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Jason gathered a few pieces of my gear, including a chunk of my broken helmet. My skis and poles were gone. With Jason at my side, we took our first few steps. I’m not religious, but I looked to the sky and expressed my gratitude. I realized I’d been run through a mountainside Plinko board that could have shredded me to bits, but now I was walking away.
The first half-mile proved painfully slow and steep. With each step we sank to the top of our legs, sending piercing pain through my rib cage. My right arm was on Jason’s shoulder and he held me up by the collar of my coat. He tried to sit me on his snowboard, but that hurt even more.
We received a few calls from rangers checking on our location and clarifying information Jason had provided to 911. Our frustration built after two more calls broke our momentum. When the slope leveled, Jason was able to put me on his splitboard with the skins on backward to keep me from sliding. It was a great improvement.
Just as darkness fell we saw Cory’s headlamp and hollered to him. He’d brought skis for Jason, who had been trudging through waist-deep snow in his boots for several miles. It took another hour until we neared Fielding Cabin and heard the sweet sound of snowmobile engines and saw headlights.
I took a two-mile ride to the trailhead parking lot where a small army of emergency and park vehicles awaited. I was put in the back of an ambulance and a park employee asked me a series of questions.
“Have you been drinking?”
“Were you wearing a beacon?”
“Did you check avalanche reports?”
I answered no to all of his questions.
Everyone who had the opportunity to talk to me asked if I was wearing a beacon, as if that would’ve stopped the avalanche from battering my body, or would have guaranteed Jason could locate me in such a large area before I suffocated. The beacon wouldn’t have helped a bit. I survived by pure luck.
Wednesday, Jan. 9
EMTs drove me to Browning so I could be examined. The hospital had a CT scanner, but no one to operate it or read the results. The staff asked whether I wanted to be transferred to Great Falls or Kalispell, and I chose my old hometown, Great Falls.
A $3,000 ambulance ride took me to Benefis hospital for X-rays and CT scans. The final tally of my injuries: six broken ribs, a broken left radius about 3 inches from my wrist, a concussion, a left thigh puncture and a gash on the crown of my head. My whole right side was extensively bruised and both knees were battered.
When I woke up later that day I had my first surgery on my radius, the thumb-side bone in the lower arm that’s instrumental to basic hand function. A surgeon secured it by drilling a metal plate into the bone with six screws.
I stayed a second night in the hospital to make sure there were no complications from my head injuries. After that I was free to go home. Hospitals are good at fixing broken bones, but my other aches and pains would best be healed through the medicine of food and family.
Friday, Jan. 11
My older sisters, Christi and Jen, traveled from Missoula to be at my side after the accident. We spent a few days at my mom’s house in Great Falls after leaving the hospital. I was given a child’s xylophone to beat on if I required anything. My nephew also came from Missoula and cooked homemade bean soup.
My mom returned early from a vacation in California to pamper me for a week. She made healthy, great-tasting meals and took me to medical appointments. I took natural supplements, and she applied salves regularly. I placed bags of ice on sore knees morning and night.
The whole process of recovery was an exercise in patience and humility, made much easier by the support of loved ones. After my mom left, my girlfriend continued the great meals and rubbed my feet with essential oils. A few weeks later my father popped up from Phoenix for five days to help get me started with the spring semester.
I am thankful to finally be back near full strength. The broken ribs took several months of limited activity and one uncomfortable month of sleeping in a recliner. I saw a hand specialist who delivered a healthy dose of good pain every visit, along with a list of stretches to do on my own. I continue to work on regaining full function of my dominant hand.
I often get asked if I plan on returning to the backcountry. My life will certainly involve more experiences in the wilds of Montana, the playground I’ve always appreciated. And I intend to ski again next year. But only after purchasing a beacon and probe, as well as taking an avalanche safety course. I realize I can’t always count on luck to survive.