WARNING 1: this article contains gratuitous quantities of sentimental mushiness. Though in the authors opinion its probably still not enough…
WARNING 2: This article contains a couple fairly graphic descriptions of a pretty mangled leg. Especially those of the parental persuasion can consider themselves duly warned.
I woke up a little late on the last Sunday morning of October. Thankfully my gear was still packed from skiing at Brandywine the day before. Unfortunately it was still all wet from the day before too. I lethargically got my things together and had started tucking into a bowl of granola when Julien arrived at the door with Kike. He told me not to worry, he was a little early. At this point I did start to worry though because I still hadn’t seen Tom. I shouted up to him, he awoke, and a few minutes later David Bowie emerged down stairs. Tom’s bank balance had been depleted a little excessively on this Halloween costume and so he had been ensuring he got his money’s worth out of it over the weekend. This included the previous night, which had extended into the small hours of Sunday morning and thus responsible for our late departure. We all got to ski with David Bowie though, so probably it was worth it!
We rendezvoused with Collin’s jeep just above the upper Brandywine parking lot. My trip the day before had been sadly lacking in burly four wheel drives and so we had hiked up and down from the lower lot, in some miserable rain. It felt slightly stupid to be coming back to the same area the very next day, but today the weather was gorgeous and we practically started from the alpine. It felt entirely different. Also, from the upper lot we took a different route to head up Metal Dome than the trip the day before into the meadows.
There was no more than a leisurely half hour boot pack till we could start skinning, not bad for October! Once in the alpine the views did the weather justice and then some. I love being over on the west side of the sea-to-sky because it means I can look over and see all the distinctive peaks across the way. The Tusk, Garibaldi, Castle Towers, the Sphinx, Wedge and Weart, Sky pilot in the distance. Mountain vistas are always enjoyable but they become more meaningful when you can look around and think I’ve been over there, or I’ve been up that! Then, completing the truly 360 degree panorama there was Mt. Fee, Kaylee, and Brandywine bringing memories of an Alcoholic Traverse a couple years previous. The sun glasses were out, all were in good spirits, and I distinctly remember thinking “this is what its all about. This is why I’m in Canada. This is life.” I also started mentally writing an e-mail to Richard from the trip the day before, detailing how lucky he was he had chosen Saturday for a day trip, and including photos of our bluebird powder-slaying. Just to prove I’m capable of being a dick. Obviously my luck was boundless…
After a couple of hours we reached the summit of Metal Dome. For most of the way up the snow had been surprisingly fluffy, probably a little heavy in places, but barely a crust in sight. Near the top it was fairly wind affected but, especially for OCTOBER, this was just picking hairs. Clearly we had some great skiing in front of us. At the top I layered up for the descent, a decision I would be very grateful for. It was also decided that it was a bit windy up top for lunch and so we should wait till we got down a ways first. This made perfect sense but I’d regret this choice later for sure.
It’s fair to say we were a group of mixed abilities but this didn’t matter. We were all just happy to be out. Lia was struggling to come to terms with her first day of the season skiing being a little rusty and was entertaining us all with some spectacular bails. Natalie’s skis had had an unfortunate week long interaction with her wet skins and were now plastered in so much glue she could barely move, not that this small problem was ever going to dampen her enthusiasm. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one basking in the near summer sunshine as my turns were linking as well as they ever have. The descent even seemed to be breathing some life back into Major Tom!
A couple of relatively short runs led us down to a long wide open stretch down to the Glacier. I was one of the last to set off, and it was fantastic. At the top the snow was still relatively light, the slope was steep enough that it felt like skiing but shallow enough to be well within my comfort levels. I opened her up, faced down rather than across and linked those turns with something that could have been mistaken for grace, or at least competence. “Yeeehaaa” was the screech of pure, unadulterated type one fun! As I got lower down the slope though the snow got heavier. My beautiful narrow turns higher up were becoming wider and wider as the conditions started to get the better of my abilities. The slope was such that turns could be as wide as you wanted though and it was still enjoyable skiing. A little further down and I started a left turn that just didn’t want to come round, the skis bogged down in the heavy snow. As my skis tried in vain to pull a turn to the left my body must have fell down and to the right. Not for the first time in my life I ate snow.
This felt like just a standard bail of the type I’ve had many times before, I was entirely unconcerned. I landed with my head down slope and my feet and skis above me. Then I saw my left leg. My foot was pointing up the slope, still attached to the ski that stubbornly didn’t want to come round in the heavy snow.
My knee was pointing as near as damned 180 degrees in the opposite direction.
“Oh no, no, no, no, NO!”
