A J Walker Author
A Series of Winter Accidents
As winter sets in, I thought readers might like to get to know me a little better by reading about the wildest wrecks of winter's past. By wrecks, I mean one of my famous ski crashes and one where a helmet saved my life.
Skiing in the rugged mountains here in Montana is a major part of what makes winter so enjoyable. This love for the sport puts a spin on how I perceive almost any snow event. While non-skiers may see poor weather as an inconvenience or danger, I look forward to the alpine snow making pillowy mounds throughout the mountainside. One thing that really attracted me to downhill skiing is the unique challenge it poses to me as an individual. Whatever effort I put into sports like skiing and kayaking is directly linked to how good at them I am. What I like most about these sports is the personal challenge they pose, and the group dynamic they share. You can still have your ‘team’ of people who you enjoy the sport with, but when it comes to actually playing, it’s one on one. Everyone will have their own challenges and their own obstacles to face, and each person will deal with them in their own way. I love that feeling, that sense of accomplishment I get from sending myself through a section of whitewater rapids or navigating a technical skiing line and knowing it was me and my skill, or luck, that got me through it.
Out of the many learning experiences and crashes I’ve had, there are two that could’ve been much worse. One I caught on camera, which went viral, and the other came with a series of bad choices that eventually sent me to the doctor. If given a choice between hearing bad news or good news first, I prefer to start with the bad news, so I’ll tell you the more painful of these two memories first.
I was nineteen, coming off my first semester at the University of Montana and ready to rip the slopes on my home ski hill for Christmas break. I was with some friends at Bridger Bowl and feeling like I really needed to show them all that I hadn’t lost any of my skiing abilities while at college. Right away in the morning we headed to a steep run with many cliff sections. There hadn’t been new snow in a while, and conditions on the mountain were packed. At Bridger, this creates moguls throughout most in-bound areas, except for those that are regularly groomed. The steep section we picked to ski was just above a gully of massive moguls.
I was seeking soft snow and saw a line leading through a small cliff section. Coming to stand above the gap between rocks, I peered down at the bumpy gully below. I considered it to be an excellent test of my skills. My thought was, an advanced skier could do the shoot and control themselves through the moguls, and I’m an advanced skier. You see, when I have a pair of skis strapped on or am secured within my kayak and perched on top of something tall, steep, and looks like it ‘goes’, I make a gut decision. It’s an in-the-moment choice of yes, I’m going or nope, not today. When I go I don’t half-ass it, I go all in and hope it shakes out the way I want. In this situation, I thought, yep, I’m going. I pointed the tips of my skis down the tight gap between cliffs and went all in. It was a right-to-left turn through the shoot, sending me at what felt like the speed of sound directly into the knee-high moguls. The line worked out for me. I ping-ponged my way wildly through the bumpy snow until I slowed down enough to stop. When I looked back, I thought, yeah, that was a good adrenaline rush. And it worked out, so I should do that again.
I hit that same line without issue three more times, having so much fun on it that I wanted to just keep doing that same line all day. I went back for my fifth run. Looking at it, I could see I’d tracked out the right-to-left turn option through the shoot. Why not shake things up and hit the shoot with a left-to-right turn? I’d get to dip my skis into some nice soft snow again. Spoiler alert, it ended badly.
This time I approached the shoot with a slightly different angle, coming into it just as fast as the other times. I nailed the line I was intending, coming through the crag with speed. I came out of the shoot, turning the opposite way from where I’d been going all four times before. I was instantly met with moguls that I had not navigated through. I bounced into the face of one, messing up my cadence of back and forth and instead going up and over. Now I was bouncing wildly over the tops, each one acting like its own jump. I only hit a few before one bucked me the wrong way. It rocked me forward, headfirst like a dart thrown at the target. I barely saw the sizable rock before I hit it. The top of my head cracked into the face of the small boulder with all one-hundred-and-seventy-five pounds of my bodyweight thrown behind it. With my head planted on the rock face and my body, straight like an arrow, buckled at the weak point. Luckily for me, it wasn’t my neck. Apparently in that moment the weak point was my chest, just below my pectorals. After the headfirst impact followed instantaneously with the buckling in my chest, I went rolling over the rock and continued in an unconscious state down the slope. I was only out for a few seconds. When I came too, I realized that I was still sliding, and I was alive. I was afraid to move because I knew I might’ve just broken my neck or back, but I needed to stop myself. I planted my feet, realizing that I wasn’t paralyzed, and stopped myself. I laid there in the snow, thinking about what just happened. My chest hurt, my head hurt, and I was alive. My friends skied to my aid, bombarding me with questions of whether or not I was all right. It took me a few moments to regain my breath, as the folding at my chest knocked the wind out of me. I was on the verge of crying because it hurt so badly. I Stood up, telling them that I was okay. I moved all my limbs and felt at my sore neck. It seemed like I was fine. I just needed to shake it off.
