Vail Pass- The Accident

by Daniel Weiss March. 27, 2021 500 views

Date skied: 3/6/21

Elevation: 12,522 Feet

Partners: Josh & Salix (dog)

Looking Down Vail Pass from Uneva Peak

Looking Down Vail Pass from Uneva Peak

It was a pretty relaxed day to begin with. Josh and I met at 6 AM, traffic was pretty smooth, and we arrived at Vail Pass just after 7:30 AM. After taking our time to get ready for the day, and taking into consideration two options we had (Vail Pass East or West), we decided on the fateful East side as Uneva Peak looked tempting, and it offered steeper terrain (should it feel safe).

Looking toward Uneva Peak

Looking toward Uneva Peak

A quick walk across the overpass, and we were on the trail. Salix (my dog) was with us, after over a year off. Sadly, the lines I had been skiing of late had been much too steep for her, and so she was left behind for the last few ski trips. Thankfully, she had a few hikes and a trip through the Wind Rivers under her belt, so she shouldn't finish the day completely knackered. Little did I know this would probably be the last ski trip I ever took her on in the backcountry.

Josh taking it one at a time through Avalanche terrain

Josh taking it one at a time through Avalanche terrain

The skin up was set at a lackadaisical pace as we needed the snow to soften up, and the trip would be a relatively short one. On the way up, there was only one area we felt a little nervous crossing, and so we decided to take it one at a time. As we crossed, I noticed the drainage channels beginning to form (see the picture above), so I felt fairly confident we had nothing to worry about. Once we were reunited, we found a well established skin track and made quick progress up to the ridge.

Once at the sub-summit below Uneva, we took our time enjoying food, hot chocolate, chatting with a few other skiers, and hoping the snow would soften up. Unfortunately, we probably arrived an hour or so too early, and the snow never truly softened up (a factor that may have contributed to what happened next). After deciding that Uneva itself was too bare-bones to be worth the effort, we pulled the skins off our skis and went into downhill mode.

I took the first few turns in perfect, soft powder. Hoping for similar snow the whole way down, I stopped for Josh to catch up so we could take turns and get some pictures. Once we were together, we came up with a game plan, and I went off first. Unfortunately, the snow turned from soft to breakable crust, forcing a more defensive and less aggressive style of skiing than I like. On top of this, Salix was chasing me down, and every other turn she would end up in the way, forcing me to take a shorter turn than I wanted, causing me to crash a couple of times in the less than ideal snow (this too may have caused me to ski a little differently than normal, and may also have led to what happened).

After Josh joined me, we continued traversing. After a few hundred feet of traversing across the shallow bowl, the snow seemed to become more powdery on the less sun-affects slopes, so we stuck to that terrain. Josh to the first show, and I followed close behind, finding the occasional powdery turn. Finally, we reached a small chute that led to a flat bench and a clean runout. Josh took the first run and let me know there was powder in the chute.

Excited for some real turns, I put Salix behind me and went for it, keeping my turns tight and aggressive. I noticed a fun little bump above a very shallow dip in the snow, so I straightened it, thinking I'd be fine even if the snow was cruddy as the runout was relatively flat. I took a little hop off the bump, and just as I landed on the smooth, round bump on the other side, I shifted my weight to my left, intending to turn out of the landing.

What happened next happened so quickly, I'm still not sure I understand exactly what happened. All I really remember is landing, shifting my weight and trying to keep my tips up. However, as I landed, the tip of my right ski dug straight into the snow while my momentum kept me going forward and to the left. Thankfully, my left ski released, but my right binding did not. I felt a very sudden stop, my upper body kept going, and a very sharp pop followed by immense pain in my right shin. I crumpled over my right ski, screaming as loud as I could. Within seconds, my leg from below my knee and down began to grow rapidly numb.

I was yelling as loud as I could in pain and frustration, hoping Josh was close. I was almost certain I knew what had happened, but hoped against hope I was wrong. Instinctually, Josh was next to me in seconds, trying to assess the situation. Others were very close by and were on the scene in less than a minute. Josh and I immediately took the ski off and straightened the leg (for a brief second, I saw the leg at a wrong angle and my heart sank).

Immediately Jim and Chris (and four others whose names escape me) were on the scene and we were all taking note of what resources we had. As I write this paragraph, I tear up a little, remembering how these guys (whom I did not know) immediately cancelled their plans in order to rescue me. I probably would have survived without them, but their morale support and some of the resources they brought to the table made the whole ordeal that much more bearable for myself, and probably for Josh as well.

The key ingredients we used in this rescue included cell phones, a GPS watch, jackets, backpacks, pain killers, and extra water and food. For the first few minutes, we debated about trying to get me down without calling for help. However, it soon became clear that we didn't have the gear and collective strength to do it without causing further injury. Since the day was relatively warm, and we had plenty of daylight, we opted to reach out for help. I did not want to make things worse, and I knew trying to hop down in rapidly warming snow would be impossible.

Waiting on SAR

Waiting on SAR

We took our coordinates, and sent two skiers down to the pass to contact the Forest Service Rangers. I then called 911 on my phone and began relaying our coordinates, topography, resources, and partners to the dispatch. As soon as they were able to locate our position, they gave us a phone number and ETA for Search and Rescue. Once all that had finished, I took a few more pain killers and insulated myself from the ground using backpacks and jackets. We also used snow to ice the wounded leg and kept the boot buckles relatively tight to splint the leg and reduce the swelling.

Three to Four hours later, SAR finally arrived. I don't think I'd ever been so relieved in my life. With their arrival, Jim and Chris, along with the other two skiers, went on their way. I am eternally indebted to their mercy, and if I ever see them again, I hope to buy them the best steak dinner they've ever had.

