May 08, 2013
April 22, 2013
Someone recently suggested this Ted Talk to me. It features a young female athlete who is hit by a truck and overcomes unimaginable injuries. It is good medicine for anyone who has ever wrecked themself.
April 18, 2013
My room mate and friend JoyAnne recently painted this for me. It's from a photo that a client snapped during a trip to Peru back in 2005. The words Never Let It Get Me Down are painted under the kids feet. You can check out more of her work at www.joyanne.ca
It's been 64 days since I crashed in to the side of Lady Mac at 50 km/hour. Since then, I've had a lot of time to think about the event, watch movies, read, beat my fists in pain, lose sleep, consider the future, harass friends and family, punish my liver with copious amounts of narcotics, and well - heal.
A few days ago, I sat down with local pilot Will G to shoot the shit and figure out what went wrong. What was different about Feb 14th that caused me to go in to the ground? What did I miss? After describing the events of the ill-fated flight to Will, it seems safe to say that there was way more of a northerly component to the wind than I had anticipated. With the strong wind that day (30 - 40 km/hour), this put me in to a dangerous, leeward scenario. The resulting rotor and turbulence played heavily in to the crash. The accident occurred on my 240th flight. Until this event I had not had a close call.
Nowadays, the question I'm asked most is, "How's the recovery going?" Answer - really well. I still can't walk without crutches or even put weight on my left leg, but that should start to change next week when I visit with the surgeon in Calgary. In general, my pain has gone way down, I'm taking less pain killers, I'm sleeping well, my strength and range of motion are improving, and most importantly, I feel lucky and positive about the process. That's not to say that I don't have moments of self-doubt and pity, but I really try not to spend too much time there. Like many things in life, it's easy to get overwhelmed with the situation when I think about the big picture and the long road ahead. But luckily, the cure for this is simple: stop thinking too much about tomorrow, next week, next month and bring it back to the the present.
Still, every now and again, a wave of dream-like disbelief washes over me, and for two seconds, I'm awash in questions of my own mortality: Did I really crash? Am I still on crutches? Is it possible that I don't make a full recovery? Did I just spend the past two months recovering? I can't just get up off this bed and walk away? I almost died?
For a change of scenery, I've been lucky to spend the past week hobbling around at my winter home - CMH Bugaboos. The staff has been awesome and the house girls have spoiled me rotten. I feel extremely lucky to be part of this family.
Thanks for checking in,
Feb 14, 2013. The K-Country Cavalry packaging a broken mini-wing flyer on the side of Lady Mac.
High times at the Bugaboo lodge earlier in the season.
Prepping for a civilized flight from Lady Mac two days before the crash.
All that remains of the Sup Air Radicale Harness I was wearing on Feb 14. Between the rescue team and the ER Docs, I was cut out of every single item I had on that day.
Poor Millet puffy was the first layer to get the chop.
It's safe to say that this Ozone Firefly will never see another flight - especially since the risers got cut in half.
Ladies watch out! The Wexler men lurking in the Peaks of Grassi - Canmore. The tall fellow in the middle is my Dad. This was his first trip to the area. Sheesh, the things you gotta do to see some people.
Pretty fun when it's done right.
March 17, 2013
Loading the STARS Ship for the flight to Foothills Hospital in Calgary.
It's been one month since I crashed on the side of Lady Mac, and I now find myself hobbling around on crutches and convalescing at home. All things considered, I feel lucky to be alive and mobile.
When I arrived at Foothills Hospital, the doctors were concerned about significant internal bleeding, but an angiogram revealed that most of the bleeding had already stopped. CT scans also confirmed that my pelvis and sacrum were smashed and badly broken. Some friends managed to make it to the hospital that evening and it was reassuring to see them. They passed on information and told me that my brother had already booked a flight out to Calgary for the following day. Eventually, all the tests were done and I was wheeled up to a spacious, private room in Trauma Ward 44. At that point, it was still uncertain whether I'd go in for surgery the following day, so I was not allowed to eat or drink. I have never been so thirsty. I was allowed to suck on a cubic, green, lollipop-like sponge that had been dipped in water, but this barely did anything to dent the thirst.
