Break A Leg
Nick DeVore discusses breaking his femur in a remote backcountry avalanche accident
By Tim Mutrie
Lying on his back, screaming in pain and staring up into the sun last Thursday, April 28, Aspen’s Nick DeVore kept mistaking airplanes for the rescue helicopter. “Is that the heli?! Nope, it’s just another jet,” says DeVore, recalling his delirium.
When the helicopter did arrive—some two hours after DeVore snapped his left femur in a small wet-slab avalanche near Taylor Pass, a remote backcountry locale south of Aspen and north of Crested Butte—a paramedic from the Flight for Life team asked him what his pain level was on a scale from 1 to 10. “Four thousand,” DeVore replied.
“I wasn’t kidding,” says DeVore, later. “The scapula was nothing compared to this. I mean, I was screaming at the top of my lungs the whole time.”
Following surgery to repair, with rods, screws and bolts, his femur, DeVore spent four days recovering at Aspen Valley Hospital. He’d lost a lot of blood, he says, and doctors closely monitored his condition in the event that he needed a transfusion (he didn’t). Still, he was back to eating sushi the night after the accident and, though diminished and pale, his sense of humor seemed to remain intact.
“I’m probably not the right guy to talk about the safety message,” says DeVore, chuckling. “But I’ll answer your questions and give you my thoughts on it.”
What follows is a debriefing in DeVore’s words about his accident in the M&M Chutes. DeVore’s partners that day were three fellow Aspenites: Jake Sakson, a fellow Powderwhores tele skier and EMT; Chris Hendrickson; and Ian McLendon, who had recently skied the Landry Line on Pyramid Peak with DeVore.
“At first I wanted to go home from the hospital, but then I realized they were taking pretty good care of me. Just so many electronics in the room, beeping and buzzing, and I’m not too down with that, but it was a good place to recover and they took great care of me.”
“I’d skied Pyramid the other day and I’d been psyched to ski some more big lines. But the storms kept rolling in. Thursday came along—first bluebird day in a long time—and we knew there was high avalanche danger, so we went out to the M&M Chutes. They’re short, but steep.”
“I was up there with my friend Jake and he’s been to AK before. And it’s like, when you’ve skied huge lines with big exposure, these little lines aren’t as scary—if something rips out, you can just out ski it. We saw a large fracture avalanche on one of the chutes nearby, from the day before I think. But it was beautiful. I even remember Ian and Chris, down at the bottom, they radioed up: ‘Are you guys gonna dig a pit?’ And we said, ‘No, we’re just gonna send it.’”
“Some of the lines are going to be sliding, and that’s an element we’re used to. I mean, the avalanche here was something that would be called ‘manageable sluff’ in Alaska. … So we all skied one run, no worries, and the snow was thick and buttery. Then we went to these steeper lines that were slightly more east-facing and had a cornice drop to get in. It was wind-loaded and had been kinda sun baked. It was really kind of obvious. And that’s the case every time I’m in a situation like this—it is obvious. All the signs were there beforehand. I even kinda knew beforehand, just kind of neglected it.”
“I hate to be saying it like this, but after skiing a couple thousand vert lines, when you get on top of 500 to 800-foot lines, it’s not as as exciting. You just feel like if it does rip out you can just ski out of it and avoid it and be faster than it. So because of the size of the line and the lack of gnarliness there, we sort of overlooked potential hazards.”
“That’s how skiing the backcountry and life in general goes, right when you start to overlook the hazards or think you’re you’re bigger than that or can handle that, that’s when accidents happen. … Your confidence level maxes out and you forget you’re just a small thing in the big natural world. That confidence is also the thing that drives skiing and other sports. But when confidence level gets too high you also forget about the dangers.”
“Dropping in, it was a snow type that I didn’t expect. It ripped and it was almost like a mud slide; sucked my ankles into it. I was almost able to ski out of it. I was trying to battle it. I watched Go Pro footage of it and it happened so fast. I wasn’t able to turn away.”
“The crown was 6 to 18 inches max, just the new recent storm snow. It probably fell as a few feet of snow and had baked down to that. It felt like there was a fairly hard icier layer under that. … The chute sort of doglegs to the right, but the fall line went right to a protruding cliff. I knew the rock was there and I was hoping I was just gonna miss it—my vision was obscured—but I didn’t. I pretty much hip-checked the cliff. I thought I broke my hip. I just smacked it.”
