Breaking the leg, Part 2

My Instagram post and Part 1 of my story about skiing and breaking my leg had more interest and comments than I’d expected. I feel like I got glimpse into what people would’ve said at my Memorial. Thanks everyone that reached out and basically said “i’m glad you’re still alive!”

One of the worries I had when starting skiing, especially telemark, was the added potential for knee injuries. I’ve been luckly that my first bad knee injury happened when i was 48 after i’ve done a lot of skiing. Alpine ski bindings are as safe as they have ever been and not a ton of differences between the lot. But AT bindings are all over the map, from minimalist pintech race bindings that weigh less than 100g, to fully featured alpine like bindings that are certified to release under the same conditions as normal alpine bindings (i.e., the Salomon Shift). In between those are seemingly hundreds of other bindings with feature-sets based on the market they’re trying to reach. I’d argue that safety isn’t in the top 3 considerations people look at when buying tech bindings. Weight is the main factor followed by heel riser function and then cost. It’s not that manufacturers aren’t wanting the bindings to be safe, they just inherently aren’t. Their primary goal was to go uphill as efficiently as possible. When that’s your first priority some other functions take a back seat including downhill performance. There aren’t a ton of research articles on AT bindings as far as I can find online but there was a WildSnow article awhile back that is the basis for this article that may be of interest “Ripping ligaments and snapping bones” I can tell you that at least for now, i will stop focusing on weight as my top priority and instead focus on a binding’s reliable release and the safety features. I will deal with the ~200g weight increase per foot in another way. I know i will need to trust my new bindings more than I trust my current ones.

Now on to how this all happened.

In October California had a massive atmospheric river event that dropped over 16″ of rain on Mt. Tam in Marin County and 3 feet of snow on Donner Pass. Within a day it went from Fall to full on winter. I missed the day of the storm but got out the day after. Unfortunately the conditions had changed, it had rained that night and the snow had turned to sludge – heavy mashed potatoes – beautiful but impossible to ski down. Photos from 10/27.

Within a couple of weeks all that had melted and we were back riding bikes again. It was one of the driest Novembers on record and the whole drought and fire danger talk came back with people wondering if it was ever going to snow again. Photos of riding from 11/17.

December started out the same as November with no weather change in sight. The volcano on the big island of Hawaii got a foot of snow though! The second week of December it all changed, and fast. Dirt was suddenly covered with over 5 feet of snow in two days: zero to hero just like that again. The atmospheric river cycle was again hitting California. My buddy Tris and I met at our highest elevation ski spot and found a single layer of storm slab deposited right-side-up (temperatures got colder throughout the storm and snow density went wetter to drier, bottom to top) meaning it was perfect riding conditions. As is good practice we ski conservatively and keep to slopes 30 deg and below, and bring the widest skis in our quivers of course.

That night it snowed another foot and Tris went up to ski the following day but I couldn’t make it. He said it was more of the same with our tracks completely covered from the day before. I was able to head up Friday thinking i’d find lots of soft snow left. Avy danger had been lowered from Considerable to Moderate overnight meaning the new snow had settled and become less reactive on steeper slopes. There’s a lot that goes into Avy reports – daily weather and snowpack checks, constant testing of snowpack reactivity and propagation with differing triggers – it’s hard for anyone but pros to forecast with any accuracy because they literally go up every day and take measurements on a number of different areas, aspects, and slope angles. Collectively, they as a group can give the rest of us a filtered synopsis of what is going on out there. When you don’t live in the mountains it’s really hard to keep track of the snowpack in this way and I rely heavily on reading their reports and not just looking at the overall rating since that hides much of the detail.

A note on skiing alone: One of the main reasons i became invested in avalanche awareness and the proper gear to travel in the backcountry is so i could ski alone. It’s an extension of XC skiing — the winter equivalent of mountain biking. Since starting I’ve probably skied alone half of my days out. For some this is a straight up a stupid thing to do, but for many of us if we didn’t ski alone we wouldn’t ski very much, so it’s a risk i will continue to take. If you find good ski partners you can have the best of both worlds, safety and fun! But there are still group dynamics that come into play making it not an “always safer” situation. When skiing with a group it can be hard to all be on the same page and have the same goals for the day. There are now multiple possible triggers vs. just one. I’ve had good luck with my friends and ski groups over the years and we’ve stayed safe usually by skiing low angle terrain below treeline in winter, and heading to bigger objectives in the spring when the snow is generally safer. We’ve practiced smart group management techniques like skiing one at a time and always having eyes on one another when skiing a slope. But it’s always more complicated than when skiing alone where you are entirely responsible for your own decisions. I find it can be more efficient to ski alone, especially when i have less time to get out that day. It’s easier making terrain and slope angle decisions based solely on what I measure. With groups that have less experienced people along there is always a “good experience” factor at play too – we love touring and want to share it with our friends so we try to show them the best experience possible – like a professional guide would do. Solo…i can just go with what I know and I just have to manage my own expectations and goals. Of course this completely ignores the safety factor unrelated to avalanches (i.e., injuries).

