Lessons of the Nearly Crippled
by Andy Dappen
It was DAD (Dawn and Dusk) Patrol Wednesday. Matt Dahlgreen and I had embarked on one of those trips our wives envision as a picture of Hell rather than fun. Leaving the end of the plowed road up Number 2 Canyon at 6 p.m., we intended to ski from Wenatchee to Cashmere. We would ski up and over Twin Peaks by headlamp, camp somewhere along Butler Ridge, descend to Cashmere early in the morning, and use Link (our bus system, you know?) to return to Wenatchee.
The night of December 7 was not only a night of infamy but frigid (around 0 degrees F atop Twin Peaks), yet skiing the peak’s ridge systems was strikingly beautiful. The lights of Wenatchee shimmered below, Orion shone overhead. Up high, the air swam with hoar frost crystals flashing in the beams of our headlamps. Noting how quickly our fingers froze when we stopped, Matt commented, “Bad night for something to go wrong.”
We skied over the peak and hooked into Butler Ridge, an exposed, undulating spur connecting to Cashmere. The snowpack was thin but sticking to the path snowmobiles had packed made skiing possible. When we stepped off the packed snow, the odds of grounding out on underlying dirt or rocks rocketed. We quickly realized that to remain on the narrow ribbon of packed snow meant we should descend with skins on skis. There was no other way to dissipate speed except my walking–which, obviously, wasn’t skiing.
Down we went. On one particularly steep pitch, Matt switched to walk mode while I snowplowed precariously downward on skinny Nordic skis. Near the bottom of that pitch, I abandoned the wedge and straight-lined–the hill was nearly over and the flat terrain ahead would dissipate my speed. What I didn’t see was a door-sized patch of ground that snowmobiles, spinning their treads, had rubbed bare.
I hit that patch with speed and the skis stopped. Instantly. First I flew. Then I employed my head as a plow to bring 180 pounds of out-of-control body weight to a quick stop. People have told me since, that other body parts are better suited to this job. My splitting headache, screaming neck, knotted back, and tingling fingers supported this assertion.
Matt quickly caught up to my miserable mass of protoplasm writhing in the snow and concluded this was just the excuse we needed to abandon our plans of shivering the night away in two-pound sleeping bags. Carefully, so I wouldn’t fall again, we walked off the ridge into Yaksum Canyon; then we followed the snowed-over roads along the valley floor. Around midnight, we reached the plowed portion of Yaksum Canyon Road where my wife, summoned an hour earlier on the cell phone, met us.
Off to the ER room we went where it took many hours and many hundreds of dollars to get my neck X-rayed. When my wallet ran dry of big bills, the staff dispatched me with a clean bill of health, “Stop whimpering and take your lumps like a man,” they told me.
Whew, I was OK.
The next day the hospital called back saying the radiology department** hoped to pay down the debt on their CT scanner. Wouldn’t I like to shovel out lots more money and take a ride on their magical radioactive machine?
Never one to waste an opportunity to fry brain cells, I jumped on it. Down to the hospital I went and, damn, if that wild ride on the CT scanner didn’t break my neck.
As my doc, orthopedic surgeon Dr. Ed Farrar, later explained, I had a stable break but had cracked two vertebrae. Also a bone chip from one of those suckers nicked the nerves to my arm, causing the tingling I was still experiencing.
Now Ed’s got me in a neck brace that I’ll be wearing for the next three months. Another CT scan in late winter will, supposedly, reveal whether it’s once again safe to start night skiing down thinly covered ski trails. But you can imagine my reluctance to hop on that scanner again—it does bad things to a body.
————— LESSONS FROM THE SCHOOL OF HARD KNOCKS ————–
1) Whoa Nelly. It’s still a thin snowpack out there. That’s no reason not to ski but, until the danger of the ground grabbing your boards dissipates, ski under control.
2) If you night ski, use a bright light (like a strong bike light) and don’t overdrive the beams. For our thin-snow conditions, my light (a medium-bright climbing headlamp) was insufficient for the speed I was carrying. This accident would not have occurred had I seen the upcoming bare spot.
3) Walk when you’re unsure of your downhill control. Note how the dumb skier broke his neck while the wise walker did not.
4) A lid (helmet) would not have saved my neck but I did come down hard on my face and was lucky not to kiss a rock. Skiing with a helmet is rarely a bad idea and a good idea in thin-snow conditions.
5) A variety of lessons connected to injury-related decision making stemmed from this excursion. Read about those in the article “Of Injuries and Rescues.”
** NOTE: Of course I jest about the CT scanner. In truth, I extend my deepest thanks to Dr. Nehme, the radiologist who, upon studying my films the morning after my accident, believed the X-rays were missing something and called me back. I may owe this man the continued use of my fingers and toes.