My brother Anthony arrived the following afternoon. A friend picked him up at the airport and brought him to the hospital. Another buddy lent him a vehicle for the duration of his stay and my winter employer, CMH, put him up at a hotel for his first few nights in town. It's hard to explain how much these acts of kindness and generosity meant to me.
On February 16th, two days after the crash, I was wheeled in to the operating area. One by one, the surgeon, anesthesiologist, and operating room nurses met with me to discuss the various procedures that were about to take place. Tony accompanied me into the waiting area and listened in as the intricacies of the operation were explained. They discussed putting the pelvis together with plates and screws and I found it difficult to listen too closely. At the end of the day, all I wanted to know was that they were going to be able to put me back together. Once the meetings were done, I said goodbye to Tony and was pushed into the operating room. A mask was placed over my face and I was told to breathe deeply. The next thing I knew, the three hour operation was over and I was slowly coming to.
The next few days were spent lying in bed. My Mom arrived from Montreal and numerous friends stopped by with gifts of food and easy-to-read magazines like the SI Swimsuit Edition. Food and water were still verboten though, and I ended up going seven days before I could eat real food or drink freely. In that time, I had an allergic reaction to some antibiotics and broke out in a rash and hives on my legs, back and stomach. This was particularly worrisome because of the chance that an infection could attack the new hardware now holding my pelvis together. In the name of sanity, I tried not to think too much about a worse case scenario. My poor Mother, on the other hand, struggled with the situation. Ultimately, the antibiotics were changed and the rash cleared up within a few days.
When I think back to those first few weeks in Foothills Hospital, the two things that come to mind are 1) the overwhelming kindness and empathy displayed by the nurses and 2) the mind boggling pain that I experienced every time I needed to be moved or rolled from one bed to another. On the first subject, I can't thank the nurses enough. Some were like mother figures and some were more like peers, and all of them played an enormous roll in my day to day recovery. On the issue of physical suffering, I came to a new understanding of 10 out of 10 pain. At certain times, when being moved on my side, I had out-of-body experiences whereby a bolt of pain would shoot through me and a barrage of expletives would fly uncontrollably from my mouth. At one point, someone in the room said that she would not attempt to move me again if I continued to swear, so I tried my best to tone it down.
The days passed in a morphine induced blur and I slowly gained mobility. At first, it was a major victory just to sit upright in bed. Then, after a very inspiring pep talk by one of the nurses - who basically told me I was going to die of pneumonia, blood clots and a host of other terrible things if I didn't suck it up and start moving - I managed to get out of bed with the aid of many helpers and sit down in a chair. Eventually, I managed to get out of bed on my own and hobble around on a walker. This progressed to crutches, which I am currently using and which I will remain on for at least another three weeks.
After nearly one month in the hospital, I finally got out last week. Needless to say, it feels great to be convalescing at home. So far, I feel relaxed and quite accepting of my situation. I'm taking some strong narcotics which do a good job of minimizing the pain during the day, but still leave me pretty strung out and sleep deprived at night. The nerve pain in my left leg can be quite sharp and distracting, and I'm hoping that this will minimize over time - especially once I get the green light to put weight on it. The thought of living the rest of my life with this sort of daily pain is not pleasant. I know that I made a really bad decision to launch that day and I understand that this is the price to pay for bad decision-making in the mountains.
One thing that's helped a lot is speaking to friends and strangers about their experiences with crippling trauma. It's good to hear how others have coped and dealt with this sort of situation. I often think back to a friend who, five years ago, was caught in a slide and swept over numerous cliffs, and raked through trees, in Kananaskis Country. He required five surgeries and sustained numerous injuries that were as bad and worse than mine, and when you look at him today, it's as though he was never out of the game. Still, I like to tell him that whenever I think my situation is bad, I look back to his accident and feel better about my predicament.
Another wild story that someone recently sent my way can be found here. Basically, the pilot went down while flying X-Country in Pakistan and ended up with an unstable pelvis fracture (like mine) and a broken ankle. The difference between our scenarios though, is that while I was a two minute helicopter ride from definitive care, he did not reach adequate care for nearly one week.
