5 lessons I learned after a snowboarding accident in Colorado

On Thursday, March 1 2012 at about 3:00 PM MST I was in a pretty dire situation.  It was the final run on the final day of a six day snowboard trip in Colorado.  Riding at a high speed through about 20 inches of powder, my board got caught on a totally submerged tree and stopped abruptly but my body continued moving at the same speed I was traveling.  I found myself laying prostrate on a steep, wooded, back country trail unable to ride or even move my shattered right leg as my body quickly approached hypothermia.

My Wilderness First Responder training was utterly useless at this point; it only functioned to inform me how many ways I had already messed up and what my slim odds were of getting rescued.  I obviously made it out alive and while recovering in the (amazing) Vail Hospital I thought of my top five blunders and lessons learned from my accident.

  1. Never, ever ride alone - This rule applies to almost every outdoor sport.  For activities like wakeboarding it is easy to follow because you need a driver and a spotter to get out on the lake.  On this day it was too easy for me to break this cardinal rule.  My friends were tired and they chose to take an easier run to the bottom.  I felt that even after six straight days of riding over 20 thousand feet of vertical each day I was up to an experts-only, back country chute trail on my own.  Ignoring all of my leadership and survival training I set off on my own for one last run in the fresh, deep powder.  There are reasons that we should not ride alone.  Equipment can fail.  Inclement weather can roll in unexpectedly.  Accidents can happen.  Having 20 years of snowboarding experience on multiple continents in every imaginable terrain made me feel invincible and I did something that I have taught my groups not to do for the past seven summers.
  2. Be prepared - While I was still "in-bounds" on the mountain I should have had some emergency equipment with me if I was going to attempt back country terrain.  If I had not been found in the vast terrain by a skier I could have been stuck on the mountain for hours, overnight, or longer.  With no emergency blanket, first aid kit, lighter or matches, compass, shovel, food, or water I would have had 0% chance of surviving for any lengthy period of time.  When leading adventure trips I always carry an emergency pack.  While running wakeboarding camps we always have a first aid kit on the boat.  I should not have left the main trail system without the proper gear; rookie mistake.
  3. Charge your cell phone - After my snowboarding crash I assessed my injuries and my predicament and reached for my phone.  It had shut off due to lack of power.  I pressed and held the "POWER" button and it turned on but instantly turned off again.  I managed to warm up the battery enough to send one text message to a friend to call 911 but then the phone died for good and I had no way of knowing if my friend received my message or if help would come.  The cell phone is a revolutionary safety device only if it is powered up in case of an emergency.  I spent the whole day wasting its juice on staying in touch with friends on the mountain, using silly apps to track my speed, number of runs, and vertical feet, and to take fun pictures and videos.  As I sat shivering in the snow with my fingers crossed that someone would show up I regretted every wasted bar of power from that day.
  4. Having a plan makes all the difference - Here is something that I actually did right.  Before departing on my own I told my friend exactly which run I was taking and where we would meet.  When I did not show up my friend knew something was wrong and got in touch with ski patrol.  Having an emergency plan is so critically important for situations like this.  Had my friend not waited for me at that particular lift I could have been stranded for a much longer amount of time.
  5. Practice what you preach - Basically I should have known better.  I teach young adults how to responsibly have fun in the outdoors and would be disappointed in any of my campers who left my program and did something stupid like this.  As one of my close friends said after hearing about my accident: "Too many people love you, don't be an idiot next time."  She is right.  I made some crucial judgement mistakes and am fortunate that all I have to show for it is a leg injury which will heal in a few months' time.

So here is how I was rescued and what happened afterwards:

Within about 10 minutes of the accident a skier heard my calls for help and hiked to where I was on the ground.  He called 911 who sent ski patrol to my location.  Simultaneously my friend at the bottom of the mountain called ski patrol who told her that they were on their way and to wait for me at the emergency clinic.  Ski patrol arrived about 15 minutes later, splinted my injured leg, and strapped me in to their sled.  It took about an hour for three of them to ski me down the steep terrain and back to the main ski area and to the medical clinic.  At the clinic they assessed the injury through x-rays and tests and recommended immediate surgery.  I was transferred by ambulance to the hospital at Vail where a world-class orthopedic surgeon was ready and waiting.  I underwent surgery that night where he dropped a large titanium rod through the center of my tibia and screwed it in place below the knee and at the ankle.  I spent three days recovering in the Vail hospital and am now back in New Hampshire going through physical therapy and recovery for multiple tibia fractures as well as a shattered fibula.

I would say lesson learned; the pain will go away in the coming weeks but the physical and emotional scars will function to remind me not to break my own outdoors safety rules in the future.