May 26 2014

May I have another please…

Vail PT

I have always depended upon the kindness of strangers…

Tomorrow marks the six week anniversary of my surgery. On the one hand I’ve made tremendous progress since then as immediately after surgery my leg was one big swollen mass that I could barely bend at all. Now I can see my ankle bones again, have had all my stitches and bandages removed and can almost bend it 90 degrees. On the other hand, it took me almost ten minutes and five rest stops to walk 2 blocks this week and I have paid dearly for everyone of those degrees of mobility. So I alternate between a small sense of optimism that it’s eventually going to be all better and a deep depression over how far I have to go.

Fortunately my two primary helpers, Benita and Miles have been very tolerant of my mood swings. Weekends are the toughest as during the week my work keeps me busy but on the weekends the days stretch out forever. Throughout my life I have always used exercise to keep me sane and my energy balanced and really I’m not sure how I’ve lasted this long without it. But I guess we humans are remarkably adaptable creatures, given no choice we keep on going and doing things that in theory don’t seem possible.

Physical therapy is the key to the road back and is both very rewarding and exceedingly painful. It’s really encouraging to hear my therapist say my knee is looking better and see it bend a little further than the last time but then the session starts and now it’s all about pain tolerance. While it feels like to me that there is a mechanical limit to how much I can bend my leg, my therapist assures me it could go further if I would only relax my muscles that are resisting and focus on something besides the pain that comes when he pushes me past what I think is my limit. I am no longer taking any narcotics so I wonder out loud if they could just knock me out for 45 minutes and do whatever they want with my leg while I was unconscious. Unfortunately that does not seem to be an option so instead I grimace and bear it and leave the sessions totally exhausted.

At home, I have a whole other set of exercises designed to do the same thing. Fortunately those involve a stopwatch which gives me an end point that I can focus on. Surely I can stand another 30 seconds, 20 seconds, 10 and oh the joy when the clock hits zero. While I generally lack patience I am nothing if not disciplined so I do everything I’m supposed to and then hit the ice machine for some short term relief.

Tomorrow being six weeks also means I am allowed to start weight bearing on the bad leg. While I’m not sure how this works, it ultimately means I will be able to get rid of my crutches and while I have these new fancy ones that are easier to use, I will not miss them for a second. Having your hands tied up when you move from place to place means carrying things with you that are larger than pocket size is very problematic and means you are totally dependent upon others to move almost anything around and frankly I’m no Blanche Dubois.

I’m frequently asked what the timetable for my recovery looks like and unfortunately no one without psychic powers can answer this question. So much depends on how my knee (particularly my meniscus) responds and it seems like it’s a 50/50 proposition that they may have to go back in at some point for further work but that in the bigger scheme of things that would not be a huge setback. I was just recently give a new brace that I have to wear for the next six months 24/7 so there is a timetable on that but I’m best off not trying to figure out “whens” and just focusing on what I need to do today. Being a pessimist by nature that leads me to totally write off the next ski season but I must admit there is a tiny part of me that dreams about some spring skiing next year especially as I see my friends are already planning a trip to BC next March – highly unlikely but you never know.

I’m not really sure who I’m writing this for as no one is really interested in the minutiae of my recovery but I figure as long as I’m documenting everything else I might as well include this and perhaps it will be helpful someday in providing me perspective on the whole experience. There are moments when I still can’t believe this has happened to me and don’t know how I’m going to make it through the next year but then I remember there’s nothing I can do about it that I’m not already doing so I just sigh (or cry, depending on my mood) and continue on my merry way. I’m sure there are some bigger life lessons here but those will have to wait till further down the line when I’m looking back in a more reflective mood – right now it’s just a matter of putting one crutch in front of the other…

 


Apr 27 2014

Rehab, anyone?

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My newly refurbished left knee

First comes the accident – unexpected, chaotic and life changing in less than a minute. Then comes surgery – definitely expected, very controlled and over in a matter of hours. Last comes rehab – definitely expected, many, many variables and lasts a long, long time. The accident was like spinning a gigantic wheel of fate – could of have escaped entirely (like two of my friends did), could have easily died – ended up somewhere in the middle (major injury but nothing life threatening or overly traumatic). The surgery was brutal – 4 and a half hours, very complicated, total rebuild from scratch required but lucked out and got one of the best docs in the world to do it and went as well as it could. Rehab – just getting started down a very long road but finally I get to have some say in the matter and that feels good.

One of the major recurring themes for me of this whole experience has been the notion of luck. Never has the term “relative” meant so much. Definitely got unlucky that the cornice collapsed, lost again when I got caught in it, won the battle when I didn’t die, and could have done much better (as my two fellow tumblers did) or much worse (paralysis, brain injury, amputation – just to name a few) on the injury front. Every time I show my medical record to someone I go through the same process. First they take a look at the damage and are suitably impressed  - no run of the mill ACL tear here – and immediately ask how this happened. Then after I describe the scenario and maybe show them a picture, we’re in “you’re lucky to be alive territory”. And then, there’s there’s all the rest – what do we do now?

