One Air, Two Broken Legs, & No Insurance In a Foreign Country

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The fateful air...
The fateful air that ended in two broken legs.  photo: ryan salm

As snow piles up (depending on where you are) it can sometimes be hard to imagine that it is still early season. The legs are attempting to prove themselves worthy after some time focused on non-ski/snowboard related activities, objects are still sneakily hiding under thin layers of snow, and thoughts of rationality in regards to making wise decisions may be a little dusty. Although this is what we live for – as mountain folk, we desire and thrive on the winter snow, and when it doesn’t fall, traveling to higher elevations or other destinations is a must. When doing these sort of activities it is important to keep safety in mind.

After the powder-filled winter of 2010-11 in Tahoe, a dwindling snow accumulation trend crept into the region at the beginning of the 2012, so I headed North with a crew of friends to get a taste of Mt. Baker and Whistler-Blackcomb’s early season wet powder. The conditions were good for early season – the snow had filled in well and nearly all the runs at Whistler were open and accessible; there was soft snow to be had and an enormous mountain to explore. On day three we were flowing, discovering the chutes, the many bowls, the pillow lines, and off-piste delights. Still a bit of early season sloppiness but it was much better than what we had back home.

Off the backside of Blackcomb, out of bounds, we came across a 15-foot cliff that had a subtle take off and a steep fluffy landing. We slapped down the snow a bit to form a ramp and took to the sky – it was energizing – all of a sudden we were amped up even after a full day of riding. We were ready to throw in the towel when I made that obnoxious “one more run!” announcement – a superstitious no-no in the snow sports community. And I paid for it.

Me, in the hospital, feeling realty
Me, in the hospital, feeling reality

I remember coming into the hit with way too much speed and after coming off the lip there was no chance of bailing. A set of trees that seemed further in the distance was now in my face. I attempted to throw my board up as protection but the momentum was fierce. The very tip of my snowboard locked in tight between two trees, I heard a snap and slid ten feet down the rugged pole of jagged bristles. My head slammed face up in the snow while my legs stayed hung up in the tree.

Pain sharply pulsed in my lower extremities. “Perhaps a high ankle sprain, maybe a little break – everything will be alright,” I thought. I looked up to see that my left leg was still in the binding but had been split in half just below my snowboard boot. My knee was aimed towards the sky while my foot was turned down to the ground in the total opposite direction of normal. I tried to convince myself that it wasn’t broken, but realism came into play – your leg is just dangling there wrapped around this tree….your leg…. is wrapped around this tree….oh shit! Panic and pain truly set in. I grunted. I moaned. Like a bear caught in trap. The shots of agony jarred my senses – somebody put my leg through a wood chipper. As I yelled for help the urgency kicked in as one of my partners scurried ten yards up hill to the cat track to get help and the other rushed to assist me. No cell phone reception eliminated a quick and simple form of communication.

The pressure on my legs was a consistent stinging sensation, held together only by muscle and tissue, I couldn’t take anymore of the pain – I knew I had to be the one to undo my binding to release this unwanted weight. I made the lunge, leaned up to climb the tree and undo my binding. Each little movement sending jolts shooting through my body. As my foot came loose it dropped four feet to the ground like a dam releasing water –the pressure subsided and my severed leg slapped onto the snowy ground. My partner, Miles, had reached me and the other partner, Ryan, had managed to track down a passing skier to pass the word along to ski patrol at the bottom of the hill. They clearly calculated their moves. Miles (fresh from a wilderness first responder course) created a bed out of skis underneath my body to keep me levitated from the cold snow. Every movement, words of encouragement and calm as he set me up for the next move. He then snapped my leg back into alignment, setting it in a raised make shift splint until help could arrive.

Me, in the sled.
Me, in the sled.


I was relieved by the arrival of the first ski patroller and soon after, a doctor with morphine even more so. By this point I was constantly aching in a dull state of shock with my body shivering extensively from the cold. Heat packs kept me warm and the morphine sent me temporarily to cloud nine. A team of patrollers had created a pulley system by wrapping a rope around a sturdy tree on the nearby cat-track up above. Two patrollers attached the rope to a toboggan, lowered down to my level tucked me tight into the sled and moved me to a vertical position. As they proceeded to lift on counts of three through the thick snow, a team of four patrollers up above heaved the sled up to flatter grounds. From there the bumpy ride to an ambulance and the Whistler clinic would begin.

After confirmation of a left tibula fibula open compound fracture (there was also an ankle break on the right leg that they did not diagnose) in the Whistler clinic I was sent in an ambulance to Vancouver for surgery while Miles and Ryan stayed behind. The two-hour ride was uneventful and worrisome.

Getting hauled up out of the spot I was injured.
Getting hauled up out of the spot I was injured.


With no Insurance, in a foreign country, I was doomed and upon arrival at the hospital this was re-iterated. The nurse gave me a hard time and I was left with the dilemma of staying in Canada and paying 50,000-60,000 dollars out of pocket for this procedure or as the doctor pointed out I could head back to the states and go to Harborview Trauma Center for possible low-income assistance. Thus the rogue mission began.

I called up Ryan in Whistler. Three hours later, he loaded me in the back of the car for a two and a half hour ride in the pouring rain to Seattle. No pain medication – each bump like the pressure of a stone being dropped on my leg. There was a lot of angst, and being that it was nearly 2:00 am when we arrived at the border, we assumed there would be a lot of questions as to what is this hospital gowned freak looking cracked out doing in the back of this car. Strangely enough the border patrol didn’t give us grief and it was rough sailing and hydroplaning down I-5.

We jolted into the emergency entrance to Harborview at 4:00 in the morning and were warmly welcomed by an extensive team of doctors and nurses. I was wheeled away to get scans, x-rays, and then surgery. One metal rod put into my left leg and a metal plate on my right ankle. I didn’t know whether the journey had just ended or had just begun, but I did know that I wasWhistler-Blackcomb-Glacier-1024x897 extremely lucky to be ok and to have such wonderful people help me to get to that point.



Things to consider when heading out into the side-country or backcountry:

After an accident, many ideas pop into ones head as to how a situation could have been handled better. Sometimes we may think we know it all but there are many simple facts that we may be reluctant to address.

Insurance – As much as insurance can be a hassle it is extremely important– sometimes we can think we are invincible but in winter sports we have a tendency to take the sport to a new level. We may not want to dish out the extra cash; however, you never know what may be lurking around the corner and having a good plan is essential. Also really think about health care options when leaving the country as well as helicopter evacuation options.

Avalanche and first aid training – It is always a plus to have avalanche and medical knowledge especially if you are heading into the backcountry. Have a first aid kit, medical knowledge, travel with a shovel, beacon, and probe. Create a plan for worst case scenarios and communicate that with your partner(s). Make sure you are on the same page and discuss these ideas collectively.

Communication and Partners – If you are heading somewhere far out think about such options as a satellite phone, a spot device, or other communication options as cell phones may not have service in that area. Think about how to talk with your partner(s) and choose partner(s) with knowledge so that everyone’s skills can compliment each other.

Don’t get too extreme – Manage risk with rationale thoughts. If you are in a place that may be hard for evacuation perhaps rethink that double-cork off of that 50-foot cliff. If the terrain looks a bit sketch turn around, its not worth the hassle.

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2 thoughts on “One Air, Two Broken Legs, & No Insurance In a Foreign Country

  1. in 1/2 seconds flat,,, good post to let others know, hope you’re all healed up and much wiser.

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