How The Day I Almost Died Changed The Way I Ski

Historic storm at Ski Apache four years after nearly dying here

I was certain that I was going to die when the ski patroller’s face turned white as a sheet after cutting open my pants to reveal the broken femur bone protruding from the center of my thigh. It was New Year’s Eve in 2014 as I lay bleeding out on the bottom of a small ski hill in the mountains of southern New Mexico.

“This is it,” I thought. But hey, at least I died doing something I loved. I mean shit, it beat a hell of a lot of other ways to die.

 I started to think about the person who would have to be the one to deliver the bad news to my parents, and I pitied that person. Especially when my father would get word of it, the man who had taught me how to ski at the age of two, hearing about the tragic death of his son. I would have failed him as a skier and as a son because no parent should ever have to outlive their child.

Shortly, those thoughts began to fade out along with any fear or emotion I initially had. The warm embrace of death began to sweep over me like a woolen blanket on a frigid winter’s night. I felt cozy. It was as if death itself was inviting me in, like a soft-spoken lover whispering into my ear, asking me to crawl into bed. I began to accept. I closed my eyes and started to surrender, allowing myself to be lured in, to the other side…

…When the pale-faced ski patrol jerked me by the collar and slapped me in the face, bringing me back to the realm of the living.

“If you fall asleep now you won’t wake back up,” he said sternly.

That’s all it took for me to snap back into this realm and put the other one on hold. I remembered that I wanted to live goddamnit! So with all my might, I fought the urge to fall unconscious.

“Just fucking do it!” I yelled at the patroller.

I bit down on my glove to brace for the pain of him setting my compounded femur bone back into place. There are not really words to describe that sort of pain, but know that it is as bad or probably worse than you can imagine.

You go numb for a second, then you go back in forth between blacking out and being enveloped by an earth-shaking sensation coursing up through your entire body in a painful, tingly sort of way. Everything moves slowly – lights are brighter and sounds are distorted. It’s a weird headspace, almost dream-like, and absent of emotion. Although nightmare is probably a better word to describe it.

The worst part of the ordeal was the forty-five-minute wait for the ambulance to show up with the pain meds. It was the longest wait of my life and was filled with thoughts like, “will I ever ski again? Will I ever walk again?”

Did a number on my femurs.

What I have just described is the day that I tried to see how close I could ski next to a snowmaker without hitting it. I did this because I believed I was invincible, and I did not care about the possible outcomes of my actions. On top of it, confidence in my skiing ability was at an all-time high. I was also drunk as a skunk at 9:30 in the morning, which was probably a contributing factor. You can see the dominos start to line up.

I was convinced that I could ski directly towards a snowmaking machine and be able to duck out of the way of it last second because that’s how much of a hardass I thought my seventeen-year-old self, was. But what was really at the root of all this was not confidence, it was anger. I was angry at this time for many reasons – none of which I hadn’t brought upon myself. Really, I was angry at myself. This mix of drunken confidence and anger allowed me to not care whether I lived or died – if I had even given it that much thought to begin with.

Good ol patch'
My home resort of Ski Apache. Credit: skiapache.com

It’s the third run of the day – I am drunk. I am charged and stomping everything. I start the run down Capitan at Ski Apache, New Mexico, the main blue run that my friends and I always warm up on before going elsewhere on the mountain to ski. I’m ready for anything, or at least, so I foolishly thought.

I start the run with a nose-tap to 180 on the first snow-making machine at the top of Capitan. Boom, stomp. I land switch and proceed to ski that way down half the run. By the time I’m halfway down Capitan I’m bombing at about 40 mph, switch, when I revert back to forwards underneath the liftline. I’m hauling even more ass now, and everybody is watching. I loved being a show-off.

That’s when I spot the snowmaker down the run towards the bottom. Alright, yeah. Why not flip the reaper off today? I’m drunk, mad, and convinced that I’m the best skier on the mountain. What do I have to lose?

I’m about thirty yards away from the snowmaker straight-lining right for it. Skis locked in and snowmaker straight ahead. I don’t want to hit it, but shit, I do want to come damn near close. Then, about fifteen yards away from this devil, the unthinkable happens. I catch an edge on the outside edge of my right ski. In an instant, I am sailing towards this metal snowmaker through the air headfirst, full speed.

For what couldn’t have been more than a second, I lock eyes with this snowmaker as I fly towards it without a helmet. I am staring death directly in the face traveling at a speed of about fifty-five miles per hour. Or at least, that’s how fast the ski patroller who saw me hit it said I was going.

This was easily the longest second of my life. It was as if time stood still, giving me time to think about what was about to happen. In this strange second absent of time, I was able to collect my thoughts and come up with a plan to not slam into this thing with my head and die.