The first doc who saw me locally did me a major favor and quickly acknowledged that while he could fix me up, their were people close by who were a lot more experienced at this than he and I might be well suited to visit them. Like any athlete in Colorado, I was well aware of the Steadman Clinic in Vail where all the professional skiers and lots of other major athletes go to have surgery and rehab. And because I live in the state of Colorado, my insurance company considers them in network so no additional cost to use them over any other provider. This clearly falls on the good fortune side, yes?

So I call them on the phone, get a consult with surgery tentatively set and have my brother fly out to help me get there and get through the surgery. Only when I see the doc, it turns out I have a blood clot so have to have another procedure first where a valve gets installed in my stomach which means no knee surgery and another week of waiting – not the best of “luck” but not at all uncommon and once again a lot better than that clot getting loose before discovery and floating up to my heart and lungs and potentially killing me.

Finally we get to surgery – major, major damage to all ligaments and other attachments – nothing holding the leg together so they have to have three docs just hold the leg in place the whole time so main surgeon can work on it. Initially can’t find meniscus and are about to give up on that when it finally appears. All in all, surgery is a success but is that good luck that they were able to overcome some serious obstacles or bad luck that it was so screwed up in the first place?

In the end, obviously “good luck/bad luck” – none of it matters. It is what it is, gotta deal with the cards dealt, time to move on to something where I have some control over the outcome and that is rehab. Now my will and determination come in to play. Still a ton of variables (particularly how my body responds) but at least it’s no longer just a waiting game for me. Initially there’s not a lot I can do – since they had to rebuild everything from scratch there is no strengthening to be done until the new ligaments and graphs have set up. This means most of my day is comprised of short bouts of stretching mixed with long bouts of icing and seeing how far over my head (heart actually) I can get my leg without my hips and hamstring applying for amnesty. Now I was not a particularly limber guy before the accident – a yoga teacher used to refer to me as a “classic stiff white guy” (at least I hope she was referring to my flexibility) so this constant raising my leg as far as it can go is not only problematic but incredibly uncomfortable.

But once again I guess this is something that I should be “thankful” for – the biggest issues I face right now are being physically uncomfortable all the time and the resulting lack of sleep that follows. I’m not paralyzed, crippled or brain damaged (at least not permanently – in the short term the narcotics are definitely not making me smarter).  I’m making good progress so far in the mobility department – up to 65 degrees – and that is the biggest short term battle – getting as much mobility as I can before the scarring sets in.  So as I slowly evolve from glutenfreesnowboarder to ligamentfreesnowboarder to hopefully onceagainasnowboarder I’ll continue to ponder the concept of “lucky” and will let you know when I figure it out…

 


Apr 22 2014

The enemy is finally starting to show her face…

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Time to pay the piper

It’s 3 am once again and here I am back at the writing tablet. I was here at the same time last night but that was a very different experience. That was almost giddy fun in a way – let’s play this recovery from an injury as a comedy, milk it for a few laughs and get some sympathy at the same time.

Tonight is a very different game. Tonight is the start of a long new battle with a very old adversary.  I knew she was out there, lurking, just biding her time. She’s a very sneaky opponent always changing forms. She is pain. Not sharp, I stepped on a tack pain, although that’s in her repertoire, she is constant, overwhelming, unrelenting but yet still a little subtle in her own way pain.

Most people assume that if you have an experience like I did tumbling down a mountain that it gosh darn must hurt a lot. And while I’m sure for a lot of people in similar scenarios that is the case for me it initially didn’t . When I was falling everything was happening so quickly and I vaguely remember feeling my leg plant in a unusual but not searingly painful way somewhere during the ride. I can’t have tumbled more than 20 seconds and then I was upside down in the snow, knowing that I’ve been totally conscious during the ride, but that’s something’s not quite right – I can’t seem to move my leg but it’s not because I’m buried – my initial hope – but because something is wrong with my leg – it has been rotated far beyond what is has been designed to do. As soon as the guide makes it over he sees my leg pointing in the wrong direction and knows at the very least something is broken and starts the rescue.

At this point I know I’ve fucked up big time. But it’s not pain that’s my immediate concern. Yes it’s nasty and moving my body is rather unpleasant but this is not a searing, god I can’t take this, kill me now sort of pain. Maybe it’s the body protecting itself with adrenaline and maybe it’s just the the right biology but even while I’m screaming while they move me to the helicopter I know part of me is just being dramatic and that if some kind of reward for being quieter were available I could have chosen that route.