And now back to the tour…

When i got to the trailhead at 7am i noticed it had warmed up the previous afternoon. There was wind affected snow on the up track, i wasn’t knee deep trailbreaking as i’d expected. That’s how it is, no matter what your expectations you are never really sure what you’re going to get and you need to be flexible in your tour plan and goals for the day. Even in the deep winter months with fewer hours of low angle sun, the south slopes can warm fast at this latitude. The wind can change directions and blow that storm snow into smaller grains and the powder that once blanketed every aspect now is only on the lee slopes with the trees acting as a snow fence making the glades hold softer and more consistent.

Being my 3rd day out and there being no pattern of the snowpack yet, this was a learn as you go type tour. The first 1200ft vertical was mostly wind slab with some soft sections next to the trees. Up higher it wasn’t windy anymore but it sure had been earlier, cornices had formed and trees were bare of snow. Sastrugi makes for great photos but is awful to ski. It was a difficult snowpack to read in terms of finding soft snow. I headed to the leeward aspects and some very low angle 25 deg slopes. Not a bad choice, the skis floated easily in the 5″ of fresh pivoting around the many exposed saplings and pillows present with this being the first decent snowfall (well…since the long ago melted October dump).

I moved on to another leeward bowl to see what it was like and if the shade had protected it from the sun, but it was about the same, it made for a fun run but nothing to write home about. Another uphill to another bowl, my favorite of this area. It looked sun baked and windblown but it was hard to tell without heading in. With a little recon and testing I was pleasantly surprised…i should’ve B-lined it right here from the start! Not the thigh deep pow of Wednesday but a good 5″ of soft snow on a consolidated base that made bigger radius turns extremely fun. That’s the catch of BC skiing – the high proportion of time on the up vs. down turns most off, but for me it’s worth it. That exploration for turns in new places keeps me interested. The majority of people prefer lifts for a reason, and sometimes I do too. But the journey of the tour is what I live for: reading the story of the animal tracks in the snow as I skin up; the low light of the winter sun skimming the undulations and creating long shadows, hearing nothing but silence in a place not far from a major highway, getting to the bottom of a perfect untracked run only to turn around and stare back up at your tracks…that’s my bliss.

I took two runs down the bowl and it was time to head back. As i scooted over to the east side i noticed how hot it had gotten and the snow would be softened up. The snow was turning to sludge in the open areas with rollerballs starting at each turn. I was trying to stay centered and keep momentum in the sticky deep snow. As i was trying to carve a right hand turn my right tip dove into the wet snow and stopped. The rest of my body was heading around the turn and started to go over the bars in slow motion. I remember feeling my boot stuck in the snow attached to my ski and hoping my binding would release. As my upper body’s momentum was carried downhill i heard a POP from my right leg, thinking at first it was my binding releasing. Unfortunately it was not…my tibia plateau had just fractured from this pry-bar like fall. My femur and upper body acting as the lever and the knee giving way under pressure since there was no movement from the buried ski in this white cement. I’m not sure exactly what happened after the pop, i think i fell forward with my skis uphill of me still attached. The pain rushed in and I had trouble righting myself and getting the skis off my feet. It felt like i had dislocated my knee since i couldn’t control the lower half of my right leg and the swelling made it look like the knee had been pulled downwards. Eventually i got both skis off and laid on top of my pack while making a ski pole splint for my right leg. I was lucky to have crashed in a sunny spot, facing the sun. Once i was relatively comfortable i checked my cell phone and had service so called my wife to let her know what was going on. Soon after I placed the Inreach SOS call. My buddy Tris called and talked me through getting prepared for a long wait for the Search and Rescue (SAR) group. I expected it would be several hours before I’d see help so i put all my clothes on and wrapped myself in the emergency blanket Tris had just given me for Christmas two days before. I normally carry a winter bivy but took it out to save weight…

I got a phone call from Texas that happened to be the Inreach control board operator or something like that. She asked if this was a real emergency and got my info to give to the local SAR. Shortly after that someone from the local SAR group called and asked about my condition and how best to access my location. Once off the phone with him i was ready for the long wait. However, i got a text from an unknown number saying “This is the CHP helicopter and we are 7 minutes away from your location…when you see us wave your arms so we can spot you.” Not 10 minutes later as they said the chopper did a fly-by looking for a flat place to land (there wasn’t) so over the loudspeaker they said “We will be back with help, stay put.”