Watch out, they come out of nowhere.

So, as I’m flying towards my imminent death at a speed of fifty-odd miles per hour, I dig my hands into the snow below me with every single last ounce of life-force that I had left so that I could swing my body around and not hit this thing head first. If I didn’t I would have been killed instantaneously. And for reasons I’ll never understand, I just barely manage to pull off the most important feat of my life by swinging my body around, facing my head back up the hill and slamming into the snowmaker legs instead of headfirst thus saving my own life.

My friends who were on the lift that day when I slammed into the snowmaker and changed the course of my life forever said they thought they heard a stick of dynamite explode. This was actually my femurs snapping in half as I wrecked into the snowmaker. In a split second, like someone flipping a light switch from on to off, everything went completely numb.

After slamming into the snowmaker I was still conscious as I slid down the trail for a bit before coming to a halt several yards below. I could barely process what had just happened, and I refused to accept the stupidity what I had just done. It was a textbook case of shock.

“Okay, Okay… I messed up, I winded myself, I may have broken my ankle — but I’m not that hurt,” I tried to reassure myself. Meanwhile, there was this faint little voice in the back of my mind that was whispering to me, saying “Ohhhh you’re fucked. You’ve really done it this time.”

“Alright. I can see the ski patrol headquarters at the bottom of the hill. I’ll just get up, hobble down, and make my way over there and get myself checked out. No big deal.”

Then I tried to stand up. I couldn’t move or feel my legs whatsoever. I summoned up the courage to look down and that’s when I saw that my ski boots were twisted around facing the other direction. My legs were bent in the most horrifying way, just as I had subliminally feared. The whisper in the back of my mind was now a full-on scream.

I lay there for a minute before the unlucky ski patroller came to sort me out. He immediately began calling for a helicopter on the radio, but to my misfortune, the voice on the other end of the walkie said that it was too windy and that an ambulance had already been dispatched instead. I thought he was going to vomit when he saw the damage I had done to my legs.

Five surgeries on my hip/legs and much, much metal deposited into my body later…

As a result of this stunt, I broke both my femurs, my knee, and my pelvis in three spots. What a way to start the new year by waking up in a hospital bed with almost all the bones below your waist completely shattered.

The next seventeen months would be the hardest I would ever endure, yet they made me who I am today. I spent the first five months in a wheelchair, then the next three on crutches, before moving up to a walking cane and finally regaining the ability to walk about nine months after I had wrecked. It would be almost a year and a half before I was completely healed and cleared by the doctor to ski again.

There was much time spent where I had doubts if I would ever ski again. At times I felt depressed and pessimistic. But I found a way to channel this negative energy into my rehabilitation – the mental, physical, and emotional strengthening that I would have to mindfully work on every single day.

Full of metal now

I found a way to channel the negative into creating something positive. By doing this and taking it one day at a time (and a lot of marijuana), I was able to crawl out of that godforsaken hole. And I honestly couldn’t have done it without my friends and family who helped me stay positive through this dark episode of my life.

Everyone who came and visited me when I was in my crippled state did more for me than they could ever know. When you’re stuck in bed all day like that, not being able to move or walk around, even just the presence of someone that cares about you means more than words can tell. I wouldn’t trade that shit for gold.

By the time I was miraculously healed and cleared to ski again, I had developed the most fortified, positive attitude that was possible for me to have. I now ski for my self and my self only – not to show-off or impress anyone. Skiing is sacred to me, especially now. It’s how I find peace of mind.

As a result of this nightmare, I gained the utmost respect for life and the mountains, and now know that you can never take any of these things for granted. The snow, your health, your loved ones – all of it. Because one day, to your surprise, they may not be there.

It’s truly a miracle that I walked away from all this without any significant change in my physical or skiing ability whatsoever despite my legs being almost completely made of titanium now. I owe it all to the amazing doctors and ski patrol who literally saved my life that day. Even they don’t understand how I got so lucky.

As of now I’m in the best shape of my life and am skiing harder than I ever have. Last season, four years from the crash, I skied one-hundred-and-nine days and had the best winter of my life. I expect to go even harder on the next one.

Each day I wake up and count my blessings and – in a way – I am thankful for this trying, transitional period of my life, brought about by my own malintent. You could even say that I’m glad it happened because I certainly wouldn’t be who I am now if it hadn’t. Just guess I just have to learn things the hard way sometimes.

Myself pictured on the far right at Ski Apache, four years post-wreck with good company. Thankful.

A word from the wise: please respect the mountain and know your limits at all times. Shit does happen. Especially when alcohol is involved in the mix. Sure, it takes skill to be as moronic as I was this day, however, you never know when an unforeseen obstacle may pop out on the run in front of you when your judgment is impaired. Stay safe and stay blessed!