Now if you know me you know I’m not that tough, actually I’m a bit of a wimp and never hesitant to share my misery. This of course comes heavily into play in this scenario, where I am given full license to be the unhappiest person in the room and naturally I take full advantage of it. I chose to curse a blue streak and berate the gods for their callousness. Aaron, my buddy who has also taken a tumble of his own and gotten his own injuries (albeit far less serious upon initial assessment) takes a far more intelligent path and focuses on the fact that my god, somehow 3 of us have tumbled 1000 feet down a very nasty slope (your general worst case scenario) and we’re still alive – we have so much to be thankful for (we both have children) and everything ultimately is going to be alright – it’s a god damn miracle, and he’s right.

But that’s not what I see because I’m not a glass half full type of guy. No, what I see and start immediately calculating is how much a pain in the ass this injury is going to be, how much pain, how much rehab, how much inconvenience this is going to be. And I’m very good at this, having torn major body parts before and more importantly having long mastered the art of using my finely honed analytic skills to parse out all the different ways this is going to suck the fun out of my life for the foreseeable future. Am I an ungracious bastard or what? Here by some miracle my life has been spared and yet that’s the last thing I’m focused on.

But why that is and why anyone should care is a story for another evening. Tonight we’re talking about pain and while the ride to the hospital is rather uncomfortable, it’s really not all that unbearable and soon enough we’re there. This is where modern medicine kicks in, the nurses start firing questions and while they know it’s not good from the looks of it, they’re mostly concerned with making sure it’s not life threatening and after a number of quick assessments we know this is not the case. And really, I’m in Valdez, where in addition to the number of heli ops guaranteeing some good action, this is a major industrial port with major industrial accidents so nothing too exciting here.

Pretty soon I’m all doped up and that when any really significant pain ends until I go into surgery almost three weeks later. Yeah, it’s a a pain in the ass to lug your leg around in a cast but actually not all that painful – there is a definite distinction there and that’s what tonight’s story is all about. Surgery is painful. That’s why that got the anesthesiologist who’s sole task it is to keep his/ her eye on your pain. And modern medicine has more drugs and tricks for numbing that pain than hopefully you will ever need to find out. That’s great and has led to people recovering from all sorts of thing that would have been pretty much impossible in the past. But it can’t get rid of all of it and that’s what bring us to tonight.

So when I was in the heli/bus counting and ranking the list of unpleasantries this accident was going to incur, pain was high on the list. Because I remember that when I tore my ACL previously that when a friend accidentally bumped into my leg a few days after getting home from post op I wanted nothing more that to remove him and every trace of his past from the face of the earth for merely touching my leg – real pain, take me now lord kind of action. And given the severity of my recent injury and what would be involved in fixing it, I knew there would have to be some kind of reckoning for that.

I am nothing if not practical. Once you take out the option of not fighting the battle at all, I want to know immediately what I’m dealing with, what I’m going to have to do to get through this. I know I can deal with the rehab, I know I can handle all the logistics, but what I didn’t  know and have been wondering ever since I ended upside down in the snow, is can I deal with the pain?

You see, I have a little problem with narcotics. No I’m not the addictive type, but most of what makes them work well for a lot of people doesn’t work real well for me. Narcotics don’t knock me out, they wire me up – that’s why you got last nights giddy stream of consciousness. I can’t really sleep while taking them. And on top of all that they cause the same side effects that everyone hates – constipation, nausea and general unpleasantness.

This is why many of my friends who have had to deal with this have approached it in the same manner I have, which is try to get off of them as soon as possible or find one that is tolerable. My problem is that I find none of them tolerable and that with the amount of trauma my body is dealing this time with getting off them any time soon is not a possibility.

Which once again leads me back to tonight since up until now I haven’t been entirely sure what I was dealing with. You see since my last surgery they’ve added this new things called pain blockers – little bags of meds they keep attached to you after surgery that help fight/mask the pain. And until tonight I just haven’t been sure how much of a role they’ve been playing because the pain has been way up and down. One minute I think, hey this isn’t so bad, maybe I got lucky this time and then all of a sudden all I can think about is that throbbing in my leg. Turns out the pain blockers have been responsible for the “maybe I’ve gotten lucky this time” thinking because as the last drops work their way though my system my old nemesis has been rearing her ugly head.

The thing that really clued me into the possibility that this scenario might play out this way was the huge quantities of narcotics my docs prescribed for me for post op. Surely there must be some kind of mistake – why would I need week’s worth’s of painkillers – in the past, a couple of days, week tops for the prescription. And more importantly, why we’re there two sets – one for short term pain and the other for long – kind of a fine line there. And I don’t remember them coming with stool softener and anti nausea right off the bat because didn’t they take a while to develop and thus might not be necessary at all if all went well?

That because my old friend has a few allies on her side this time. Now that the pain blockers have worn off and I can actually feel my leg again I can tell just how much my love, support and most importantly, time my knee needs to become whole again. This is not a repair, this is a rebuild from scratch.