A lot of people ask me now if I'm going to fly again. For a while, I wasn't sure. The accident and the wild rodeo ride I experienced in the air before crashing was so vivid that it was hard to imagine putting myself back in that situation. But as time passes and I gain clarity on the crash, I would be lying if I said that I wasn't looking forward to launching again. Plus, when I watch videos like this, it's all I can do not to hobble out of the house right now and put myself in the air.
Here's an article I came across lately entitled: In Defense of Taking Risks. I know it might be hard for some to understand this - particularly parents - but I think it's important to at least try to understand. In sports like climbing and skiing, the dangers are obvious and one would be remiss to think that they could never get hurt. Say you spend fifteen years of your life climbing and then one day you're involved in a big wreck. Are you going to give up and never climb again? Or are you going to rest, recover and try to get back on the horse as soon as possible? I like to think that I would be a better climber going forward because I learned something from the accident. And I think the same thing goes for flying.
So for now, all I care about is getting better - which means lots of rest and gentle movement. I'm lucky that I have wage loss insurance through work because it lets me focus on the healing process instead of stressing the bank account. I definitely recommend this type of insurance to anyone who engages in these activities (and I can't believe that the ACMG gave this up!). At this point, it's hard to say when I'll be able to get out and be active again, but I think I'll have a much better idea in three weeks when I head back to Foothills for some X-Rays and a meeting with the Doctors.
Lastly, thanks again to everyone who's helped me through this: friends, family, CMH, Kananaskis Rescue, the Canmore Hospital, STARS, and the Trauma Ward at Foothills Hospital.
March 07, 2013
A flight from Lady Mac 2 days before the crash.
On Thursday, February 14, I crashed my paraglider (Firefly 16 - technically considered to be a Hybrid or Mini Wing) on the rocky slopes of Lady Macdonald. The impact thrust my femur up into my pelvis, shattering it into a bloody mess. I came to rest against a tree, and pulled my phone out of a breast pocket. Movement and sensation was good in my upper body and right leg, but I couldn't feel a thing in my left leg. I tried to move into a more comfortable position but movement was not possible. I also tried to get out of my harness and backpack, but was unable to do this as well. If my phone had not been in my breast pocket, I doubt I would have been able to reach it.
My first call was to a buddy who is one of the main rescue wardens for Banff National Park. No answer. My next call was to Banff Dispatch. They answered, and in a frantic voice, I told them that I was on Lady Mac, above Canmore, and had crashed my paraglider abut 300 meters below the Tea House (ie: The Launch), just west of the hiking path. They asked for the color of my wing - red, white and blue - and then we were disconnected. Almost immediately, my brother happened to call me for our daily chat, and being somewhat shell shocked, I figured it was Banff Dispatch calling back for more details. "I crashed my paraglider on Lady Mac and I'm really fucked," I said in to the phone. Tony said a few words and when I realized it was him, I said I had to go and hung up. Then I dropped the phone and it rolled down the hill and out of reach. I wasn't particularly alert at the time, but I did have the wherewithal to know that I'd just dragged my poor brother into the situation and I felt really bad. In the meantime, Tony didn't miss a beat. He got on his computer in Baltimore, found the contact info for Canmore Search and Rescue, and placed a call for help only five minutes after my original call.
My pelvis post surgery
I laid on the cold ground for about an hour before the Kananaskis Rescue guys arrived. In that time, I remember saying to myself that I didn't care how long the recovery took, as long as I had the opportunity to recover. I knew that I'd broken either my femur or pelvis and that I was likely losing lots of blood internally. I was cold and shivering and falling deeper into hypothermia. The relief I felt when the K-Country team arrived is hard to explain, especially since most of the guys were either good friends or acquaintances. They did an incredible job of packaging me in rough, icy and undulating terrain. Then the Bell 407 ship came in overhead with a long-line, and the rescuer clipped us in and up we went. Two minutes later, we were landing at the Canmore Hospital. My gratitude to the pilot and rescuers is beyond words. Without them, I would not be here today.
