I heard violin scales in my house for the first time in 3 weeks yesterday and breathed a sigh of relief. It’s been a rough couple of weeks – but I think we’re in the clear. The low point was trying the doors at Children’s Shriner Fracture Clinic on Martin Luther King Jr. day and finding them locked and the clinic closed. I made overnight oats the night before and the whole family got up early, got dressed and ate quietly, then shuffled into the car and made the drive across town to pill hill.
As we have been doing for the past few weeks on Friday afternoons, me and my daughters have been packing up our ski gear, making breakfast burritos (for dinner) and making the drive to Mt. Hood Meadows to ski for a few hours. Friday the 13th was our 6th ski day of the season. We were starting to rip the black diamonds more comfortably and having a great time just being together – no distractions, quality ski lift time. Our ski days are all business – we charge for 3 or 4 hours and then either truck camp at White River or I drive home while they fall asleep.
I’m not superstitious, but I certainly listen to my intuition. I don’t think you can spend a lot of time in the mountains and *not* have a strong intuition. I recall those days of hiking all my climbing gear up to the base of climbs at Seneca Rocks, WV and just not feeling it – and hiking back out to Seneca Shadows campground to lay in the sun and stare up at the spires. “He who down climbs and runs away lives to climb another day.”
I can’t tell the story without touching on all the times when I should have pulled the plug on the outing. It was Friday the 13th… the weather conditions were marginal (it was raining and above freezing in the parking lot), my daughter forgot her shell so was wearing 2 puffies instead. And the biggest miss – before we even left Portland I was checking the weather and started to text my wife that I thought we should bail because of the rain, but thought about how much my girls love to ski and didn’t want to cancel. So we went.
On the last run of the night coming down North Canyon my older daughter had skied ahead, I dropped off of a short steep area and stopped to wait for my youngest who was right behind me. I watched her ski down toward me. On my periphery I could see a snowboarder on his heel edge turning right with his back toward her. They collided at high speed and both fell. I don’t really want to write anymore about this part. I considered briefly beating the snowboarder to death with my skis, but my daughter was screaming in pain – and he left. Her aluminum ski pole was completely bent from the impact.
Distal clavicle fracture was the diagnosis after x-rays at the clinic on the mountain. I had to call my wife in Portland and tell her what happened. It’s not a call I ever want to make again. The scariest and most unnerving detail from the doc was to make sure to make an appointment to see an orthopedic surgeon as soon as possible based on the type of fracture. The weekend was somber as we tried to make appointments and get a better idea of what the prognosis. Our primary care doc recommended the Shriner’s clinic – but didn’t realize it would be closed for the holiday. We ended up going to the fracture clinic at Adventist in NE Portland and were hugely relieved when the doc recommended immobilization in a sling and rest. Surgery is only done if bone is penetrating the skin or if there is nerve damage.
A couple points about the entire episode. I started skiing when I was a kid at Jiminy Peak outside of Pittsfield, Massachusetts where I was born. Years later I started snowboarding and rode at Breckenridge and Purgatory in CO. I switched back to skiing when I started alpine touring in Albuquerque, skinning up Sandia Peak in the spring with my dogs after the hill had closed. I never had a desire to go back to a snowboard and was oblivious to the rise in splitboarding and backcountry snowboarding.
There is a reason that Alta, Deer Valley and Mad River Glen ban snowboards from their resorts. Unlike skiers, as snowboarders descend the fall line, they have a blind spot. As a snowboarder makes a turn from their heel edge, they can’t see what’s behind them. My deep dive into snowboarding / skier collisions found too many instances to count of serious injuries resulting from a snowboarders limited field of vision leading to collisions – and sometimes fatal accidents.
Over the past weeks I’ve thought about this problem and have come to a few conclusions. I’ve been incredibly lucky in my time playing in the mountains. I never had a trad lead climbing fall, I’ve always stayed within my limits constantly assessing risk and adjusting. Staying in the pocket. I read a long time ago – maybe Mark Twight said it – you have to make sure your bag of experience is filled up before your bag of luck runs out. Over the past 10 years I’ve always strived to be “competent” and “safe”. Just practicing the fundamentals. I used to have “epics”. I recall mountain biking in the Shenandoah and falling high side over rocks off a singletrack trail and getting up to check my arms and only finding a broken brake lever on my bike. After kids I settled on a philosophy of “no epics”. Unless the conditions are near perfect – I don’t go out. I totally ignored that on this ski trip. It’s so easy to second guess decisions after the fact.
The last point I’ll make is the distinction between personal risk and being in a situation where others can put you at risk. In solo mountain sports it’s less common to be in a situation where others could impact your safety. An example I’ve run into in the past are large groups of novices climbing the local volcanoes – I have always tried to stay away from them. Skiing at a resort is another example.
Most ski areas have a code of conduct. But how is it enforced? How many people are cited or kicked out of ski resorts for breaking the rules? How many accidents occur because ski areas don’t police people who are being a danger to others? I was talking to a friend yesterday who also skis with his kids at Meadows and he told be about a skier who was blitzed out of this mind – high or drunk – and could barely make it on to the lift. The lift operator gave him a fist bump. What is the liability of the resort operator if that skier (or boarder) causes an accident that results in the injury of another “guest”.
It’s in the ski resort operators financial interest not to disclose these incidents to the public. Most large ski resorts advertise as being family-friendly, provide beginner lessons, child care (Mt Hood Meadows). They need to attract new “guests”. If they had to disclose how many people they kicked out, or how many accidents were caused by someone who was impaired or was breaking the code of conduct – their potential audience could make a more informed decision about whether the resort was a place they wanted to frequent. If the information were public and the resort operator had to respond to the increased transparency, they would have to spend money to increase patrollers, be more strict about kicking people out and pulling passes. And this is the point. Meadows refunded my daughters season pass. Why risk a lawsuit?
I could go on about this – the fact that these ski areas are operating under special use permits from the federal government. We requested accident statistics through a FOIA from the US Forest Service – but I’m uncertain if the Forest service even records that data. I will say that the ski patroller (thank you!) that assisted us would not give me a copy of the accident report. Somewhere there is a file that has all of the accidents that occur at Meadows – and it remains hidden from the public.
My daughters collarbone will heal. She’ll be back on her skis in the spring. Since then my older daughter and I have been out ski touring, away from people, just enjoying the mountains and snow. As we were skinning up through Summit ski area on our way to Timberline there was a snowboarder sitting in the skin track. I stayed in the track and approached, reminding him he was in the uphill travel track – could he please move? He did. I’m not sure I’ll be so courteous the next time.