Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Backcountry Fall

The cold snow was mashed up under my glasses and I could tell my cheek was scored with tiny abrasions from rapid impact with sand paper-like like spring snow crystals. A minute ago I know I was gliding calmly down a wooded ridge above Van Norden Lake. But now, I was lying in the snow, arms outstretched in front of me with the tell-tale chill of rapidly melting snow seeping into my collar. I lifted my head to try and clear the fog away from my vision and realized I could not see anything because the gap between my dark sun glasses and my face was packed with snow. I pushed off the glasses with a oddly disassociated hand and arm and leaned up on my elbows to take stock of where I had found myself.

First thing I saw as my thermos, about five feet ahead of me. Ahhh- that explains the odd whoosh sound I heard moments before I hit the snow. My thermos must have launched out of it's snug pocket on the side of my pack and been projected forward as I came to a sudden stop on the slope. I'm thinking I'm glad it was stowed on the side of my pack, rather than the top, otherwise it would have impacted with the back of my head and had a totally different trajectory. But then, why did I stop so suddenly? Working backwards in time I tried to remember what had happened just before and drew a blank...well, actually I remember seeing that the gap between two small trees was closing rather rapidly upon my approach, and that I needed to bring my skis together and squeeze my elbows in so I could just fit through, but then total blank. Not good. Although, I'm sure I did not hit my head. I think ski falls in general happen so fast sometimes its normal to not have a clue what happened to make you fall and exactly what happened to you as you fell. In my case, everything must have happened in a blink of an eye.

So, I have surmised I fell down. Duh. No rocket science there. But, I was still mystified as to why. I am accustomed to falling occasionally on an open slope if I catch an edge, or if the firm snowy base supporting my skis suddenly changes to an icy crust. Now, thinking back, I can just recall hearing the snap/clink sound of a ski binding releasing. I peer over my shoulder and see that my skis are no longer attached to my feet. I am about 5 feet downhill from a narrow gap between two trees. This must be the downhill side of the gap I recalled earlier. But where are my skis? I roll my feet downhill and stand up, shaking the snow out of my coat sleeves and collar and give my head a twist to knock the remaining snow off my hat. Still no sign of the skis. Odd. I post hole back up the hill. No ski tracks here. I must have flown from the gap to my landing position without touching the snow at all. With some effort in the deep unpacked snow accumulated on the leeward side of the trees I made it back uphill to the gap - now more at eye level because of the sudden change in slope and see my two skis, side by side, parked just on the other side of the gap as if I had intentionally removed them there for a hot chocolate break. I reached through the boughs with my arm. No good. I could not reach the tips. So I stuck my pole out and try to poke at the ski to coax it to come towards me through the opening. Like puppies unwilling to come in from the beach after a good frolic, no amount of tugging forward on the toe piece would budge the ski.

I was concerned about sinking into the possibly unconsolidated tree well adjacent to the branches, so I plowed around the tree giving the downhill well a wide berth and panting arrived on the uphill side to conduct further investigations and to retrieve my wayward equipment. With a few swipes of my arm I discovered the problem. Submerged just a few inches under the powdery surface snow was a stubby tree stump just where I had attempted to ski. The skis were trapped, embedded ever so slightly by the ski tips into the furry bark below. I wiggled them one by one side to side and they happily popped out threatening to continue their ski downhill without me. Now the full story began to form in my still confused consciousness. I must have been carrying more speed than I suspected, hit the submerged stump dead-on, did a double ejection from the bindings, flew arms outstretched down the hill and impacted head first on the slope below. At least I now had a coherent story that matched the clues.

I reminded myself of how lucky I was, skiing alone in the backcountry. Any number of variations of these circumstances could have had a much more unpleasant outcome. Brushing off the snow, resetting the bindings, I clicked in and cautiously continued on my way down the mountainside. I knew the afternoon light would begin to fade soon and that I needed to keep moving to make my objective before darkness. As I was coasting down the more gentle slope below, I began the slow full body assessment I perform on others just after ski accidents to determine if anything else was out of kilter. Sure enough, as I palpated my upper left arm I felt a sudden tenderness in my triceps that up until now had gone un noticed. Hmm. I guess I re-injured that muscle. No biggie though - I had pulled that same muscle earlier in the season nordic skiing and it had been put back in service pretty quickly.

Looking around to pick a good route home and always on the lookout for a good photograph, I continued on my way through the mountain topography. It was beautiful. The widely spaced trees along the ridge left a wide open vista of the unfolding valley to the north. To the west the sun was beginning its orange drop over the mountains and towards the Pacific. The clouds overhead were turning blue, then purple, then gray as the daylight was sapped away into the mountain night. There were no sounds besides my heart beating and the clink of the bindings as I took each step forward. Now, here on the protected side of the ridge, the snow lay undisturbed and the the tracks of many woodland creatures crisscrossed between the trees leaving a trace of where they had foraged for food or chased one another about.

As I began to climb up a small rise on the ridge I realized that my left arm was becoming rather useless. It would not take any amount of downward force. The extra work of using one arm on the climb got me sweating, so I stopped to take off a layer. Ouch - now I realized just how sore my arm was becoming. I slumped the pack off onto the ground, stripped off the camera harness and gingerly peeled off two layers of clothing. After stuffing them in my pack, I tried to put my pack on in the usual fashion, but my arm was having nothing to do with bending backwards and twisting at the elbow - a normal maneuver which I can usually do in my sleep. No way I could figure out how to get both straps on without agonizing pain in my left arm. Ultimately, I skipped the arm altogether, and fastened the pack over my shoulder on the left outside of my arm using the sternum strap to keep if from sliding off. Now my objectives had changed. I needed to get off this mountainside on reasonable terrain and back to some assistance before this throbbing in my arm put me totally out of commission. The problem was, I was still at least 800 feet above the road and more than a mile from home. Thinking the problem through, I figured it would be easier to ski gently down the whole way, rather than to take the usual route of a steep decent followed by a flat slog back to the trail head. I could no longer see the end of the meadow through the trees so I took a single compass heading, combined that with the angle of the slope and adjusted my course to hopefully intersect the road right at the base of the mountain.

Now the shadows were growing very long and dim, so I stopped one more time to don my headlamp. This long downward traverse was taking me through a part of the forest I had not traveled in before so I was taking extra special caution not t become bogged down in a creek drainage, or other unexpected fold in the landscape. Just as the last glow of daylight drained from the dark sky, I emerged from the forest - right on target. I had landed right in the back of the parking lot for Soda Springs ski resort - now oddly lit with the sodium glow of parking lot fixtures. Using only my right hand, I strapped the skis together with a rubber strap, threw them onto my shoulder and walked the remaining 1/4 mile to the house in the dark.

The emergency room visit that night diagnosed a torn triceps muscle with significant hematoma. A pressure splint and sling were applied. Follow-up will be four weeks in a sling with gradual physical therapy to maintain range of motion to prevent the scar tissue from adhering abnormally. Thank you modern medicine for narcotics!!!

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