“I definitely got a lack of info about it from the doctors. I didn’t get a very good characterization about the injury, but basically broken femur. And it was pretty bad, it was pinching my femoral artery. And I felt that out there. And instead of sticking out, compound fracture style, it went in toward my inner thigh.”
“I think the doctors were trying to not stress me out, because my blood levels were low, so I think they were trying to keep me calm. But I’ve had so many people come in and be like, ‘It only takes eight minutes if you break your femoral artery for you to bleed out and die.’ It was sorta funny to see all the ways people were freaking out—and freaking me out—later on.”
“I don’t really know if I broke my femural artery. I don’t think so. I lost a ton a blood, I became anemic and another doctor-word they were using, but basically my blood was really diluted and my red blood cell count was less than 50 percent of what it normally is.”
“I knew I had broken my hip or something, but I was battling the slide, I was tomahawked, then head down, and that was really scary, then head first. I totally lost control in the avalanche. But then I was on my feet and back and swimming down this mudslide. As the slope started to get less steep, I felt it slow down, and I just kept both of my hands free and I was moving snow away from my face. I had a nice face pocket.”
“It’s interesting watching the Go Pro footage because I wasn’t really freaking out, but there I was, stuck, up to my neck. I wasn’t really feeling the pain yet. Both my skis were still on, and my feet were torqued in an awkward position. Chris was on a snowmobile and he high-marked up super quick and shoveled me out, but he wasn’t in a serious hurry because I could breath and talk to him. The first thing—and I only know this from the Go Pro—he said was, ‘Are you OK?’ And I said ‘Not really. I’m pretty sure my hip’s broken.’”
“I already have some hospital bills I’m dealing with from the last injury, so at first I was thinking about trying to get out on the snowmobiles, trying to do it ourselves. But the guys talked some sense into me, and I realized I needed to get out of there as soon as possible. And while I was trying not to think about the bad possibilities, I was thinking about my friend E.J.; he’d broken his leg and he ended up having his leg amputated below his knee. And that got me really scared. … I don’t know exactly how the rescue coordination ended up panning out. Chris and Ian took turns sledding around trying to find cell service, and they had a hard time with it. … Eventually they arranged the Flight for Life. But before that, we weren’t really sure.”
“I couldn’t move at all; insane amount of pain. I felt like my artery was being pinched and cut. And I was getting really cold lying on the snow. The main thing we were doing was trying to keep me warm; putting skins and everything else underneath me, digging out the snow beneath me putting stuff in between me and the snow.”
“Jake knew what to do and was using all the resources there—the Go Pro strap, the skins, everything. His main goal first was to get us out of the avalanche zone, because it was just warming up more. But we ended up staying right there because I really couldn’t move. We eventually got me out of this sitting position. When one of these spasms would happen, they’d just move me then because the pain was so bad it couldn’t hurt any more than it already did.”
“The heli showed up two hours after the accident. And it was like the biggest relief when they got there. They got an IV going and pumped me up with morphine. … In the moment it’s hard to realize how serious it is. I mean, I knew it was serious, I was in serious pain, but it’s kind of hard to remember that pain when you’re not it anymore. But a lot of people have told me how lucky I am. I mean, I could’ve been buried, I could’ve bled out more, the heli might not have been able to fly, and if I’d been out there a half-hour longer who knows what would’ve happened. All that makes me realize how lucky I am to be put back in one piece and healing. But at the same time, I probably would’ve been fine if it wasn’t for that rock and we probably would’ve just skied some more runs.”
“I probably gave my mom and sister heart attacks. They’re doing OK, but they’re pretty shaken up and still worried about me. My mom just came in and said I’m looking pretty pale. It was a scary thing for them. I think for my sister, Katrina, too, with all the events of the past month, it’s been pretty hard for her. She’s definitely over skiing for the winter. You can get to that point, you know—just hang ‘em up, call it quits while you’re ahead.”
Epilogue: The unsung heroes in all this are, as usual, the rescue responders. In this case, that’s Flight for Life’s Lifeguard 2 crew—based out of St. Anthony Summit Medical Center in Frisco, Colo.—of Lorin Courtney (pilot), Maureen Maledon (flight nurse) and Tag Hopkins (flight paramedic). “It was an extraodinary rescue,” one Flight for Life official told Powder.com. “Mountain Rescue Aspen was still a few hours away, so we were the only responders.” Added flight nurse Maledon, “I’m so glad to hear he’s doing well. He may not even think it, but Nick was very, very lucky that day.”
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