There was still no pain to speak of but the horrible realisation was instantaneous. There was no disbelief, there was no confusion. But I wasn’t thinking about the world of pain that must surely be coming my way. I wasn’t thinking about the fact that I was now stuck on a wild mountain and that some great efforts would now need to be made to get me off of it. I wasn’t thinking about whatever heinous medical complications are possible from having a leg not just broken, but so utterly mutilated that the very sight of it could turn the strongest stomach. I wasn’t even afraid of any of these things or worse, and we’ve not been so lucky as to have been untouched by the many worse things that can happen in the mountains than a broken leg.
Instead I entered a 5 minute period of intense self-pity and dread. Not about the injury its self but “will my crappy insurance pay out or am I about to be left with mortgage level debt without the concomitant asset”, “How will the chemistry job that took me so long to get here in Vancouver, that I have had for about a month, possibly work with a broken leg”. Basically the thing that I was unable to cope with in those minutes, the thing that was literally destroying me from within, was the seeming certainty that “this was it. This was the end of my time in Canada. This was the end of everything I’d worked so hard for. This was the last time I would be able to effortlessly take my skis for a walk with the best of company into paradise.”
My woeful self-pity was only interrupted in those few minutes in the moment when I decided to right myself, swing my legs around so that my legs would be below me. Thankfully I managed this in one swinging movement. I can’t remember if there was pain in this moment. What I do remember, what I will never be able to forget, was the sensation of the bottom quarter of my leg sloshing about completely untethered to the rest of the leg, just held there by a bag of skin, like an orange in a Christmas stocking. This was the single most horrifying part of the entire ordeal. I’m also very glad it sloshed its way round to land with my foot pointing the same way as my knee. There was enough manipulation required as it was without people having to rotate my leg 180 degrees. I’ve no idea if it was sensible to right myself like this. I may have been very lucky not to have caused serious repercussions. In truth it wasn’t something I thought about, it was just instinctive. You don’t expect your leg to flop like that and you don’t EVER want it to!
Then Natalie made it to me. She had once told me off for scaring her with a tirade of swear words when I stubbed a toe. She thought something serious had happened. I told her if it was something serious, she would know. She knew! Tom arrived moments later. Voices of vague concern were being voiced from the bottom of the slope.
“Is everything ok?”
“No, I’ve broke my fucking leg!”
The seriousness of the situation began to set in, and people began to step up to the plate. I left my self-pity alone and began dealing with the situation, not that there was so much I could do but be cooperative and accept the pain as it came. In truth my self-pity became easy to bear as it became increasingly apparent that, despite all that I may have lost, despite how shite the current situation may have been, I have never in my life had so much to be grateful for. These two conflicting extremes made very strange bed fellows, but they somehow produced an odd contentment. If this was to be the last time I got to venture into the BC mountains the people around me, that I’ve chosen to surround myself with as often as possible for the last four years, were embodying every quality that assured me I’ve been chasing the right things in life. It was very clear to me over the next few hours that I’ve been surrounded by the very best. With friends like these, who needs mountains? I couldn’t be more grateful, or more proud, of every one of you. When Tom arrived he was prepared to take control, to get things moving. Not because he is blessed with impeccable medical knowledge and self-assuredness, but because he knew that it was needed and he had the courage to act despite understandable self-doubt. I can’t imagine how it would be possible to be more supportive than Natalie was, for hours, crouched by my head in the snow, no doubt with legs feeling like they are about to fall off with the cold. Being offered several times to swap out for a while and never coming even close to considering it. Her temperament was perfect, even when I was screaming in unbearable pain she was my rock. I can’t over state how much easier it was all to bear thanks to you! Thankfully while I was stationary I wasn’t in much pain but whenever I was being moved, and I needed to be moved, the pain was excruciating. The mental strength required to move me with certainty, not to be hesitant while I protest in agony, was so admirably demonstrated by all of you, and saved me much unnecessary pain. Especially by Lia and Collin who got stuck moving the broken leg. Everything they did caused me pain. Anything they could have done would have caused me pain. It needed done, and they got on and did it. And I understand how difficult that must be, and I can only hope I would perform as well in a similar situation.
I hope never to need learn about my capabilities in this regard. I did however find reason to be proud of my own contributions. In some ways I had the easiest task, there wasn’t a whole lot I could do except lie there and bear pain. But, even as my world was falling apart around me, I didn’t allow myself to fall apart with it. I stayed on point, understood what was needed of me, and did it. I stayed positive. The only thing I could do to make this easier for those around me was to stay positive, to give good chat, a bit of levity, some bad jokes, lighten the mood. Hiding the pain when it hit was impossible, but otherwise I was a damn good patient!
