Game Over

What a tough season it has been in the backcountry. In Jackson Hole last week a search and rescue helicopter crashed killing long time Jackson local and SAR volunteer Ray Shriver. Then just this last Sunday, the freeskiing community lost another pioneer to an avalanche on Stevens Pass, WA. Head Freeskiing World Tour judge Jim Jack along with two locals were swept away and killed in what sounds to be a massive slide. This happening shortly after a snowboarder was killed in an avalanche on Snoqualmie Pass.

Now, why did I bring up all this depressing news? Well, I wasn’t terribly lucky in the backcountry this last week either. I headed up north to Whitefish, MT to visit and support a friend who was having surgery on Friday. After seeing my friend and wishing her good luck on her operation, I headed up to ski Whitefish Mountain Resort for the day. I headed up to the mountain with my good friend Simon Peterson and his friend/my acquaintance Josie. We planned to ski the great slackcountry Whitefish has to offer and headed straight out of bounds as soon as we got to the top of the mountain.

After one great lap of soft, fun snow in the Canyon Creek drainage. We quickly went back for more. Simon works for Backcountry Magazine and had worked out a deal with the ski area to exchange photos for lift tickets, this meant I had to “earn” my lift ticket by ski modeling for Simon. After a fairly successful shoot on our first lap, we set up a second shot on a small jump between some saplings. Josie, who is a snowboarder, hit the jump first and looked pretty good. Simon gave me the go ahead to drop in and I hit the jump. I went way too big off the small jump and caught my landing very low in the transition. As a result I landed off balance and going really fast into a fairly tight stand of trees. I successfully negotiated getting around one tree, but I hesitated a split second about which way to go around the next tree. This split second of hesitation resulted in me hitting the tree directly with my left knee. Upon impacting the tree, there was a huge explosion of branches and skis and I cartwheeled once.

For a split second I thought I was going to be okay, until I tried to move my left leg. My left leg was bent as though I was sitting “Indian style” and I couldn’t, with all my strength straighten my leg. Josie was quick to hike up to my assistance and make sure I was alright. Simon, was also soon by my side and we had a very brief discussion about what to do. I pulled up my left pant leg to see the damage and immediately noticed my kneecap appeared to be dislocated. Everyone now knew that I wasn’t going to get out of there without some help. I pulled out my cell phone which (luckily) had a signal and called 911. I explained to the operator what had happened then handed the phone to Josie, who is a local and could better describe our location. 911 was unable to obtain our coordinates from my phone, so they transferred us to the Whitefish Ski Patrol. However, because we were skiing out of bounds their policy was that this was a matter for Flathead County Search and Rescue and the Flathead Nordic Ski Patrol. After a handful of other phone calls, and sending Simon to meet with the rescuers to bring us back to my location, Josie and I patiently waited for help. Flathead Nordic Patrol happened to have a handful of patrollers skiing at Whitefish Mountain Resort, and within an hour and a half of the initial 911 call they were staged and ready to search for me. In about the same time Flathead County SAR, who happened to already be at Canyon Creek for training, had a group of snowmobiles staged and waiting for me on the road below.

The very kind and wonderful folks with the Nordic Patrol stabilized me, then packaged me up into a backcountry rescue toboggan. After a strong and excellent effort to extricate me from steep and complicated terrain, Nordic Patrol handed me over to SAR, who then loaded me onto a trailer behind a snowmobile. After a long bumpy ride out, I was greeted at the Canyon Creek trailhead by a gaggle of bystanders and, more importantly, an ambulance. I was quickly loaded into the ambulance and taken to the Whitefish hospital. The whole time I had my fingers crossed that I had simply dislocated my kneecap, and that a doctor would be able to quickly put it back in place and I would walk out of the hospital. Unfortunately, my hopes were crushed upon getting the x-ray.

X-ray showing the extent of my injuries. You can see a large chunk of my kneecap sitting on top of my femur. The lower chunk was mostly crushed bone. The surgeon was able to save about 3/4 of my kneecap.

I had reconstructive surgery the next day and was discharged that night. I am facing fairly substantial and permanent damage and I may be off skis for a full year (that would be a nightmare!). I am going to try and heal and rehab as fast as I can so that I will be able to hopefully salvage next ski season as I am out for the rest of this year.

Despite how bad this situation was it could have been much, much worse. I think more than anything I should use this injury as a learning experience and look at what I did correctly and what I did incorrectly.

1. Having capable, smart, backcountry partners made all the difference. My group was able to keep calm and had extra layers and an emergency bivy to keep me warm.
2. Having a cell phone (with reception) was a huge benefit as well. Not just to call for help but also to receive updates from SAR and Simon. It was a mental challenge to stay patient and wait for help. I think if I didn’t receive constant updates on the status of SAR and know people were coming for help I would have freaked out a bit more.
3. Finally, having a mindset where you understand that this sort of thing can happen makes a big difference. I never try and assume that a day in the backcountry will go smoothly. Every time I ski in the backcountry or send big cliffs at a resort I have a little voice in my mind reminding me that I could be seriously injured. So I was not shocked or angry that I was injured.
4. With that said, I should have been more aware and conscious of what I was skiing. I seriously misjudged how big to go off the jump as well as I failed to notice how short the runout was.

Below is the GoPro footage of the crash so you can relive it, only without the pain.

Finally, a huge thank you to Simon and Josie for helping me out so much after the crash. Also, I want to give a huge thanks to the folks at Flathead Nordic Ski Patrol and Flathead County Search and Rescue as they pretty much saved me from having to spend a night out in the woods. Also, thanks to Dr. Bailey and the North Valley Hospital for putting me back together.

6 Responses to Game Over

  1. Matt Charles says:

    That sucks, man. It almost looks from the video that you could’ve dove out of the way right before you hit the tree (of course, it’s always easier to play the could’ve/should’ve/would’ve game after the fact – especially now that everyone has GoPros). Hope the recovery goes well!

    • stevenjay says:

      Thanks for the comment Matt. The problem was I hesitated about whether to go left or right around the tree (either way would of had a better result). The other thing you cant see in the GoPro is that I landed off balance so I wasn’t in complete control either. Oh well shit happens so be careful out there!

  2. Adam Knight says:

    I guess that’s why we HAVE kneecaps huh? Glad you mostly OK though.

  3. Sonya Hemmen says:

    Game DELAYED: Not Over. Steven, just ran into your mom at the pool. Sorry about your injury. Loved the footage though. You will be back at it soon! Heal well! Sonya Hemmen

  4. reilly says:

    gnarly man. really glad you’re going to be ok. you can still fish with a busted knee cap, right?


  5. Pingback: Bozeman Tritons Triathlon 2012 « Jon Jay's Travels

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