Note: First and foremost this is not meant to enlist sympathy, I’ve received quite enough of that from friends and family already- this is just a recap of what went down, for the record.
May 16 was shaping up to be that perfect spring day for a front range descent- clear skies with excellent stable snow coverage.
Hence it was easy to convince Jonny and Daan to try out a ski descent of Copeland Mountain, a Wild Basin thirteener that had been on my list for a while, and one that I’d struck out on twice before.
Things were going smoothly, we made the summit well before noon via an easy ascent of the broad and mellow east face.
At the top we found ourselves looking down an ambitious but very skiable couloir that shot down the north face. From a previous trip up Isolation Peak I had studied this face and knew that a full descent could be pieced together but that it would require a bit of poking around to do so.
I elected to drop in first, this being my idea and all, and found the first turns into the entrance to be a little dicey with rocks. Conservatively picking my way through, I saw the pitch just below looked much more open. As I swung my skis around to get there though, my downhill ski snagged a rock just below the surface that caused me to tumble forward. Before I knew it I was being sent head over heels through the loose snow. My helmet compacted on a rock just below the surface and I felt my entire back compress. From that moment on I knew I had to gain control and stop myself from moving any further, I plunged both arms into the snow as I swung around to face the mountain.
Then I sat there. And sat, trying to regain control of my breathing and assess the damage. I was in shock, and had to consciously keep myself from hyperventilating.
Yes, I’d taken a good 30 foot tumble, but I was conscious, and had been throughout. My neck didn’t hurt but my back did, immensely. I called back up to Jonny and Daan, confirming that I was overall okay.
Daan came next, and collected my yardsale of gear that was strewn about.
We decided to come up with a plan- first, we would activate the SPOT transceiver to alert search and rescue, and Jonny would ski out ahead in case the transceiver didn’t work. Daan and I would make our way slowly to the lake at the base of the couloir and wait.
I knew there was something tweaked in my lower spine, and wasn’t quite sure whether I could make it out entirely. Getting back up the couloir at this point would have been impossible, the snow was just too deep, I had to make my way down, and the most feasible way seemed be on skis. I did know that an extrication from within the couloir would be nearly impossible, so I put the skis back on and slowly worked my way down a pitch at a time, side slipping and “stepping”, just trying to keep my back as neutral as possible.
This was a slow and arduous process, and it took us a great deal of time to make it to the lake. At one point we heard Jonny calling up to us with news that there was a cliff in the main couloir that would have to be down climbed- he didn’t think I would be able to do it. Luckily, Daan and I were still well enough above him that we could scope out other options. As it turned out, there was a line to our left (the west) that looked as though it went through. Daan and I elected to try this route, while Jonny, like a badass, made his way down the “Bomber” cliffs.
Every pitch was a nightmare for me at this point, but I utilized a breathing technique that I’d picked up from my girlfriend Julia’s yoga classes to help deal with the pain (that, and Jonny had given me a Valium from his med kit, supplemented by a few ibuprofens). Daan volunteered to take my pack along with his own, which also helped ease the pain.
After a few hours of stop and go side slipping (with just a handful of overtly conservative kick turns), we had made it to the lake at the base of the run. The snow throughout had been very good, and it was an absolute shame not to have skied it- luckily though, Jonny and Daan got to make some very nice looking turns throughout!
We hung around the lake for a while, thinking we might see a helicopter or rescue party, Daan even put out some rocks in the shape of an “X” to signify our whereabouts. But as the sun moved further down it seemed more and more likely that we would have to stay up there for the night. I knew there was no way I would be getting any sleep with a broken back and no padding to sleep under, so we made the decision to get out of there.
It was the most painful few miles I’ve ever had to hike, but by the end my mind just set itself up to get out. Within the last mile we encountered a large crew of search and rescuers- they were surprised to see me. Apparently they had sent out a two man team already, but we had missed them because we descended through a gully (following Jonny’s tracks) instead of the official trail (which they had gone up). They were radioed to turn around.
I opted to not be back-boarded for the last stint, and hiked out to the summer trailhead on my own. From there I met up with my dad, who had been watching me anxiously the whole time as they continued to update the SPOT coordinates. From there I was taken via the ranger’s car to the winter trailhead where the ambulance was waiting to take me to the hospital.
At the hospital in Estes Park they took some X-Rays and verified that I had indeed ‘broken my back’- the fifth thoracic vertebrae had been compacted by more than 50% and the sixth by nearly 40. I was going to require surgery, which would require I be transferred to the Level 1 Trauma Center at Saint Anthony’s Hospital in Denver.
After a few more tests it was decided that I would undergo the surgery the following evening. The surgeons screwed a titanium rod to the three vertebrae above and below the fifth thoracic. The rest is recovery, more of which can be found on my dad’s blog here.
Looking back on this, I’m thankful that it was not any worse; and without my helmet on, I might have died.
I also want to give infinite thanks to Jonny and Daan, without whom I wouldn’t have made it down, you guys are awesome. The rest of their photos are here: