistler clinic would begin.
After confirmation of a left tibula fibula open compound fracture (there was also an ankle break on the right leg that they did not diagnose) in the Whistler clinic, I was sent in an ambulance to Vancouver for surgery while Miles and Ryan stayed behind. The two-hour ride was uneventful and worrisome. With no insurance, in a foreign country, I was doomed and upon arrival at the hospital this was re-iterated. The nurse gave me a hard time and I was left with the dilemma of staying in Canada and paying $50,000 to $60,000 out of pocket for this procedure or as the doctor pointed out I could head back to the states and go to Harborview Trauma Center for possible low-income assistance. Thus the rogue mission began.
I called up Ryan in Whistler. Three hours later, he loaded me in the back of the car for a two and a half hour ride in the pouring rain to Seattle. With no medication left, each bump felt not dissimilar to a stone dropping on my leg. There was a lot of angst, and being that it was nearly 2:00 a.m. when we arrived at the border, we assumed there would be a lot of questions as to what is this cracked-out, hospital-gowned freak doing in the back of this car. Strangely enough, the border patrol didn’t give us much grief and it was quick but rough sailing (and hydroplaning) down I-5.
We finally arrived at the emergency entrance to Harborview at 4:00 a.m., greeted and welcomed by an extensive team of doctors and nurses. I was wheeled away to get scans, x-rays, and surgery. When I came two, they had put one metal rod into my left leg and a metal plate on my right ankle. I didn’t know whether the journey had just ended or had just begun, but I did know that I was extremely lucky to be okay and to have such wonderful people help me to get to that point.
After an accident, many ideas pop into ones head as to how a situation could have been handled better. Luckily the mistake that I made wasn’t as bad as it could have been. It acts a reminder as to how to be more prepared if or when an accident occurs. Sometimes we may think we know it all but there are many simple facts that we may be reluctant to address. Things to consider when heading out into the side-country or backcountry.
As much as insurance can be a hassle, it is extremely important. We may not want to dish out the extra cash; however, you never know what may be lurking around the corner, and having a good plan is essential — from considering domestic and foreign (when leaving the country) health care options, as well as possible helicopter evacuations.
Avalanche and first aid training.
It is always a plus to have avalanche and medical knowledge, especially if you are heading into the backcountry. Have a first aid kit, medical knowledge, and don’t forget to travel with a shovel, beacon, and probe. Create a plan for worst case scenarios and communicate that with your partner(s). Make sure you are on the same page and discuss these ideas collectively.
If you are heading somewhere far out, think about such options as a satellite phone, a spot device, or other communication options as cell phones may not have service in that area. Think about how to talk with your partner(s), and choose partner(s) with knowledge so that everyone’s skills can compliment each other.
Don’t get too extreme.
Manage risk with rationale thoughts. If you are in a place that may be hard for evacuation perhaps rethink that double-cork off of that 50-foot cliff. If the terrain looks a bit sketch turn around, it’s not worth the hassle.