It wasn’t just my many friends, and how well they came together that I had to be grateful for though. Soon after the incident all the commotion attracted the attention of two trainee ski guides, Kurt and Bram. I have no doubt that without them my crew would have got me out of there, and did so well. But Kurt and Bram were amazing. They inspired calmness and confidence in all around them and I know that things went as smoothly as was possible for having them there. If you’re ever in need of a guide you will be in good hands with these two!
As well as the personnel, the weather was perfect. Lying in the snow for 4 hours with a broken leg isn’t the most enjoyable way ever to spend your Sunday afternoon, but doing it in some beautiful warm sunshine is infinitely better than in the freezing rain.
Also, because I travel in the mountains with the best, most capable, most prepared of people, we had both a Spot and an In-reach to contact the outside world for help. Life was made all the easier though, and unusually in BC, by having full phone coverage providing all the two way conversions that simplify emergency scenarios greatly.
All in all, breaking your leg in the backcountry sucks (probably in the front country too…) but if you were going to do it this was the perfect scenario.
And so back to events as they unfolded. Natalie was busy being my rock. Tom was delicately removing the ski from my broken leg under my instruction. While he was examining my leg to get a grip on the injury Kurt and Bram arrived and quickly assessed the situation, announced their credentials, and took charge. I’m not exactly a complete witness at this point, I had some distractions…
Bram took several people with him up to the col to send rescue messages with the SPOT, In Reach, and by phone, as well as to build a landing platform for a helicopter. Kurt instructed others to flatten out a section of the slope that I was on so that I could be moved onto a more stable footing (so to speak…). Once a flat section was made they tried to move me onto it but my ridiculous pain led to a reconsidering of things. The priority was then to splint the leg, which would make me easier to move. Ideally they wanted to splint my leg straight so they could secure the joint above as well as the joints below the injury (it had been quickly determined that my leg was very probably broken and that the injury was at the boot-line). Unfortunately attempts to straighten my leg resulted in enough agony that it was decided that a makeshift splint on the bent leg would be sufficient for now. This could keep me comfortable enough until SAR arrived with drugs that would make everything after that much easier. Julien, like everyone else, provided assistance as directed. He was not silently in awe of our qualified helpers though. He was not afraid to constructively question their approach when appropriate. It was comforting to know that someone I knew and trusted was paying close attention and not simply accepting everything the would-be guides were saying. Kurt and Bram were amazing, but they were also complete strangers to us and in theory could have been (but certainly weren’t) well over their heads.
A makeshift splint was constructed out of my ski poles and some compression straps that Kurt had with him. I was then moved/rolled over so that I was on a flat-ish section, and my leg was propped up as best as it could be with bags and the like. I believe either Kurt’s or Collin’s leg was also doing some important propping. A small tarp was also placed underneath me to try and provide at least some insulation from the snow, and many a warm jacket was dumped on top of me that really did an amazing job of keeping me warm.
Even with the splint, rolling over still hurt like hell but now that I was in a stable position, not needing to move, leg being held rigid at least low down, and covered in the most expensive patchwork quilt ever assembled, I was surprisingly comfortable. Now there was little more left to do but wait. It felt good that something positive had been achieved. It felt like things were under control. I could relax, and I think others could too.
For the next two hours there wasn’t too much to achieve. Kurt would regularly ask if I knew where I was, what day it was, What I’d been doing (skiing badly was the reply that would receive a good chuckle) just to check I was still with it. Bram returned from the col to confirm that SAR would make their way to us relatively soon. A spot had been cleared for it to land. At some point Kurt got other people to clear a spot on the slope we were on in the unlikely event that a daring helicopter pilot might try to land there. All the unused gear was moved out the way and secured so it didn’t blow away on the arrival of a helicopter. We were given instructions that when the helicopter arrived we should stay low to the ground. I figured I’d stay put. Natalie kept being rock like. Kike shared stories of the time he broke his back in the backcountry. There’s always someone going to one up you! I made chit chat too. Everyone was in strangely high spirits. We were all united in a common cause. It was almost enjoyable! Type 2 fun? Anything in good company eh…
Eventually the snow I was lying on began to melt out, and although I think we all put it off as long as possible, I knew what was coming. I needed to be moved again. With the tarp under me and the leg already splinted, people somewhat practiced in their roles, things were much more efficient. It still hurt like hell but not continuously and distance traveled could be measured in metres. Metres plural, but still single digits. If there hadn’t been a helicopter…
I was moved leg and a wing style, with people mostly lifting and pulling the tarp rather than directly on me. Of course the broken leg was always receiving special attention and everything was as controlled as possible. After 3 smooth movements, the third an adventurous long one, I arrived on a huge flat section that I assume had been dug out by people earlier. It was clear I could lie here as long as needed. Very little time passed from here until Mountain Rescue arrived. They quickly took charge of the situation from Kurt and Bram, after they had been provided with a detailed description of all relevant medical information and what we had achieved up to this point. They quickly understood that this rescue would go much more smoothly if they had access to a heist pilot (one who could pull me up on a long cable) and got on with trying to find one.
