I remember being in the air. It was like a ski dream where you fly incredibly far and never touch down, except that I could hear the wind whistling through my goggles and I could see that I was definitely going to touch down. The ground was a bare scree field, as in, there was no snow on it. There had been snow on the north-facing slope I was skiing, but when I hopped a blind rollover to a south-facing slope—and the bottom dropped out 20 feet straight down—the snow disappeared.
It was early season. Most of the south-facing slopes were bare. We weren't supposed to ski the line we were skiing, but it was too good to pass up. I'll spare you what mountain it was because it is irrelevant. It was a good mountain with plenty of vert, enough to get you fired up about the season and ski lines you shouldn't and ski them way too fast. We'd been flying down a fin just beyond the boundary rope over and over, dodging exposed rocks and scrub pines sticking through the thin snowpack. A few feet of cream cheese was all we needed. We hadn't been on skis for six months.
That fall also happened to be my first season as a POWDER editor, so I was skiing especially fast. Something readers might not know about the POWDER staff is that they are all incredible skiers. Some of the best I have ever skied with, so I was trying to prove my salt, ski hard and take chances. Great skiers always seemed to be able to work their way out of a tight bind. I'd followed so many during my years in Jackson Hole as they blindly soared over berms and through the trees, only to hip check or carve a last-second turn around an obstacle they didn't know was there.
I must have looked like a 1980s postcard superimposed on the scene—hat, goggles, gloves, skis, sailing over a lichen-covered scree field. SKI CALIFORNIA!
I skied in Alaska for the first time the season before and flew round the Chugach with Doug Coombs. He knew me from Jackson and made a point to tell me that this was not the place to hit blind jumps. It struck me because I was so provincial at the time I didn't know there were places to do things and other places where you didn't do them. Skiing was skiing and you just did it. Another thing you do as a skier, though, is always listen to Doug Coombs. No matter what. So I shut up and followed him down Diamond, then stood next to him as another guest disobeyed the rule and flung himself off a blind 30-foot cliff straight onto his head.
Lucky for him, there was plenty of snow to land in. I was not so blessed the day of my worst ski crash. There was less than enough. The slope I accidentally sailed onto at 35 mph 20 feet in the air had wildflowers growing between the boulders, like a July afternoon. I must have looked like a 1980s postcard superimposed on the scene—hat, goggles, gloves, skis, sailing over a lichen-covered scree field. SKI CALIFORNIA!
I remember spotting a singular rock the size of my fist 40 feet away. I remember thinking: That is where I am going to land. And it was. I landed precisely on that rock, which was sitting on top of a much larger rock. I landed exactly as I would have on snow—hands forward, knees bent, back straight. The impact was so powerful it didn't seem real. It was like watching a movie stunt, or maybe like a car wreck when metal twists all around you in slow motion.
The crash did not happen slowly, though. I was wearing the same skis I'd skied in Alaska with Coombs: 198cm Volkl Snow Rangers. My ass hit the tails so hard it smeared blue paint from the ski's top sheet—which was sealed under a clear laminate layer—on the back of my pants. I bounced about five feet in the air and landed on my chest on another rock. I bounced again and landed in a small patch of snow, the only one on the slope.
My first recollection after the crash was the sound of screaming. It wasn't my voice, though. It was POWDER Publisher Josh Weis, asking if I was okay. I instinctively raised my hand and waved it, but I was very much not okay. The impact shattered my pelvis in four places and the second bounce broke three ribs. I couldn't seem to get my breath and a deep pain like I have never felt before or since moved through my lower back and stomach.
"What were you thinking," was a popular question. I told them I didn't know. I was just having fun. I hopped a blind rollover, the bottom dropped out. Wrong place, wrong time. Bad judgement, certainly.
It took about an hour for the ski patrol to get there. They were not happy that we'd been skiing out-of-bounds and gave me a surprisingly bumpy toboggan ride to a pickup truck and then to the ski patrol shack. A patroller there was determined to straighten my left leg, though I told him it didn't want to go. He yanked it hard anyway and I almost passed out. Around the same time a nurse handed him the X-ray they had just shot and his eyes went wide and he started apologizing.
The next week was a blur. The morphine drip was a riot, as was seeing the entire POWDER staff standing at the foot of my bed, awkwardly staring at a young man that many of them had just met. "What were you thinking," was a popular question. I told them I didn't know. I was just having fun. I hopped a blind rollover, the bottom dropped out. Wrong place, wrong time. Bad judgement, certainly.
It took a month to learn to walk again, first in a swimming pool with 80-year-olds in Southern California. Then with a walker and a hilarious donut I had to sit on. I was back on the hill exactly eight weeks after the accident. I remember because the doctor told me in a very soap opera way that I would never ski again. I was excited to prove him wrong. (He also told me that I lost a third of my blood to internal bleeding during the accident. I still don't know if that was true.)
My first run was at Retallack, a cat skiing operation in British Columbia. I had a hell of a time getting my ski boots on, but once I clicked in at the top of the hill it was a piece of cake. There was two feet of fresh in the trees. I followed the person in front of me and sank into the snow. There was no pain, and I had total control of my skis. They floated through the fluff and I shifted my weight from side to side, sucking up the rollovers and driving forward into my boots each turn.
It was ecstasy, my first real motion since the accident. It was the first independence I had felt as well. No crutches, wheelchair, or walker. We skied the face in a single shot, gathering at the bottom and wiping snow off of our goggles. The cat driver opened the door and my friends loaded in. The guide asked if I had another run in me. It didn't take long to decide. Absolutely.