Now if you’ve hung in this long I want you to know that this is not all bad news for me. Yes, I’m pissed that I’m clearly going to need to be taking these narcotics for weeks. Which means lots of sleepless nights and more essays (oh lucky you, faithful reader) And yes, my knee needs a lot of love and tenderness but so far she’s responded beautifully. But now I know exactly who I’m dealing with – who I will be sharing my mind with till I can escape her grasp. And I have a new weapon too, one that they taught me about in school all those years ago. I’m going to use my words…


Apr 21 2014

Oh how the stream of consciousness flows through the night…

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The latest incarnation of the happy boy

April 21 2:00 am - it is now day 26 post accident but only day 6th post surgery. I just awoke from a rousing one hour nap ( the plan had been to so exhaust myself that I couldn’t possibly not sleep at least several hours but that appears to have failed). I immediately felt what I fondly refer to as the glacier that currently resides on my kneecap and thus once again bitterly blamed the 24 hour ice machine that I wear almost all the time, but when I reach inside the cuff I realize it’s not cold at all (it cycles on and off) and the freezing is just my mind’s interpretation of the pain. That there’s any pain at all is quite amazing to me seeing how they’re passing massive amounts of narcotics through my system and that I still have two working pain blockers physically attached to me. All in all I do have a rather pleasant buzz going on at the moment other than the glacier which is more of a distant concern than anything right in my face, but more than enough to squelch any thoughts of sleep at this time. I am now on a self medicating routine (in the hospital they wake you up and give you the drugs whether you want them or not)) and everyone warns you not to let the pain get ahead. This is a hard concept to grasp in the middle of the day when my head is pounding with blood and the drugs are making me nauseous and my knee doesn’t feel particularly bad ( just rather uncomfortable) so my first though is the cure is worse than the disease and maybe I just got particularly lucky in regards to the pain, but at 2:00 in the morning the wisdom of this approach becomes very clear – as if I were not experiencing this discomfort through the veil of the various short term and long term painkillers I would be a very unhappy boy indeed and would be currently screaming for my brother Paul (who is in the other bedroom) to come in here and very quickly end my misery.

My brother graciously agreed to come out and help me with this tricky transition from the hospital back to civilian life and clearly had no idea of what he was getting himself into. If you’ve ever had major surgery to any bendable joint or other painful body part you know exactly what I’m talking about and have probably already given up reading this. This is the second time I’ve damaged my knee and in both case the actually damaging was not, all things considered, particularly painful. The surgery on the other hand is brutally invasive and the post op the part that really smarts. In this case, having gone significantly above and beyond the normal call of damage one typically does in a ski accident (still hate using that term because it wasn’t technically a ski accident since I was not actually skiing nor had my board on at the time, but how else do you quickly explain to people why you were sitting 1000 feet on top of a glacier in Alaska if skiing we’re not a part of the equation) the post op is bound to be particularly nasty.

And just a side note inside a side note inside a side note is that I know I must be telling this story in Colorado because at least half of my listeners ask me how the skiing was before the accident – which if truth be told I would probably get around to eventually  if someone were telling this story to me.

Anyway, I think I was doing my usually ranting about how significant my injury is/was (in terms of knee injuries that is) because this is my one point of honor among the walking wounded and dozens of medical personnel I meet daily. While I much rather have simply blown out one or two or even three (quite typical actually – I believe it’s known as the terrible triad) of my knee ligaments, since I have somehow managed to blow out all four I want my extra credit on the patient rehab sympathy score, so that when someone asks me about the what/when in the PT (Physical Therapy for those who have somehow blessedly skipped this experience) clinic – and this one in Vail is the PT clinic of PT clinics (any professional athlete who has had a serious sports injury and wanted to return to his former job stands a good chance of having been here – I could fish for a few names of current clients but the HEPA act prohibits this kind of conversation so instead I just look at the signed professional sports jerseys on the wall  and try and feel a kind of kindred spirit with them)  - there’s the sick competitive side of me that wants, when I talk to some newly met partner in pain to play my trump card and have them feel sorry for me in comparison to their one measly ligament procedure being a mere walk in the park  (now we all know that that’s a slippery slope that I emailed quite a few of you about right before I went into surgery when I saw a feature on the Today show about a paralyzed Boston Marathon runner which immediately shut down my woe is me act – this is just a knee we’re talking about here)

And of course my big trump card, my can you top this, is the picture of the route we fell down the mountain. This is what I show people, the medical personnel when they ask me how I got here. They are always very impressed and of course the next line is invariably “You’re lucky to be alive”. Now while I will joke about many other things in this post/email – what that means to me, how I got there, and what if anything I will do with that concept is a more serious subject for another time that I will thankfully spare you all from (until at least I have condensed it down from the two hour version I inflicted upon the innocent bystanders Kevin and Beth along with my brother  earlier this evening who certainly got more that they bargained for by asking me how it was going).

So what I want from the clinic if I’m lucky enough to achieve it – since I’m not noteworthy enough for a signed glory shot of me ripping down some vertical face post surgery (more realistically if anything it would be one more shot of me moseying down some leisurely meadow at Wolf Creek – with David Cole right behind me – don’t worry, that’s an inside joke that hopefully will never get old)  is for the clinic to blow up poster of that shot so that in the future somebody else can ask themselves (as several have asked me) I wonder what line those guys were intending to ski anyway?

Not sure how I got here but I believe I was intending to describe the rather challenging week my brother Paul has gotten to share with me. Now while I know in one way this is something he will treasure and use to his advantage in oh so many future life transactions and birthday cards but I also know the reality of it has not been all that much fun for him and he has certainly stepped up to the plate. I have definitely at times leaned towards making him my manservant because hell, if I’m going to have to pay for this in the future I might as well make the most of it now and he’s never ever (please, please let this be true) going to feel sorrier for me than he does right now. I’ve probably never been more cavalier about my use of niceties like please and thank you so let’s get this out of the way right now; PLEASE and THANK YOU for everything you’ve done for me this week  and my apologies for a couple of those comments about a certain lack of proper focus that in my drug addled mind seemed to crop up during the week.

My brother is a serious smoozer – he loves meeting new people in all sorts of situations and this particular scenario provided all sorts of opportunities. He is also like all the Gilbert boys  a humorist (at least that’s how we like to frame it) and is always looking for opportunities to make people laugh. I assure you this had nothing to do with my drug addled complaints about a certain lack of proper focus at times (and oh yes, we Gilbert boys like to chew on bones a good long while before we bury them). And he has had clearly the best line about my accident in pointing out that I need to rename my blog ligamentfreesnowboarder.com - that’s pretty damn funny if you ask me.

Cause if I can’t laugh at the predicament that I’m now in, I am (excuse my language) seriously fucked. Because according to my calculations I have yet to even graze the hard parts. Maybe I will get lucky or maybe I’m one of the toughest 5’8″ Jewish kids from New Jersey that ever roamed the planet, but for the most part the pain has been conspicuously absent which I think has a lot to do with the pain blocks that are currently attached to me and follow me everywhere because they’re taped on to me with enough tape to prevent what would naturally immediately happen if they weren’t – you would rip them off the the first time you stood up. So while I curse their invasive presence on my body another part of me says be very careful what you wish for because there is some serious pain lurking out there and as far as I can tell it has not raised its head yet (other than the first two nights in the hospital when I begged the nurse to give me Valium and Ambien on top of everything else in my foolish pursuit of sleep or at least temporary relief).

This is not so say I am not miserable and don’t use every occasion to point this out to others. Right now I’m sweating profusely in bed (my kingdom for a shower which can not happen till I lose my blocks), nauseous, bloated with pee and the usual constipation that comes with narcotic use (why people use OxyContin for fun I have no idea although I have heard that if you crush it up and snort it it’s a much better high) and later I will pay dearly for these blissful hours of feverish writing with unbelievable fatigue enhanced by the two PT sessions I have scheduled for later today. But so far, just straight, ” I think I’m going to die and if not wish I would shortly” type of pain – not so much, so keep your fingers crossed because that blog post I think might lack the levity of this one.

I don’t expect anyone to read through all this narcotic drivel (as a matter of fact if you got this far I’m rather impressed) I just knew I wasn’t going to sleep and wanted to do something creative (at least for me) instead of just listening to my oxygen tank drone on like an old B52  bomber. It’s probably time for me to try and either get some more sleep or head to the living room and start the process all over again. As always I want to thank everyone ( and particularly you Paul)  for your help and support and remark again how that has easily been the best part of this experience. I will post this and future writings on glutenfreesnowboarder (at least until I win the big auction for ligamentfreesnowboarder – and oh bless you iPad for auto filling that). So if you’re curious keep checking this blog otherwise you won’t have to worry about getting any more of these novellas in your inbox. I love you all and Happy Easter and Passover everyone!!!


Apr 6 2014

Not every powder tale has a happy ending

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Back in the mountains again

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.

At the busy Valdez airport

At the busy Valdez airport

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.

My partners in crime

My partners in crime

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.

More tracks than usual but still loads of fun

More tracks than usual but still loads of fun

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 lovely Robe Lake Lodge

The lovely Robe Lake Lodge

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.

Landing some intentional air

Landing some intentional air

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.

Moments before it all went bad

Moments before it all went bad

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.

View from above

At the end of our ride as seen from above

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 around 1000 feet powered by a chunk of cornice that they later estimated to being 8 feet deep by 20 feet wide.

The cornice that broke

The cornice that broke

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.

Aaron talking me through it

Aaron talking me through it

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.

The slide path

The slide path

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 Heli to the rescue

The Heli to the rescue

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.

In a quieter moment

In a quieter moment

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…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


May 3 2013

Mayday! Mayday!

A snow beard in May?

A powder beard in May?

My trip to Alaska let me know my knee was ok and got me pumped for the rest of the season. The only problem was that it had not been snowing much in Colorado and last year there was no snow after mid March so there were lots of fears that 2013 would be a repeat. However, if there’s one thing we know for sure, it’s that nobody knows what mother nature will do. This year in Colorado, she decided to play a mean trick and wait till most resorts closed before turning on the snow spigot. The biggest snow cycle of the year started the day after Vail shut down for the season and continued till they reopened a week later – the first time they’ve done that in 26 years. I was lucky enough to catch the reopening which was quite spectacular and like all good days at Vail, very well attended as you can see from the photo below.

3 feet of untracked tends to draw a crowd

For those who can’t bear for the season to end both Loveland and A-Basin stay open till at least May and tend to do well in spring storms. This year has proven to be a stellar example as Loveland has received over 100 inches since April 1st – no fooling! I was fortunate to catch three days during that stretch – all of which were at least a foot with the last on May 2 being a 17″ in 24/24″ in 48 extravaganza. I was too busy snarfing powder to take many pictures but did record the clip below for authentication purposes.

So sadly it seems like another season has come to an end (at least the powder chasing part). This one had it’s ups (BC, Alaska, powder days in May) and downs (MCL tear, another below average snow year for Colorado) but all in all just thankful that I get to play in the first place. And hell, October is just 6 short months away…


Apr 3 2013

The rain in Haines falls mainly on the plains (in the mountains, it’s all snow)

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It’s been a slow year for me riding wise. Between another below normal Colorado snowpack and a partially torn MCL ligament, I’ve been on the sidelines for a good chunk of the winter. And between being out of shape and overloaded at work I even considered skipping Alaska this year but fortunately for me the plane tickets were not refundable so staying at home was not an option.

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Mike doing some preliminary research…

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David working the hill…

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Me, stiff arming the snowpack…

After a long painful odyssey involving extended quality time in the Seattle airport, we finally made it to the promised land. There the dominant color had been grey for several days so there was a lot of pent up demand among the troops when the skies finally cleared. The first day was spent exploring the close in terrain and sussing out the snowpack but there was still plenty of fun to be had.

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The hangover I can never get enough of…

On morning two we headed straight for an old favorite, “Hangover Helper” (pictured above). We were supposed to save it for the Nike film crew but we decided to help them out by checking for stability – turns out there was nothing to worry about.

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Clears my head right up every time…

Hangover is a classic AK run – a 4500′+ vertical run with that starts with a huge steep face, narrows through a gully and then has a playful and totally delicious spine at the bottom – and since we were the first ones through, we got to enjoy it in all its pristine glory.

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Doing a little recon on the “Dragon’s Spine”

I could have left then and felt like I’d gotten my money’s worth but that was only the beginning. We were now in that sweet spot, where blue skies, deep snow and stable conditions combine to make the mountains your playground.

We left a little something for the film crew…

The snowpack was a little thin this year so not a lot of technical spine skiing but the big open faces were more than open for business.

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Kevin about to have some real fun…

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Cause, look where he’s headed…

By Day Three, we were in the groove and knew we had to move fast because of incoming weather. We went back to Hangover for another helping and then moved on to “Deflower” which was still quite the virgin.

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Getting it while the getting’s good…

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No shortage of lines here…

With the clouds closing fast we headed for a hill we had often admired but never skied – Flower Mountain.

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Ain’t she a beaut…

Two untracked runs from the top allowed us to finish on a high note. We didn’t want it to end but felt blessed to get what we got.

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And it’s not just the mountains that are big…

As much fun as the mountains are, the people who get you there are just as special. As always the folks at Alaska Heliskiing were unbelievably helpful and welcoming (thank you Sunny, Gabe, Vicki and company). The picture above is from a King Crab Bake held at the owner Sean Dog’s house on Saturday night. And yes, that’s the legendary “Stifler” holding his latest conquest.

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My kind of gang…

I also need to acknowledge my partners in powder without whom the down days would have been much duller (they also took most of the photos in this post). The old saying “no friends on a powder day” doesn’t hold true when a helicopter and thousands of acres are involved. As a matter of fact, friends who you see primarily in a helicopter, tend to have very positive memories associated with them.

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No place I’d rather be…

So once again, I need to thank my lucky stars (as well as my family and coworkers) for letting me have the opportunity to experience such grandeur. It takes a lot of time, effort and money to get to Haines, but one spectacular landing on the top of a mountain makes it all worth while. Because only in AK can you have a once in a lifetime experience several times a day…

 

 

 

 

 


Jan 14 2013

When in Doubt, Head North!