Then started the process of packaging me for lift off. My bent knee half leg splint just wasn’t going to cut it. They had a fancy air cast they wanted my leg in instead. They also had a wonderful Vacuum mattress that would wrap somewhat up and around me, holding me in place and insulating me from the snow. Twas great once I was in it, but first I had to get on it. Under Wayne’s direction they tried to bundle me on there, with excruciating amounts of pain. Wayne paused, and I quote verbatim
“Ok, we’re going to need to get some drugs or this is going to be highly traumatic for everyone involved…”
He got on the radio and inquired about what luck they had had finding a doctor. After 5 minutes the decision was made, no drugs were coming…Damn!
Wayne was very keen on a lets just get it done approach, its going to suck like hell, but it will be relatively quick, and then it’ll be done.
“Ok, everybody ready? 1,2,3…”
This was when I started to become a more difficult patient. The quick bundle didn’t sound appealing to me at all. I wanted to know, in minute detail, exactly where they wanted me moved to and how they planned on getting me there so that I could do my best to point myself in the right direction, and minimise pain. In the end I convinced them to give me a chance to use my working limbs to do most of the maneuvering myself, while others supported my broken leg or moved the mat underneath me. This worked surprisingly well. With only moderate quantities of excruciating agony I was soon fully casted with a straight leg, and snugly wrapped in the vacuum blanket. As the fitting of the air cast was being finished I turned to Lia, who had somehow managed to pry my rock from the position at my head, and asked her
“Do you know what’s amazing Lia, What’s utterly fantastic, truly magnificent?”
“Life without a broken leg!”
Levity returned, life could be good again. We had kept the group trauma to a minimum. We’re a tough bunch! From here on in things were considerably easier, the cast and mattress holding everything in place tight reducing the pain incredibly. Eventually someone was found who could long line me of the slope and up to a flat spot large enough to land a second helicopter, which I was bundled into and flown the rest of the way to the clinic in Whistler. For the long line-ing I was so wrapped up that I could see very little other than the helicopter above me. I was worried it would put some painful strain on my leg but in the end it was strangely relaxing! Probably in part due to the fact that I knew I was almost there, almost off the mountain.
Once in the clinic, after a little difficulty with my apparently tiny veins, they got an IV line in me and with it some Fentanyl. Drugs are amazing! From here on in pain was no longer an issue. Even getting the ski boot off the broken leg was problem free. After an X-Ray I was sent to Lions Gate Hospital in North Van by ambulance. They operated the next day to insert a metal rod in my leg to hold it all together. The surgeon reckoned this was more complicated than usual somehow, but his obvious brilliance meant I had nothing to worry about… After a few more days I got to go home!
If there has been one thing I’ve had no shortage of since the accident it has been time to reflect. What went wrong? What should I have done differently? How screwed am I? In the end, I can’t regret the decisions I made. I decided to go out skiing on a beautiful day and the best of company. Even that day, in a less reflective mind-set, I was aware that this had been my raison d’etre for several years now and it’s a damn good one! I didn’t do anything stupid. I was skiing an innocuous slope, not aggressively, took a standard fall, and got very unlucky!
As for how screwed I am, 2 weeks since the accident this is still unknown. In terms of recovery I’ve been told to expect 4-6 months. This feels like a really long time to me. On the plus side though, if there is one thing above all else that the VOC has taught me, it is how to slog, slog some more, and then keep on going! I’ve always considered this a fairly essential outdoor trait, now maybe I’m about to learn it is also a very useful life skill in general.
My insurance seems to be working at least somewhat. I’m not going to end up with a mortgage sized debt but I might end up owing enough to buy a pretty nice used car. Time will tell. Likewise with the job and with it my time here in Canada. What I am completely certain of, is that the whole point of me being here was for days like Sunday. Also, what I can tell from, how attentive my friends were on the mountain, how amazing my flatmates have been looking after their bed-bound skiver, or the continuous stream of people who have since swung by to provide some company, entertainment, and often some darn good grub, is that I’ve been living this life exceptionally well. All of these people without exception I met and got to know through our great club. I don’t think there has been any other time in my life when quite so many wonderful, caring people would have put themselves out quite so much to help out little ole me. It’s truly a privilege to know you all! If I need return to Scotland it will not be my first choice, but this incident has crystalised beautifully just how right I was to do all that I could to stay as long as I have. If, for me, it is indeed back to the brig o doon, at least I know I’ve seen the whole of the moon!