We’ve been having a fun season out here in Alta, skiing quite a bit and really enjoying it. The snow this year has been a little bit low, but we’ve still had some pretty good storms.
Just about everyone up here in Alta is here for one reason: to ski powder. When a storm drops a decent amount of snow the morale in the lodge takes a giant leap, and when we get stuck in a long high-pressure pattern with no snow people start to go a little crazy. Lately things have been pretty decent and we’ve had some epic powder days. The universal sign of a great day is something called a “faceshot,” which happens when you make a turn in snow so deep and light and fluffy that it shoots up over your face. On a recent run down a part of the Cirque in Snowbird I found myself getting faceshots with every turn, to the point that I was completely blind about half of the run, not to mention feeling snow cascading down the collar of my jacket and barely being able to breathe. It was perfect.
After a big storm at Alta and Snowbird the ski patrols work hard to open up different parts of the ski areas. Avalanches are a huge hazard here and usually on a big snow day much of the mountain will remain closed. When visibility improves the patrollers will go out and bomb those closed areas until they’re confident they won’t slide any more. Then the crowds of skiers will converge on the newly opened areas to ski the fresh snow.
One of the last places to open in Alta/Snowbird is Mount Baldy, which towers over and separates the two ski areas. It’s avalanche prone and a little bit difficult to access, so it’s only been open a few times this year. Probably the most popular line down from Baldy is called Main Chute, it feeds into Alta. It’s a sought after line and is skiied by relatively few people, first because it’s fairly steep (although not too bad) but mostly because you have to hike to it. No lifts go up to the top of Baldy, and the easiest way to get there is to hike from Snowbird. It takes about 1/2 hour.
So when we looked online the other morning and saw that Baldy was open, we jumped at the chance.
It was one of those perfect runs. Beautiful snow on a beautiful day, skiing some of the best in-bounds terrain out there. We were all pretty happy to be there. Unfortunately things took a turn for the worse immediately after.
After Main Chute we were in an area of Alta called “Ballroom.” It’s nothing out of the ordinary, very moderately steep and on this day a bit moguled up. I skied down first, and I was pretty pumped up so I was skiing fairly aggressively. About halfway down ballroom I caught an edge or something and almost fell, but pulled out of it by riding one ski for a bit. I found myself going pretty fast as the moguls got larger, and I was a bit out of control. I foolishly decided that I’d ride out the run by straight lining the rest of it. Well, I don’t really know what I was thinking. I was still much too far up to be doing such a thing, and when I pointed my skis I soon found myself going waaayyy too fast. My knees were pumping as I absorbed the moguls, and I was on the very edge of control. Now, I wasn’t all that worried at this point; Excess speed and borderline control are not all that unfamiliar to me. Unfortunately I didn’t notice the cat track down below until I was about thirty feet above it, too late to do anything at the speed I was going. Cat tracks are like little roads carved across the hill by Grooming snow cats, to make easier routes down for novice skiers. This one was angled into the hill a bit, so it’s outer edge formed a jump. I hit it at warp speed and really just launched myself out into space. I flew a long way, and was in the air long enough to think about it. I’d guess I was about ten feet up and flew about a hundred feet.
Coming down was not fun. I landed on my skis but immediately exploded out of them and started tomahawking; tumbling head over heels down the hill. I must have rotated at least four or five times before I came to a stop, and found myself on my side, wiggling my legs back and forth in pain. Immediately a skier came up to me and started yelling at me to stay still, and then went off to find the ski patrol.
I was pretty dazed and seeing stars, and hurting pretty bad. The worst pain was in my back, which had me pretty worried and staying as still as possible. I freaked out a bit when I saw some blood drop onto the snow from my mouth, but then I realized it was just from a cut lip.
Ski patrol showed up very quickly, to my relief. They were very professional and got my neck stabilized with a C-collar and loaded me into a sled. It felt pretty strange to be in that situation and I tried to joke around with them. It was hard to talk; I really had to force the words out.
The ride down to the Alta Clinic was a little cold with all the snow blowing into my face. I felt very vulnerable strapped into that sled, but they did a good job and it was a pretty smooth ride down. Inside the clinic they gave me some morphine and oxygen, which made me feel a bit better but not too much. There were a few very hopeful minutes when they palpated my spine and I didn’t feel any pain, but an X-ray revealed the unfortunate truth: my T-5 and T-7 vertebrae were compressed. I felt extremely thankful that we’d purchased accident insurance for the ski season. An ambulance was called and soon enough I was down at the Inter Mountain Hospital in the Valley. I had a whole swarm of doctors and nurses taking X-rays and tests. They were all pretty cool, and many were jealous that I’d just skied main chute. Funny. They managed to get all my ski clothes off without cutting anything, which was much appreciated, and said that my full zip ski pants were practically made for the ER. My zebra print spandex tights were also a big hit.
A CT scan confirmed the earlier diagnosis of compressed T-5 and T-7 vertebrae, as well as another crack. I had well and truly broken my back.
The doctor told me I had a potentially “unstable” fracture; that my spine was compromised enough that if moved around incorrectly I could damage my spinal cord. I spent the night drugged up in my bed, afraid to move. The next day I was fitted for a back brace, which looks kind of like Roman body armor and will be wrapped around me for the next three months. I can walk fairly well with it, but still need a lot of help for day to day living. I’m very thankful for Denae and owe her a lot.
I’m writing this on my second night out of the hospital (can’t sleep), back at the Rustler where they’ve kindly put us up in a guest room for a few nights. We’ll probably go back to Eugene in two or three weeks, but I’m not in a state to travel right now and our plans are uncertain. I’ll go back for more X-rays probably on Friday and can give an update then. For now I’m doing surprisingly (to me at least) OK for having a broken back. I’m not in much pain, probably thanks to the Hydrocodone they prescribed, and I’m pretty mobile. The doctor thinks I’ll make a full recovery without surgery. I’ll be in the brace for the next three months, and have about another three months recovery time after that. I have a lot to be thankful for, I could very easily have been paralyzed.