Once the SAR team made it over to us, they sized up the situation and immediately went into action. The whole time, Joel (a paramedic) began explaining to me what he was going to do and what was going to happen next. As they worked, Salix became more and more concerned, unwilling to leave my side throughout the process. It soon became clear Josh was going to need to ski her out of the way and take my truck home. I have always wondered how my dog would react in a situation like this; if she would opt for self preservation and leave or if she'd stay near me and try to help. I am really happy to say she did the latter, however all she could do was get in the way, and for this reason I will probably never ski in the backcountry with her again as she simply added another level of complication.

Salix standing guard

Salix standing guard

Once the painkillers began to do their job, Tom, Joel and the other members of the SAR party moved me onto the toboggan and strapped me down. Joel warned me the ride down would be painful, but that he could help with pain meds as needed. I hoped not to use too much, but Joel seemed pretty adamant that I'd need it. Once everyone was ready and in place, we took off back to the trailhead.

Moving to the toboggan

Moving to the toboggan

Moving down

Moving down

The trip down was beautiful, frustrating, painful, a learning experience, and relieving all at once. The frustration that I was so helpless and such a burden weighed heavy on me. The pain was bearable at first, but as the medication wore off, it became sharper. The most painful part came toward the end, within 100 yards of the trailhead. At the same time, it was interesting to see how the team was able to move me downhill as a team using skiing and rope techniques. The sunset was stunning and would distract me from my situation every once in a while.

Once at the trailhead, the team gave me over to the ambulance, wished me luck, and Joel rode alongside me as we made our way back to the hospital. Upon arrival, I was immediately carted into a private room for my X-rays. Now came the moment I dreaded most- the boot removal. This, I was told, would be the most painful part. Was it painful? Yes, of course. Was it as bad as I had imagined? No. Thankfully they were pretty good at what they do, and the boot was off in no time (in part thanks to the construction of the boot; thanks La Sportiva!).

After a quick x-ray, they said they'd be back soon to share their findings. Just as they left, my wife walked into the room. I was feeling dumb for having injured myself, but I was relieved she was their with me. A few minutes later, the X-ray results were back and began to explain to my wife what was going to happen. Joel came in for a quick minute, took a look at the X-ray. I asked him if I was just being a baby about the whole thing to which he laughed, "Nope." I then asked how bad it was and he said "Well, it doesn't look the way it's supposed to if that's what you're asking." I thanked him and he went on his way.

As the nurse talked with my wife, I overheard the one word I dreaded most: Surgery. I immediately asked if this would require surgery, to which she reluctantly said yes. At that moment, they did not want to show me the X-rays; I don't know if it was because they were afraid I would freak out or if it was because they wanted the doctor to see it first. Either way, I didn't see the pictures until the doctor came into the room. He explained the options I had, but it was pretty obvious surgery was the only real choice I had.

Pre-surgery

Pre-surgery

As he left to prep, my wife came over and we talked about what happened and what she would need to do. Thankfully, her mom and come up with her and she was gracious enough to get my truck back to our house while I spent the night.

The whole process was staggeringly fast considering my previous experiences in hospitals, and by 11:30 PM, I was rolling into surgery. I came back around at about 1 AM, groggy and in pain. My leg felt heavy and unfamiliar, I could feel my body trying to shrug off the anesthesia as I came too. I was able to get some yogurt and was rolled back to my room to be monitored overnight.

Post-Surgery

Post-Surgery

The night was not as bad as I had thought it might be (I'd had much worse as an athlete in my younger years). Although I woke up about every hour, I slept relatively well all things considered. The morning was beautiful, but I awoke to a new reality that was just beginning to sink in. Would I be able to ski again? Would I be able to ski the steepest lines I had been eyeing for years and training for? Would I be able to climb again? How bad would my muscles atrophy? All these questions plagued me and kept me awake more than the pain did.

In the end, everything went well. I was out of the hospital early that afternoon, and was home with few problems. Once there, however, the pain became excruciating. The first few days were some of the most painful I'd ever experienced. Nights would pass where I would cry in pain and frustration, falling asleep from exhaustion.

Throughout all this, I have many, many people to thank including: Joel the paramedic, Tom from Eagle SAR, Jim and Chris and their friends, Josh my ski partner and a guy I know I can count on, all the doctors who have walked through this with me, many of my friends and family who have checked in on me, my coworkers who covered and are still covering for me, my parents who have sacrificed a lot to help us, and finally my wife who has been my rock through this time. I do believe God was watching over me that day; the weather was perfect, the break was as clean as could be hoped, it was not compound and was below the boot, which required no extra splinting, and it all happened just a few feet away from other experienced skiers who were readily available to lend aid.

Now, just under 3 weeks out, the frustration and some of the pain is still there, but the recovery has gone remarkably quickly. Each day is tightly regimented, and it's a fight to push my muscles to recover from their atrophy. However, recovery wise, it seems that I am well ahead of schedule, the only real thing holding me back is the recovery timeline of the bone itself, and not my muscles or joints. So far, I've learned it takes a lot of desire and willpower to push through the pain in the exercises, but if you push, your body will be forced to recover quicker. Hopefully, I'll be back to hiking by week 6! More adventures to come.

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Chuck Staruch 1 month, 2 weeks ago

So sorry to hear about your accident, what a story to tell, yet having the were with all to take photographs of your ordeal.
A speedy recovery and look forward to more (no accidents) adventures and photographs!

1 month, 2 weeks ago Edited
Gethin Thomas 1 month, 2 weeks ago

Great story, thanks for sharing it. Hope you are recovering well.

1 month, 2 weeks ago Edited
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