I haven’t written much, in fact nothing at all, about this season’s snowboarding. Part of this is due to a certain amount of repetition, I mean how many powder shots from Wolf Creek can one person post. On the other hand, on this year’s trip to BC, while we didn’t have any fresh powder tracks to capture there were so many spectacular scenery shots that I didn’t know where to start. The rest of the season found me mostly skiing alone and more concerned with getting first turns than capturing any of it for posterity. Last week, found me traveling to Alaska for our annual trip and with the cameras rolling I certainly got much more than I bargained for.
This year we decide to head to Valdez Alaska home of the legendary Chugach Range. My three previous trips had been to Haines, Alaska where we had had variable conditions but always a great time. Our group had been culled from people I had met on previous adventures and was the same one I had skied with earlier in the season in BC. David, an incredibly strong snowboarder and all around recreational athlete who I had met on my first heli trip 12 years ago, Kevin, who I met while skiing out of bounds at Keystone and subsequently discovered that we lived less than a half mile away from each other and had kids the same age, and Aaron who I met in Haines two years prior and whose love for the Chugach Range might be the greatest snow passion I have ever seen. All are experienced and strong skiers/boarders whose love of powder and adventure made for strong bonds and quick yeses when an opportunity to go heliskiing presented itself.
The first two days of the trip had been nothing to write home about. We thought our timing would be perfect – Valdez had received several feet of snow the preceding weeks and was now under the influence of a massive high pressure system (in other words, nothing but blue skies). However, there had been a big wind event at the end of the storm which had compressed the powder to varying degrees depending upon location. On day one we found some nice if not particularly deep snow but since we were the third group in the lineup we ended up skiing a lot of leftovers and working around the preferred fall lines. On day two we hit almost nothing but severely wind packed snow so got off the mountain as soon as we could to save our heli time.
This is not to say that we weren’t having a damn good time anyway. The operation we were skiing with Black Ops Valdez had it’s own lodge so instead of our usual Alaska routine of staying in dilapidated houses or funky trailers eating lots of PB&J sandwiches we were in a beautiful lodge overlooking Robe Lake and eating delicious multi course meals. The Black Ops crew is a relatively small but experienced group that offers a wide variety of snow activities and was gearing up for Tailgate Alaska, an annual huge celebration that happens at Thompson Pass every year.
The guide assigned to our heli group was particularly noteworthy – Adrian Ballinger – a world class mountain climber who has summited Everest 6 times and works in Valdez in his offseason. Dinner time involved many a fascinating story about adventures of all those around the table – this is traditionally one of the best aspects of one of these trips – swapping tales with kindred spirits around the table while enjoying local food and drink. So regardless of the snow conditions we were very much enjoying ourselves and our new surroundings.
On day three things started to come together as they only can in Alaska. There were only two groups in the field and we immediately found nice snow on steep pitches which is what Alaska is all about. We took turns barreling down untouched slopes and trading off the camera so we could all have pictures to remember it by. After about 6 runs the other group decided to call it a day so we added their guide to our group and headed off for some more runs.
We then landed on what appeared to be a typical ridgetop and watched the heli fly off. I was sitting by my gear contemplating my next step when everything changed in a second. I don’t remember hearing any sound but all of a sudden I felt myself falling through space surrounded by snow. The cornice on which we had been sitting had split in half and I was unfortunately on the half that was now careening down the mountain. My first thought was calmly, “this is how you die in Alaska – I am about to be buried in an avalanche.” I was now cartwheeling down the mountain, periodically bouncing off the snow all the while seeing nothing but snow – kind of like being in a washing machine. My mind then shifted into the instructions I had heard in so many avy briefings – swim as hard as you can to stay on top of the surface and try to create an air pocket in front of your mouth if you’re buried. I was just getting my hand in front of my mouth and was reaching upward with my other arm when suddenly we came to a stop.
Remarkably we were all on top of the snow. Because the snow was not that deep the minor avalanches that the cornice triggered were relatively shallow. And because we had not been sitting on top of a couloir or any other kind of terrain trap, the debris had a chance to disperse laterally instead of piling on top of us. We had however, tumbled over 800 feet powered by a chunk of cornice that they later estimated to being 8 feet deep by 20 feet wide.
When everything stopped moving I found myself laying face down on top of the snow. I still could not move which lead me to hope that my body was merely buried. However as soon as I tried to dig myself out I realized that there was something seriously wrong with my left leg and that not being able to move was a function of the bottom of my leg now being barely attached to the top. As subsequent doctor visits would confirm I had torn all four ligaments in my knee along with numerous other tendons and meniscus and dislocated my kneecap.