About an hour later as I was just starting to get cold the chopper returned and hovered about 50 feet above while a Truckee Fire/Search and Rescue guy rappelled down with with his skis and pack. Once he was dropped off the chopper they did another round and dropped off another SAR to assist, but by the time they came back Brandon had already assessed my condition and wrapped me in the harness to be hoisted up to the helicopter. My skis and pack would stay indefinitely on the mountain and the two guys would ski down and get a ride back home. Thankfully Tristan rescued my skis and pack from their resting place the day after, I’m extremely grateful for that especially because they’d be buried under 10+ feet of snow right about now! If you haven’t heard December was the snowiest on record with over 200″…

As i was lifted off the ground I knew this was going to be an amazing ride. The pain was covered by adrenaline and I was awestruck by the views, first down to my track, then up to the top of the peak, over to my skin track, and then we got high enough where the entire snow filled world fell away and became a stunning backdrop to my floating high in the air below a CHP chopper in December. It was surreal. Eventually they hoisted me up and i sat beside an officer as he clipped me in. Feet out on the rail and looking around as the pilot took us a couple of miles east to the makeshift landing pad at a frontage road cul-de-sac where Truckee Fire was waiting with an ambulance. They soon loaded me into the back, got an IV on board, checked my vitals, and drove me to the ER in Truckee.

Thankfully it wasn’t very busy at the ER so I got into Xrays right away but not before chatting away with the nurses and doctors about how this all happened. They’re all skiers of course so wanted to know where I was and what happened. It’s weird to say but this ER had a good vibe and I’m glad i got taken here. The news was not good, Type 4 Tibial plateau fracture with some complications. I think that means some twisting or that there is ligament involvement. They thought i may go into surgery that night so i didn’t eat or drink till around 9pm when they finally decided it was best if I just stayed the night dealt with me the next morning. That they did, they put an “Ex-fix” on my leg to keep the fracture isolated while the swelling goes down over the next couple of weeks. Then I’d go in for the actual surgery: Open Reduction Internal Fixation (ORIF) where the surgeon would use metal plates, screws and some form of bone puddy to patch it all back together.

For those wondering, the quick n dirty timeline from when i pushed the SOS button until when I was treated:

The last time i had eaten was at about noon.

The time i fell and called SOS was about 1:30pm.

The CHP/SAR showed up about 3:30pm, and I was delivered to the hospital at around 4:30pm.

That’s really fast. I’m extremely lucky I didn’t have to spend any time after dark out there, it would’ve made my extraction much more difficult and without any food I would’ve gotten a lot colder faster.

When i fell, i was trying my hardest to figure out how to get myself off the hill on my own. I don’t like asking for help. Unfortunately, I couldn’t come up with anything that didn’t involve sliding and potentially getting myself more injured. Had i been with another person they would have been able to go get help and offer me some more clothing and food while i waited, but on that slope and in those snow conditions I don’t think anyone could have performed a safe rescue, getting me back to the truck and to the ER safely. Were there two people to help, with the right rescue equipment, then it may have been possible. But i’ll be the first to admit I am not trained in Wilderness First Aid, and although I could manage to make a rescue sled from my skis, poles, backpack, and some Voile straps, i don’t know how i would help another person in my place. This was the wake up call for this piece of my ongoing educations. So in this case the Garmin Inreach SOS was my best friend and performed the safest quickest rescue that I could ever imagine. I’m very grateful for all those involved and who risked their wellbeing for mine. Thank you!

I head into surgery tomorrow, 12/30. Wish me luck!

6 thoughts on “Breaking the leg, Part 2

Add yours

  1. Man Whit, what a story. Snow is always tricky to gauge. Didn’t realize you were such a ski addict. I love BC skiing but living in So Cal made it tough to get enough time in. In college we just rented xc stuff and taught ourselves. After a season we we having a blast doing runs at Mt Pinos our closest area. We used to rent a
    backcountry hut at Rock Creek and spend a few days in the bowls above there. The ski out to 395 was always a big rush. We were on steel edged xc skis Voile 3 pins and big leather tele boots.
    Hope you heal fast!

    1. Thanks Mike! I hope I’m ready to ride my bike this summer, something to look forward to…

      The ski and binding tech has come so far, it’s astonishing when I think what you (and me for a short while) skied on downhill. Great for touring with those leather boots and 3-pins but downhills were kinda funny and terrifying at the same time. Seeing good skiers on that setup was amazing. Revenge of the Telemarkers!

  2. Such a great story Whit. A reminder that the unexpected happens to even the most experienced and prepared. Those tiny details matter. Get well soon! And enjoy some much deserved downtime.

  3. That shot of you getting lifted into the helicopter is epic! That actually looks really fun (if your leg wasn’t broken). Hope you heal fast and hope the surgeries go well.

Leave a Reply

Powered by

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: