As stoked as I am for winter and all of the yummy activities it brings, I find myself at least partly plagued by a new-to-me, nightmare-inducing fear. Between my early season ski accident last winter, one that left me reliant on crutches and/or an ankle brace for four months, and my end-of-season wreck, when I barrel-rolled onto a rocky ledge on Mount Adams, my spidey senses are tingling with ferocity now that snow is beginning to blanket our mountain playgrounds. Those two impactful events aside, I’ve also had more friends ground-fall this year than ever before and I’ve see the impact those falls have had on their psyche, on their partners’ psyche, and on my own. If you hadn’t already guessed, writing is as cathartic an exercise for me as anything else I’ve tried. I also feel that our near-misses and big whoopsies are not discussed with nearly as much vigor as our successes and triumphs and I’d like to try and break that mold—at least for myself. I rest firmly in the camp of “we learn more from our failures than from our successes” and even though I don’t enjoy failing, if I can translate my 2019 season into something constructive, perhaps I can begin to heal my emotional self.
Plus, with a trip to Chamonix looming in 2020, I’d like everything spidey to chill the f*ck out right now, okay thanks.
The Ski Accident
In December 2018, I got to take my brand new skis (G3 Synapse 101 Elle) out for their inaugural tour. Alongside Andy and Cinder, and our friends, Alex and Brittany, we toured up into the Newton Drainage in an effort to capitalize on what we hoped would be some wind-deposited powder. I felt like spiderwoman as we toured up the drainage. The extra width and length made me sticky and brave and more than once I had to prevent myself from putting in the STFU skintrack. When we reached what looked like a promising copse of wide trees, we ripped skins and started making our way down one at a time (with Cinder following Alex, who was by far the fastest skier in our group). It only took me a couple of turns to realize that a) the snow quality was that pretty yummy combo of wind-packed powder and heinous breakable crust, and b) that my new skis did pretty damn well in those conditions. I chased Alex’s line down, Andy and Britt following not too far behind me, and got cocky. I took what looked like a more delicious line of pillowy snow, skiing faster and faster until I hit a patch of some of that aforementioned nasty breakable crust and headed straight for a small patch of trees. Unfamiliar with my new sticks, I leaned in to turn too late and *smack!!* crashed straight into the trees.
Lucky for me, I was smart enough to lean my head to the side to avoid collecting some head trauma in the crash (no helmet, more on that later). Unlucky for me, my right ski wedged itself between the two trees and before my binding ejected me, my body did a lovely 90-degree rotation and torqued my lower right leg into a very unnatural position. I did a small roll into a sitting position, beginning to panic, and started assessing myself. I saw Alex below me and shouted “I’m okay!” (I wasn’t) and then called up to Andy that I’d hit a tree. He skied down to me and started giving me the WFR once-over. By now, my calm was wearing off, my adrenalin was coursing at peak speed, and I had to persuade my reptile brain not to panic.
Deciding that nothing was broken and bearing only a few under-the-pants scrapes, I thought I could continue skiing so I went to stand up. That was when I realized that something was far from OK. I couldn’t bear weight on my right leg without it threatening to buckle. With Andy’s help, I clicked into my bindings but with one kick and glide and the resulting scream of pain it sent up my right side, I discovered that skinning wasn’t an option. I told Britt and Andy and Alex to take another lap but that I would be slowly booting my way up to the top of the ridge… I managed it–but only barely. I would take tiny stairsteps with my left leg so that I could half-drag the rest of my body up the slope using my skins/skis and my right knee. I was sweating profusely by the time I topped out. With the surface snow being extremely punchy and knowing that I couldn’t ski out into Heather Canyon (our usual exit), I did some careful downhill skinning. Brittany opted out of another lap and was a champion, keeping my laughing as I bit my cheek and tried not to cry when I put too much weight on my right leg. It took me over 3 hours to get back to the car. I held it together all the way to troutdale but by the time Andy and I were alone, I lost it, crying unabashedly most of the way back to our house. I felt stupid and wreckless and was so scared of what I would find out at the doctor.
I eventually found out that I’d torn my interosseous membrane, sprained my lower ankle, and strained my MCL. Four months later, after countless hours of PT (Dr Michelle Gilpin is a genius) and acupuncture (Dr Danielle Melanson is a miracle-worker), nearly four months of puzzles, crutches, an ankle brace, and eventually a bike trainer, and I was able to click into my bindings again for a quick kick-and-glide tour. We skied until June and I managed to snag 15 days on skis last Spring, with the culminating ski-venture being a descent of the SW Chutes with C-dawg… more on that later.
Wear a helmet. A climbing helmet weights next to nothing and it will prevent you from smashing your brain to smithereens. Helmet shaming has got to stop and you will never see me without one now.
Know your limits. New skis in tricky snow is hard for people with only a handful of seasons under their belt (ie, moi). Trying to rip it through tight trees on new gear when breakable crust is on the menu is less than advisable.
Have first aid training. I have my WFA and Andy has his WFR. We were able to talk through my injury enough to figure out that no bones were broken but we could have dealt with it had there been.
Ski with friends that make you laugh. Honestly, between Brittany and Alex cracking jokes, Cinder abandoning me altogether and running off with Alex (she has a crush), and Andy telling me I was okay, I managed to get out of Newton without needing to call PMR… which is a good thing because cell service is crappy over there.
I ended my very short ski season with an unfortunate fall on Mount Adams. After shredding the SW Chutes and feeling significantly more ready to rock than I had when we made that descent in 2017, we carefully wound our way around the mountain toward the climber’s trail on the lower South Spur. We eventually found ourselves looking down at the bare dirt path that was the approach trail, and decided that packing skis was the most efficient way to make our way down. Looking over the edge of a short, 20’ ~45° snow slope that ended with a rocky ledge. The ledge ultimately created a path down to the climber’s trail. Andy and I looked left and right across the slope, figured that the easiest path was skier’s right but decided that the shortest way down was right in front of our feet. We’re not the kind of people to roshambo to decide who goes first and the terrain looked easy enough so I started down in front. I took two steps before my feet kicked out from beneath me, sliding fast on the warm, slushy snow. I’ve practiced self-arrest with an axe, with skis on, with ski poles, and I consider myself a pretty competent person in the mountains. But falling face up with skis on my backpack is not a scenario I’d ever thought I needed to practice before so when I began to fall, I tried kicking my leg over my body so I could dig my elbows, fists and body into the slope. All I managed was to get sideways and I was sideways when I hit the rock ledge.
I barrel-rolled a couple of times before coming to a stop with my skis/backpack wedged in against a boulder. That boulder was what ultimately kept me from dropping 40’ vertical feet down onto the next rock ledge and it was my backpack and my A-framed skis that protected my neck, head, and back from trauma (my tailbone was bruised to absolute hell though). I looked up, saw Andy carefully kicking steps in and down-climbing the slope to reach me and watched Cinder make her way down ahead of him. I unbuckled my backpack and took a quick inventory of my body. No numbness, no immediate pain, just lots and lots of adrenalin and a lot of bloody scrapes on my hands and arms. I also realized that my long, braided hair had caught on my ski binding and that, upon checking its status, that a lot of it was hanging free of the braids. I decided not to concern myself with it and talked through the fall with Andy. Once we decided that I was OK to hike out, we made our way down to the trail, changed from ski boots into trail runners, and headed back to the car.
I didn’t cry until later that night when, in the shower, I found myself pulling out fistfulls of hair, which, to this day, is still the strangest reminder that things could have been much, much worse for me.
Don’t let your guard down on easy terrain when the consequences of a fall are high. There’s a reason that “they” say that most accidents happen on the descent. We’d let our guard down once we were nearly back to the trail and stopped thinking about what *could* happen if we made a mistake since we were only a few miles away from the car and were no longer worries about sliding 3000’ down an icy chute.
Evaluate your ascent/descent options. If there’s an easier option 100’ away, why wouldn’t you take it? If it’s available to you and it could mitigate for any accidents, there isn’t any harm in taking it.
Same as previous: Have first aid training. I have my WFA and Andy has his WFR. We were able to talk through my injury enough to figure out that no bones were broken but we could have dealt with it had there been.
All of this is to say that accidents happen and the activities that give us happiness are both dangerous and unforgiving. Take precaution, talk with your partner(s), and evaluate your terrain decisions carefully. There’s nothing stopping you from having fun after that. Because of my 18/19 season, I’m freaked out every time I’m on foot in the snow or trying to ski trees and that’s not necessarily a feeling I’m used to having. These fears are subsiding with time and positive, productive experiences but that fear is still looming in the back of my little reptile brain. Having never had a seriously scary experience in the mountains, it's been challenging to overcome two accidents in one short season. 19/20 is just getting started and I aspire to climb and ski challenging (for me) routes and lines this year as long as I can keep my head on straight (difficult) and keep myself and my partners safe (always my #1 priority). My hope for you all is that you stay safe, make smart choices, and stay healthy in 19/20.