The Crash, Part II

You've recovered from a serious injury, now comes the aftermath

Editor’s Note: Read the first part of this story, The Crash, here. PHOTO: The author crests the final pitch in Peru. Photographer: Wade McKoy

There is more to this story. I hadn’t thought about it for a while. It unspooled slowly as I wrote Part I. Then I remembered the aftermath and it seemed too important to go untold. I left off last time at Retallack cat ski area in British Columbia. It had been eight weeks since I fractured my pelvis in four places jumping a blind rollover. The doctor told me I would never ski or jog again, that I’d lost a third of my blood and would spend the next six months learning to walk. Thankfully, he was wrong. I was back on skis eight weeks later, floating through B.C. powder and loving every second of it.

The rest of that winter came slowly, and painfully. I spent hours every day stretching my hamstrings—one had been shortened by an inch in the crash—and strengthening my legs. A trip I had planned to the High Tatra in Poland was reassigned to another writer. Other trips in the Rockies were cancelled. I felt snubbed being sent home and in late February found myself driving solo to Powder headquarters in Southern California—to trade my skis in for an office chair.

Halfway there, near Zion National Park, I pulled the rental car over and went to an Outback Steakhouse. I had never been to an Outback before, and haven’t been to one since. I don’t know what possessed me to stop, the sign simply rose over the horizon at the right time. The hostess led me to a dark booth and poured a glass of water. Directly opposite my table sat a family of five. They were seated in a semicircle around a young man, about my age, paralyzed from the waist down and sitting in a wheelchair.

I don’t follow any specific religion. I do believe in higher powers. And I believe that I was spared a broken back by dumb luck, and maybe a bit of knowledge about how to crash. (I’d crashed plenty before.) I spent the next hour glancing at the boy, switching places with him in my mind—a storm of relief, guilt, confusion, and sadness filling my mind. I taught handicapped skiing in Jackson Hole when I lived there. I took young men and women of every disability downhill on contraptions mounted to skis. I have never in my life seen anyone as happy as they were. What’s more, I’d never respected anyone on skis the way I did them and their bravery.

I knew it was a miracle that I could still ski, or walk for that matter. I knew it was the difference of a few millimeters or pounds-per-square-inch that saved my spine, that I would likely relive the accident in my mind for the rest of my life.

That spring I got a second chance. Photographer Wade McKoy and I hatched a scheme to ski a 6,000-meter peak in Peru. We would go in June, leaving barely enough time for me to train. But I convinced editor Keith Carlsen that I could hack it and it would be a great story. We landed in Lima in early June and made our way to Huaraz, settling in a cheap hotel to acclimatize for a few days. These were the days of MountainZone and live-blogging through giant, heavy satellite phones that looked like laptop computers. Every morning and night we went to the roof to set up the machine and call in our report to an answering machine in MountainZone’s Seattle office.

Jake Norton was our guide and was more capable at almost everything than our entire team put together. He was on Conrad Anker’s expedition when Anker found George Mallory’s body on Mount Everest. A few days after we arrived, he led us up a dirt trail on an epic hike to basecamp. Basecamp was a soggy mess with streams of human feces running past our tent. The stone refugio nearby was nicer and we spent many hours there reading, warming up, and eating fried chicken. (They fry the whole thing, feet and all.)

After two days, we took off for an acclimatizing hike to a nearby peak. It was around 17,000 feet and was a good warmup for our a goal later that week. We left camp around 3 a.m. and followed Jake’s headlamp as it bobbed over moraines and glaciers, then the giant white apron covering the upper flanks of the mountain. Around dawn we affixed crampons, took out ice axes, and started zigzagging up an incredibly steep face. We were roped together, but the exposure was palpable.

My legs were tired and my back hurt, but my pelvis seemed solid. The sheer excitement of being out of Southern California and in the mountains was a good painkiller. The higher we climbed, the more energized I felt. Which is bizarre, because by 7 a.m. we were cresting 16,500 feet. Two hours later we scaled the summit, on all fours, up a 50-degree face.

Jake reached the top first, then Wade. He was 50-something years old then and did the whole thing carrying 60 pounds of film cameras. Wade snapped a few pictures as I toed the final steps to the top. He told me to take my goggles off so he could get a shot for my mom. I couldn’t do it. The 360-degree view from the summit, the crash, the boy from the Outback—it all came crashing down. Fears I had repressed since the second I went off that cliff burst through a psychological dam and tears fogged my googles so that I couldn’t see.

I held onto my ice axe and dug my feet in. The rest of the crew arrived one by one. After a few minutes, Jake walked to a ledge where we could put our skis on. It was set on the edge of a massive, snow-covered saddle two miles long and a mile wide. After clicking in, Wade set up on high ground to get some shots of us skiing down. I went last, the mid-morning sun yellow and warm. The run was steep at the top, then like a giant groomer at the bottom. Twenty-thousand-foot peaks lurched into the sky all around and in the distance we could see the green meadows of basecamp. I made short, safe turns down the summit and giant swooping arcs on the flats, carving to the right around the saddle onto the glacier that led home.

I knew it was a miracle that I could still ski, or walk for that matter. I knew it was the difference of a few millimeters or pounds-per-square-inch that saved my spine, that I would likely relive the accident in my mind for the rest of my life. But none of that mattered right then. All I could sense was the hiss of snow beneath my skis, cold wind chapping my face, and that heavenly feeling of falling, slowly, toward the valley bottom.