The view from the helicopter during the initial recon. Photo courtesy Matt Mueller.
Once at the Canmore Hospital, they rolled me into a corner of the ER and got to work. My core temp was 30 degrees Celsius and I was shivering uncontrollably. Tubes were shoved up and into every orifice, lost blood was replaced, and at one point, I was later told that my systolic blood pressure dropped to 60. I don't know how long everything took, but when everything was done, I was rolled out of the ER and into the back of the waiting STARS Helicopter bound for Foothills Hospital in Calgary. My gratitude to everyone in the Canmore ER is immense.
Before I say any more about Calgary, surgery, and the recovery, I'm going to backtrack and talk about the crash and what happened out there.
In hindsight, I should have never launched that day. But hindsight is too easy. Obviously, there were enough positive factors to justify taking off. The wind was blowing 25 km/h - 35 km/h out of the west and seemed fairly consistent and laminar (for the front range of the Rockies). I felt like I recognized the conditions and knew what I was getting in to. I looked back to a flight I made from the same place a few weeks prior, and figured that the wind was just as strong, if not stronger then. One difference between those two fights though, was the wing being used. On the previous flight I was on a 12 meter whereas this time I was on a 16 meter. I should also note that if I'd had a larger wing with me on the day I crashed, I am confident that I would have left it in the bag and hiked down.
The moment I left the ground, I knew I had dangerously underestimated the conditions. I was instantly blown back and to the left and almost got pushed behind the ridge. I fought to correct and penetrate away from the hillside but I kept getting blown all over the map. I had a bunch of deflations and collapses and for a moment, I considered trying to put it down on the upper slopes. But that thought didn't last long and I told myself I could keep flying and pull it off. My goal was to get away from the hillside and lose elevation since it had been pretty calm in the valley.
I don't know how long I was in the air. It felt like two minutes to me, but my buddy Ian who watched most of the rodeo said it was closer to thirty seconds. Before I went in, I remember getting hit by a violent gust that surged the wing and put me into a tight spiral. I thought I might have gotten some lines crossed but just before impact, I managed to get into level flight. The problem was that I was pointed straight at the hillside with a nice tailwind. Boom.
Laying out on a beautiful, calm day just 48 hours prior to the crash.
February 04, 2013
January 23, 2013
Somedays you just get lucky. Like today for example. Despite a high wind forecast, I decided to go for a walk up Lady Mac with my 12 meter speed wing. My two previous attempts to fly off the peak resulted in zero flying and lots of walking. But on both previous occasions, I carried a larger wing and could not accommodate for the stronger winds.
The walk up Lady Mac is always the same: calm at the parking lot, a little blowy at the half-way up mark, gale force winds when you crest the ridge around tree-line, and gusty at the launch. So I tried to focus on the hike and keep my expectations in check. If nothing else, I figured I'd get some good ground-handling at launch.
After just over 1 hour of hiking, I arrived at the pile of crap other wise known as the Tea House and went about my pre-flight rituals. I put on some warm clothes, munched an apple, strapped in to my light-weight harness, clicked in to the helmet and walked around putting new flagging tape on the many trees and posts around launch. The wind was blowing between 30 and 40 km/h but seemed about as smooth and laminar as I'd ever seen. I clipped in to the wing and... proceeded to get worked. Strangely, my ground skills were not quite as sharp as they were when I was flying 4 to 5 times per day in Turkey. I brought the wing up again, this time with the trimmers half-way open, and was able to kite it for a few minutes and test the wind. Everything seemed good so I turned around, took a few steps and was airborne almost immediately. The flight lasted about 3 minutes and I ended up putting down on a frozen pond just outside the Silver Tip golf course. Maybe one day I'll actually remember to close the trimmers before landing. And thanks to Pretty Lights for the track!
January 17, 2013
You can't go heli-skiing without a helicopter.
Well the 2012 / 2013 heli season is in full swing and it's been pretty awesome so far. Lots of snow, no significant weak layers, and a great group of guests and co-workers has made the past 3 week shift pretty easy to handle. Here are some shots from the Jan 10 - 15 week. Thanks to Matt P, Geoff P and the rest of the crew for making such good models.
Matt P launching in Rory Creek.
Matt P going for it in Howser Creek on a run called Far Out Right.
Dam powder cloud wrecked the shot.
Chris S airing it out in Rory.
The Reverend following his inner snowball.
Off the top of Rosmarin
Matt P spent most of his trip in the air.
Good company with Robson, Lilla, Baby Ella, Helen and Kobi.
December 28, 2012
Gery U skiing the Boxing Day Chute - aka The Badonkadonk - on Dec 26th.
Well, there's not much I can say about Rockies skiing right now that isn't better expressed by a few images. It's like having an uncrowded Rogers Pass forty-five minutes from Canmore.
Climbing The Badonkadonk
Ben F. - otherwise known as the Monkey Commander - punching a track to the top. Would you believe that this guy has a 300 pound safe full of bananas in the back of his truck?
Gery U and the Canadian Matterhorn
Monkey Commander as seen through the lens of Gery U.
Another Gery U photo. Man, this guy can really snap em off
The Rockwall and the Good Sirs. Gery U Photo.
Ben F starting a 900 meter drop
On the summit of the Badonkadonk with the Good Sirs rising up in the background.
December 25, 2012
Andy laying into some North Facing shots somewhere between Castle Junction and Radium...
I can't remember the last time I wasn't working over the holidays. So in an attempt to mix things up, I took XMAS and New Years off, and have been trying to make the most of my time. Of course, one person's useful time is another person's wasted time. But in any case, I think it's pretty important not only to work and guide in the mountains, but also to play in the mountains. So for three days from Dec 22 - 24, I had the pleasure of skiing around The Radium Highway in Kootenay National Park with a bunch of grown up kids. Since I was threatened with beatings if I divulged the exact location, I have done my best to be somewhat reticent.
It still amazes me how some of the best days have the most auspicious beginnings. Take day 1 for example. The day started with an early morning drive towards the Emerald Slide Path but ended at a coffee shop in Field. The sky was still dark, high winds racked the area, and no one was motivated to venture any further. So we back tracked to Highway 93 South and pulled over at destination #2. From the parking lot, our chosen objective looked bony and Greg summed it up well when he said, "Well, it looks terrible but I don't want to drive any further." So we headed up and grovelled in facets and deadfall for the next few hours. Had anyone been vocal about turning around, I'm sure we would have bailed. But we kept our thoughts mostly to ourselves and when someone did question our decision, Greg was quick to point out that we had no choice but to carry on, "Face it, this sucks. But we're here. So keep going."
"Hey, it's better than it was in July," Ben added.
Of course, after gaining a few hundred meters, the snowpack got deeper and more supportive and the deadfall disappeared. After 1000 meters, we reached the top, ripped the skins and well, I think the photos do a good job of telling the rest of the story.
The old burns are the area's signature characteristic. John N and Bender Dundat putting in a track on day 1. According to Ben, the skiing was better than it was in July.
Gery U enjoying the fruits of our labor on day 3.
Steep trees that open into big slide paths for 800+ meters. Gery U photo.
John N on day 1.
Eammon W on day 2.
"Hey Gery, what do you think about the conditions?"
"What difference does it make, we're going to ski it anyway!"
Finding some of these open slide paths requires good land-marking and a bit of luck.
Gery U on day 3.
Andy keeping his head above the cloud. Kind of reminds me of a periscope on a submarine.
Andy on day 1.
Greg, Andy and Eammon on day 2.
John, Ben and Greg after working hard to set the up-track on day 1.
Bender on day 1 with no tracks anywhere on the peak.
Looking north towards Quadra, Deltaform, Hungabee, Fay, etc.
Mt. Ball to the East.
Gery charging out of the trees in to the slide path.
Looking SE towards Mt. Assiniboine.
Early morning on Dec 24th, 2012.
Gery taking it to the chains.
Some bozo on tele sticks. Gery U Photo.
Extended misery on the tele sticks. Gery U photo.
Greg T practicing for his next career as a heli-ski guide.