At first this was not all that painful and what I heard next was the sound of our guide Adrian moaning. As he told me later, he is not much a moaner but had sustained a concussion and wasn’t entirely sure of what had happened and asked both Aaron who had fallen with us and the heli pilot to keep an eye on him. I had assumed we had all fallen but quickly discovered it was just the three of us and while Aaron and Adrian both had rib injuries, I was the only one who could not move under my own power. Adrian worked his way over to me and immediately saw from the position of my leg that at best I had a broken leg as my foot was facing in the wrong direction. Aaron soon followed and kept telling me to hang in there while the pain kicked in and I began to realize just how messed up my leg was.
Of course, my usual glass half full attitude immediately kicked into gear and rather than celebrate the fact that I was still alive and apparently not paralyzed, I was furious at the gods for tearing up my knee and sending me once again down that long road to recovery. From there it was one long, painful slog to the helicopter, to the base, to the bus, to the hospital where they got my pants off and I could see the misshapen balloon where my knee used to be. At that point my kneecap was still way off to the side so after a quick shot of morphine they moved it back to where it more rightly belonged and now had plenty of time to calmly consider what had just happened.
I guess I had always thought it was an all or nothing proposition. Either I’d be the statistically unlucky person who got caught in an avalanche and died in which case it would not be a problem for me – just my friends and family (admittedly a very selfish proposition) or I would be in the vast majority who heliski in Alaska and come home with great tales of big mountains and deep powder. I had done three heli trips to Alaska before and while had seen numerous slides and heard about plenty of accidents I was in the usual denial of a recreational heli skier – that the heli ops are always going to err on the side of caution as killing your customers is very bad for business. Perhaps I should have paid more attention to the fact that my guide from the first season I was in Alaska had subsequently died in an avalanche the next season but we had heard rumors that it was a guest’s fault for pushing limits so that wouldn’t happen to our well behaved group. Or perhaps I was thinking the odds were in our favor when we heard about the numerous accidents that had happened recently included a guide death in Haines – surely this would make everyone more cautious and the snow had had a lot more time to settle.
And yet our accident had nothing to do with avalanche conditions or pushing our luck on the steeps. After all a very heavy helicopter had just landed on the ridge which collapsed and you can see from the photos that we were not close to the edge. As a group we had been in many, many potentially more hazardous landings spots – this one did not set off any internal alarms for any of us and at the time we had a guide with us who had 20 plus years guiding in the area and was a local legend as well as our own guide who was used to taking people to the summit of the highest mountains in the world – this was no hot shot – johnny come lately crew.
The thing is that random unexpected stuff does happen in the mountains and if you happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time the consequences are likely to be very high. All of us that were involved in the accident were sure things were going to turn out much worse while it was happening. When I look at the pictures and show them to other folks almost everyone’s immediate response it that I’m lucky to be alive. And yes, it is very hard for me to reconcile the word “lucky” with the conversation I had with the first doc who saw my knee and said that the damage was “catastrophic”, as “bad as it could be” and that “my knee would haunt me for the rest of my life” – no sugar coating for him. I’m also a tad bitter that the fall was no fault of mine other than making the decision to go snowboard Alaska. But this is how it works in the big mountains – you don’t have to personally screw up in order to end up in serious trouble – I decided to spin the wheel of fate by being there in the first place.
The good news regarding my knee is that I did not sustain any arterial damage and that I live only two hours away from the Steadman Clinic in Vail, Colorado where one of the best knee doctors in the world resides. This is where I will be spending the next to last week of the ski season (while celebrating my 55th birthday) instead of on the nearby slopes I know so well. While I am certainly nervous about the operation, at least I’m confident that if anyone can fix me up, these guys can do it.
So what have I learned from this experience? That when I was falling there was no panic just a resignation that this was it? That a matter of inches can make all the difference in the world (David who was sitting right next to me on the snow ended up with one leg hanging over the new lip but did not fall)? That “lucky” is a very relative term? It’s certainly reinforced a belief that I’ve long had – that you never know what’s going to happen and your life can change in a second and there’s no going back once it does. But oddly enough it has been that thought which has driven me to go explore big hills and chase my dreams whenever I had the opportunity – it’s just that when I was considering the “you never knows” they were usually in the context of random disease or car accidents, not an avalanche or cornice failure.
So while it may be too early to say whether it was all worth it (though I don’t see how it couldn’t be given the amazing times I’ve had in the mountains) – it is most certainly too late to do anything about it other than buck up and make the best of it. And one thing that I’ve learned for sure is that a lot of people care about me which is one thing to know in the abstract and quite another to experience first hand. All my friends and family have been incredibly helpful and Benita (the daughter of a nurse) has been a godsend without whom I would have not gotten through the first week. I am not one who finds it easy to ask others for help – I’ve always prided myself on self sufficiency but this is not something I can get through alone nor would I want to even if I could. So thank you all for your support now and in the future and hopefully this will not be the last post from the gluten free snowboarder…