Welcome to my P4P page! I'm riding for a reason!
I'm glad you made it to my page. I can't wait to tell you about my story and how vital Craig hospital and its many heroes have been to my recovery and reclaiming of life. On April 9, 2016, I hit a tree skiing, breaking my spine at T4/T5, which paralyzed me from the chest down. Since then, I've flown a plane, gone scuba diving, fly fished in the snow melt of the Rockies, surfed the waves of Santa Cruz, downhill mountain biked the trails of Bend, Oregon, returned to my love of downhill skiing, continued my full time work as a Product Manager at AppNexus, travelled on over 20 domestic flights across the US, and - in short - found a whole world of possibility in life after injury.
The reason that I have been so pumped full of zest and confidence for life after SCI is attributable in a massive way to both the golden-hearted staff of Craig as well as the incredible community of its patients and alumni. I've been part of some amazing organizations in my life. The living, breathing fabric of Craig is something truly unique and powerful. And I can't wait to sweat and arm-pump my way through 100 hot hilly miles in the Boulder foothills to celebrate it. You have my deepest gratitude for any and all support you decide to give to this amazing institution that has so helped me to redefine what is possible in my life.
This race will mark just shy of 18 months since that fateful afternoon when my course in this life was so changed. I thought I'd share here the details of what happened. I am a great appreciator of narrative (long-ish ones are my natural bent), so read on below if you're interested. I didn't need to make it off the mountain alive that Saturday - in fact, odds weren't great and a number of little circumstances had to happen just as they did to make survival even possible at all - and retelling all this is one way I am able to process my gratitude for a life that continues.
And with that...
April 9, 2016
I was skiing up on a ridgeline at Squaw Valley in Tahoe, California. It had been a nasty day for skiing. Whiteout conditions in the morning gave way to rain and wet cement for snow. My close friend and skiing compadre Michael Maag and I had been picking our way around the resort looking for worthwhile terrain. Traversing to where we were now, alongside the ski boundary line off of Headwall lift, the slim pickens continued.
As Maag headed down the face of the ridge, I traversed across, aiming ambitiously for a small natural feature and a bit of air time before heading into the trees. The minute I hit the berm, I knew I was in trouble. In the poor conditions, my balance was thrown and even as I started to rotate mid-air (in this instance unintentionally, mind you), I could spot the tree 20 feet away and closing. As my first ski touched down, atypically in advance of its pair, my mind raced thoughts: "You're lined up perfectly for that tree. You're about to be skiing backwards. You can't stop in time. You can make one move. Throw yourself. NOW."
As I threw my body to the snow, edging hard, backwards and now blind to the tree but hoping beyond hope that it all would turn out ok, the present moment was all of a sudden an explosion of impact.
I didn't lose consciousness. I was upside down. I couldn't feel my legs. I was breathing. I was upside down, hanging. Looking up, I could see the tree stretching upwards. I could not, at first, see all the way down my legs. Were my skis on?
Suddenly, this flood of observational information gave way to a surprisingly cool sense of priority and judgment: "I need people to start looking for me. I need to contact Maag for that to happen. And I need to stop the blood from flowing to my head so I don't pass out."
I had my step 1 & my step 2. What ensued was out of a survival movie...minus Wilson the volleyball for company, and plus an iPhone.
Tearing off gloves, helmet, goggles and backpack, I was able to retrieve my phone from my jacket's breast pocket, where it always lives while I'm out on the mountain.
My immediate observation: that battery case purchase from 2 weeks ago? Genius. Phone's at 100%.
But upon attempting to text, I found myself stymied. My wet thumbs were taking my plea for help and typing out gibberish, and being upside down was causing the screen to rotate landscape to portrait and back again uncontrollably. In trying to lock the screen from rotating, again my wet thumbs were inept, the touch screen glass unresponsive. After an impossible amount of time in this struggle (probably 60 seconds...), I realized something. We live in the FUTURE. I can just TALK at my phone.
"I broke my back. I'm in a tree well. Get help."
And with that simple dictation, all in a glorious single moment, Step 1 was accomplished. Only seconds later, I had Maag's response text. Help was on the way.
Upside down, my feet up at the top of the tree well attached to now useless legs, my face pointing at the trunk, my body at a bit of an angle, it was now time to get on with the important business of step 2, not blacking out...
Groping upwards with my left arm, I was able to grasp some low-hanging boughs hanging off of the evergreen. Gripping hard and pulling up through the pains of broken ribs, sternum and a collapsed lung (I found all those details out much later), I slowly was able to ladder my torso up to the top of the well, parallel with my feet.
From this vantage point I could see and do a bit more. My quiet whisper when upside down was now a decent call for help. If only the silent trees would respond. The view of my still-inert legs was better (my skis were not on, nor anywhere to be seen by me). But the catch: propped up on my right elbow, the pain was excruciating. This position was not sustainable for long.
For the time I could bear, I called out for help and visualized the blood rushing from my head back down to my feet. After a handful of minutes, I had to lower myself back down to find relief.
It was there, hanging once again, that I realized: I was completely out of view. Those looking for me wouldn't see me if they tried. Without noise, how would ski patrol ever find me?
And in the same moment, an idea. Being in the future and all, where "phones" aren't really just phones, I had with me a little portable boombox.
Time to pump the jams.
With "Cut the Cake" by Average White Band on blast, I found my first sliver of humor hanging there in that wet, now fairly dancy-sounding tree well. If/when someone showed up, this was going to be a funny scene.
But before the song was over, I had another thought. The chest strap of my Osprey backpack (I love that backpack) had a whistle built into the buckle. The faint tunes from my phone weren't doing the best job filling up the expansive winter quiet, but a piercing blast from a whistle...now that would get the job done.
Struggling more than expected to unsuccessfully wedge my phone back into my breast pocket, I decided for an alternate approach. "I'll just bite into it so hard it'll put incision marks in the rubber case. I WON'T drop it."
Brilliant, Pines. Brilliant.
Straining hard for my backpack's chest strap now wedged behind me, it only took a brief while before my phone, my lifeline, fell out of my mouth and far down into the snow below. Reaching, straining now for a new target, at maximum extension my fingertips were only just able to touch faintly the corner of the case. "I can't believe this, it's out of a bad movie." I swore loudly.
Within a number of minutes the snow had drained the battery life of the phone (and battery case) and I was left to hang there in silence. A deafening silence. Until it wasn't. Was that, voices? Then, assuredly, yes that's definitely the sound of ski patrol. They're here. I'm going to make it.
Like Tom Hanks lighting his signal fire on the deserted island, I moved quickly to alert my rescuers to my location. Grabbing hold of the same branch and pushing back through the familiar-but-still-not-ok-at-all pain, I got myself, red jacket and all, to the top of the well. I screamed with all of my being. "HELP! I'm HERE! Please come, I'm heeeeere!!"
Side note: It's funny, your mind actually works a bit for the right words in such a situation. As in, you do actually think about what it is you should yell. It's a very short moment, but still I always figured, having seen such things in movies, that humans had those specific words for help pre-programmed as an instinctual kind of thing. Not so much, it turns out...
And so I yelled, yet the voices stayed faint. And like Tom Hanks in Castaway, (with whom I had started to feel a strange sense of esprit de corps that I didn't much like) the grim reality of things began to set in. Their voices were too low. They were further down on the ridge. But I could hear them, they HAD to hear me! I yelled louder. I couldn't help but think of the rescue plane flying past the island off into the ocean's horizon. Ski patrol's voices faded back into the quiet.
Returning again into the well, there were few smaller developments over the course of the next 15-20 minutes. I found I could reach a ski pole, which I used to fish up my phone. I promptly zipped it inside my jacket under an armpit to warm up. The thought being that, if I was ended up stuck there long enough, I might be able to warm it back up to life and leverage it as a lifeline later on. I reflected on my physical condition, hoping there weren't any internal complications I wasn't aware of that were imminently and silently threatening my life.
Finally in the quiet, I prayed. I was scared, but I was also full of hope. "Lord, please bring me out of this place."
Eventually, the voices returned, this time closer. They seemed to be coming from up towards the top of the ridge where I was. When that first face appeared above me, calling down asking if I was alright, I remember the wave of relief. Still not everything was certain, my legs were still strikingly unresponsive, the pain in my chest couldn't bode well, but I was pretty sure now that I was at least going to live.
One by one more patrollers arrived. They carved a short solid board into the snow behind my suspended back and lashed me to it. Once I was secured, a group of them hoisted me up to the snow above and onto a sled. One skier in front, one in back tethered themselves to me and began skiing me down the precarious ridge. I kept expecting sudden drops or turns given the terrain, but the ride was impressively smooth, if a bit uncomfortable given my condition. Down below a snowcat awaited to take us down to the base of the mountain. Once hoisted in, the 2 paramedics aboard cut off my jacket, shirt and pants to inspect my condition.
"My back is broken I told them."
"Have you heard of the High Fives foundation?" one guy asked.
No, I hadn't heard of High Fives yet. Nor had I heard about Craig, or the Christopher Reeve foundation, or any of the other gatherings of people and resources so devoted to the situation in which I had yet-unknowingly found myself. These institutions, and more importantly the people that define them, were soon to become an integral part of my life story.
And that is a life story that is only still just starting to unfold. And like anything, but especially with a life, there is both uncertainty as well as possibility in that unfolding. One can certainly choose fear, or give in to relative comparisons (to others, to the past); such mindsets come easily, naturally. But, alternatively, one can choose to press in hard to possibility, one hard day, one hard pedal at a time. To see what might blossom from the toil, to see what new opportunities lie over the next ridge. Even if the view of the horizon may not always be clear.
Giddy up, then. Let's go see.
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