My second favorite mode of transportation

It’s been another rough year in Colorado for powder hounds. Yes, Wolf Creek has been getting it as usual and Steamboat has had it’s moments, but for Front Range skiers and riders the pickings have been slim. Fortunately, there’s a cure for that – what I like to call the BC solution – packing your bags and heading to our neighbors to the north where the snow is deep and the living easy.

All by my lonesome…

For this year’s BC adventure we choose Valhalla Powdercats, the sister company to Snowwater Heli-Skiing who we visited with a few year’s back. While the snowcat is a more earthbound creature than the helicopter, it still has the ability to transport you to magical places full of bountiful powder and untracked lines.

Dave dropping in

But while lots of places have deep untracked snow, what Vahalla also offers is super fun dynamic terrain with guides who love nothing more than showing it off. Cliffs, chutes, glades, meadows – you name it, they got it. And with only 12 guests and no snow farming it’s your own personal playground – pick a line, any line.

Aaron airing it out

Mira demonstrating that “anything you can do, I can do better”

While down in the states I generally try to stay close to the ground, up in BC, the sky’s the limit. Perfect hero snow tends to encourage launching and Valhalla had both the terrain and the soft landings to spur us all on.

Of course, just regular old ripping is fun too…

It also helps to have a great group of riders to enjoy all that snow with. And for once, the boarders outnumbered the skiers. But if nothing else, we certainly proved that we can all get along just fine.

Gary says “full speed ahead”

and “may I have some more, please”

The one variable on every ski trip is of course the weather. On this trip, the gods decided to bless us with snow every night, as a matter of fact, we didn’t see the sun till the last day. And frankly, none of us missed it.

Snow, snow and more snow…

Of course, blue sky does make for good photos…

All in all it was an immensely satisfying trip that will keep my powder fever at bay for at least a week or so. Can’t thank the folks at Valhalla enough for all their fine work and the happy crew below who certainly know how to have a good time.

Now that’s a lineup…

So once again, I thank my lucky stars for having the good fortune to experience all that the mixture of deep powder, wicked terrain and good friends has to offer. For the beautiful photos in this blog post I’d like to thank Melissa Welsh Photography who did a great job of covering the action and can be your personal photographer if you ever make it up that way. And as you can tell from the photo below, for me, there’s no business like snow business…

Life is good…


Apr 16 2012

Spring Skiing in Haines Alaska

The sleepy little town of Haines, Alaska

Not that I need any encouragement to go heliskiing, but after the horrible season we had in Colorado this year I definitely needed a snow fix by the time April rolled around. And what better place to get some spring skiing in than Haines, Alaska where April is prime time as the temps get milder and the days longer.

The featured item on Day One's menu

The season in Haines doesn’t start till mid February and I had been following the reports since. While Alaska had record snows early, by the time we arrived it hadn’t snowed in two weeks so we weren’t sure what to expect. We soon found there was nothing to worry about as is usually the case when you have tens of thousands of acres in your permit area.

The run above, as seen from below

We spent most of the first day on a run called Canadian Buns, so named because it butts up against the Canadian border. It’s actually part of an area known as Buns of Steel because that’s what you need to negotiate the 4000 vertical feet from the top. On this day we called it pure heaven as it was covered with lovely soft powder and totally untracked (at least when we started – almost all the tracks above were made by our group).

Check out the plush carpeting

As you can see from the pic above, the snow was very user friendly so even though the helicopter could have taken us anywhere we wanted to go, we stayed put and would still be there if we hadn’t run out of daylight.

David enjoying a taste of the fresh

Every day it got a little warmer but it didn’t matter as while the runs happily transitioned from sweet powder to perfect ripping corn they all retained the same basic characteristics – steep sustained pitches with lots of untracked lines, and really, what else do you need?

Yes, they really do ski stuff like this in Alaska - this one's called Tomahawk

Fortunately I had a great crew to enjoy this all with led by David Cole, the man who (thankfully) convinced me that I really needed to check out Alaska last year and who I now wouldn’t consider visiting Haines without. He brought another steep freak fiend named Aaron who brought another friend named Justin and were joined by two Taos vets, Keith and the Flying Frenchman, Eric. See the happy family below.

What's not to smile about?

As usual we stayed at the luxurious Plywood Palace which this year had been stripped of every non essential item and even some essential ones like silverware and lightbulbs – but hey, it’s a step up from a lot of the other lodging like the employee housing below.

Prime Haines real estate - location, location, location

But of course no one visits Haines for the indoor accommodations – it’s the stuff outside that makes any of the comfort sacrifices seem trivial. People come from all over the world and sit for weeks just to get a couple of days and once you’ve been there when it’s good, it’s not hard to understand why.

Aaron shows how real men do it

As I’ve mentioned before, even if you didn’t ski it would be worth visiting just for the scenery. You hear a lot about global warming these days but up there there are glaciers as far as you can see in every direction. All I can say is we better not be ruining it for future generations…

Typical heli landing pad view

Hitching a ride back up the mountain

And of course I need to give a big shout out to the folks at Alaska Heliskiing. As always they took care of everything we needed as I personally went through several rolls of duct tape in a somewhat futile effort to keep all my gear functioning. No one is there for the money or the fame, just the opportunity to do some of the best skiing in the world and help others enjoy it at the same time.

Once more into the fray...

So once again I come back from a helitrip and feel like one of the luckiest men in the world. We skied 6 days in a row which is highly unusual up there as all it takes are some clouds and flat light to ground you. We had blue skies, mild temps and no wind – the perfect recipe for spring skiing. And as always I’ve never felt more alive than when I was on the top of one of those mountains testing my skills and becoming one with the hill. That may sound a little new agey but if you’ve ever been there I’m sure you know what I mean. If there is a god, I’m sure he’s spent some time in Haines, Alaska…


Feb 25 2012

Working the Winter

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Nothing like a winter wonderland

It’s been a tricky winter for Colorado Front Range powder hounds. Unlike last year, when there was record breaking snow totals close by, this year has required some real effort to find the fresh. Fortunately for me I’ve had the flexibility to chase some storms and good luck when the snow did fall locally.

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Morning alpenglow on the way to Silverton

One part of Colorado that has not lacked for snow has been the Southwest. Silverton Mountain seems to do well no matter where the storms are coming from but does particularly well in southwest flow which has been our main weather pattern this year. Having not been there for several years and desperate for some deep I headed there in late January to see what was new in their world.

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It's a bird, it's a plane, it's Silverton's latest toy...

As it turns they have added some major additions to their repertoire. The milk truck has been replaced by buses with comfy seats but more notable is the helicopter that now permanently resides there. This allows access to terrain which previously would have been unreachable unless you wanted to hike the entire day.

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Nothing like a little morning stroll...

As you can see from the photo below Silverton has some excellent sustained pitch and plenty of snow. My issue has always been the required group guiding – invariably I end up with some folks who don’t belong on the mountain and this trip was no exception. We started our day with a 1000′ vertical hike (photo above – we hiked to just below the billboard at top) which led to the terrain in the photo below. The hike was challenging and the run fun but by 2:00 I had only gotten in one other run and was a tad frustrated. At that point I switched to the helicopter (they were running a two for one special) which got me to some new terrain but nothing to write home about (or more accurately, not necessarily worth driving 7 hours for).

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Been there, done that...

I was supposed to spend two days at Silverton but couldn’t bear to spend another full day getting just 5 runs and besides there was a storm coming from the north so I decided to head back. I originally intended to check out Powderhorn but when Vail called 12″ and still snowing I changed tracks and drove like a madman to catch the opening of the back bowls. I don’t have any footage or pics from that day because the snow was so sweet and deep that no one wanted to waste time taking footage so you’ll just have to believe when I tell you it was truly epic.

And speaking of epic, while I have flown all over North America sampling powder I have never ridden any better snow than the 24″ in 24 hours that Eldora got on February 3rd. The video above doesn’t do it justice but anyone who was there will surely agree that it was as light as it gets. This was my third great day at Eldora this season as those same storms that pound the southern mountains often deliver big upslope snows to the front range.

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It's good to be home...

One place that had been notably missing from my usual winter rotation was Berthoud Pass. Besides the fact there has been very little snow, what did fall in the early season has become a very shaky and dangerous base in the backcountry. By this time I would normally have quite a few days on the pass but this year my first was in mid February when the avy report finally lowered the danger rating to a tolerable level. As always, like the picture above indicates, there was fun to be had but the terrain options were severely limited. It still was mighty nice to visit one of my favorite spots and the photo below gives you a good idea of why I keep going back there.

In the white room

But no matter what the year there is always one place that comes through for me and that is Wolf Creek. This year of course every one has heard about the great snow that falls during a southwest storm track and I have never seen so many front rangers on the mountain. Still if you’re willing to hike there are always fresh lines to be had so my friend Kevin and I made a pilgrimage to the shrine to pay our respects.

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Bitten by the Wolf once again...

Just to remind myself that these trips don’t always work out as planned I tried to go to Vail this past Thursday when they called 12″ at 5:00 am. The only catch was that I-70 was closed at various spots but managed to make it to the tunnel before being shut down for 90 minutes. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise as Vail later downgraded their report to 2″ (never seen that before). Instead I ended up at Loveland where the snow was sweet but was so damn windy and cold that there was no chance I’d be taking off my gloves for any pictures. All in all it’s been quite a month, full of long road trips, a small taste of the backcountry and some amazing (but infrequent) local powder and as always, well worth the effort…