Well, I should’ve gone home and gone to the doctor; my helmet was proof enough of that. It looked like someone shot it. Guess what, I didn’t go home right away. Yep, I was nineteen and had to prove I was tough, so I stuck it out and skied the rest of the day. I didn’t do any difficult lines, but I didn’t want to ruin a perfectly good ski day for everyone else.
The buck didn’t stop there, either. I went home, told my parents what happened, showed them the helmet. I insisted I was fine and wow, how good are those Giro ski helmets. I would’ve probably died without it. I mentioned before it was winter break for me in my first semester of college. I’ve also mentioned in other of these ‘get to know me, true life adventures’ that my dad is a pilot for Delta. So, a couple of days later I hopped on a plane to Boston. I was all bruised from my ski wreck, my head still hurt, and I was about to spend some time hanging out with my college friends on the east coast. One of the nights I was there, we were playing darts. There was a wood stove behind where we were throwing. I tripped on the raised ledge around the wood stove after throwing a dart, turned and fell on the wood stove. I tried to push myself off of it, pressing with my right hand on the stovetop and left on the stovepipe. Luckily, I was wearing a thick flannel to protect my chest. The worst part of tripping onto the stove, was when I tried to push off, the metal was too hot for me to get enough of a push to get off of it. So, I fell right back on it. With the next two attempts, I my efforts weakened as my hands burned. On the third attempt, when I was practically laying across the stove, my friend grabbed me by the flannel and tossed me off. Thank you, Ben! Once off, I immediately ran outside and stuffed my hands in the snow. I had third-degree burns all over both of my palms. On the plane ride back to Bozeman, I my whole body felt like it was broken. My head and neck still hurt like crazy, my chest pained every time I tried to breathe, my spine hurt from where I folded in the ski crash, and I had third-degree burns all over my hands from the woodstove. I finally went to the hospital when I got home. No bones were broken, just cartilage between ribs. My spine was bruised, and I had a concussion. That wasn’t the best week of my life.
Three years later, I had another close call. This time, it’s good news. I didn’t get hurt at all, but the potential to be seriously injured was very real. I was twenty-two now, and you might be thinking probably more mature by now. Nope. I was still taking big risks when it came to showing off on my skis. This time I was at Lost Trail Powder Mountain and was skiing my first season with a season pass there. I didn’t know the mountain all that well and was a little overconfident with my general skiing ability. At this time in my life, I was dating Maggie, who is now my wife. I was trying to impress her with an outstanding line I found while skiing with her the week before. From what I remember of that line, we came off the crest of the mountain, skied through some evenly spaced burnt trees, then came across this big cliff section. She went right, skiing around the cliffs. I saw some shoots that went through it. You know how I feel about shoots, if it looks good, I want to ski it. I could see right through the shoot as it passed between the cliffs. Below was a wide-open field of powdery snow. Just perfect. The only obstacle was a tree at the bottom that was easily avoidable. It was too tempting. I sent the shoot. It was glorious, so soft, and the powder field at the bottom was a dream. This was the image I had in my mind when I went looking for it the following week.
Maggie and I were with two other friends who knew the terrain much better than I did. I described the shoot I had done the weekend before to them and they were like, “Oh yeah, I know what you’re talking about. Let's go hit that.” They told me it was a two-part shoot, meaning you had to ski halfway through, stop, then finish the line to make sure you didn’t hit the rocks at the bottom. From my previous experience with this shoot, it was unnecessary to stop in the middle. I didn’t remember there even being room to stop in the middle. It was a tight gap between cliff walls with a big powder field below.
I had my GoPro mounted on my helmet and clicked it on during the run in. I wanted to get some good shots of the guys going through the shoot before me, so I waited for them to go first. Maggie smartly went around it on the right again. She would meet us at the bottom. One of our friends went first, stopping halfway down. While our other friend was waiting and watching at the top, I was thinking, why are we waiting? So, I went for it. I was thinking, this is a no-stop shoot, you just go. I’ll show them how to do it. With my skis pointed down, I flew past both of our friends. Then I realized it. This wasn’t the same shoot that I had gone down the weekend before. There were more rocks than I remembered. I couldn’t turn left. I knew there was a tree on the right near the bottom, so I didn’t want to turn that way. I went full send through the field of snow where I was planning to take at least one turn to slow down. At the base of the field of snow, there’s a slight rise, kind of like a ramp. When I was coming into the uphill dip at the base of the field, I was thinking, I can still stop. I’ll just sit down and I’ll just slide to a stop at the top of this hill. Spoiler alert, that didn’t work either.
The uphill ramp acted like a jump. Me sitting back only made my trajectory that much more dangerous. I essentially launched myself off a hundred-foot cliff doing half of a backflip. The slight raise in the hill was the top of another cliff section. This section is more scattered with smaller cliffs, steep slope, and more trees. I got some lift immediately off the ramp as I cleared several twenty-five to thirty-foot-tall trees just beyond the ‘ramp’. From the point I launched, to the point where I landed, I was in the air for a solid three seconds. From my experiences kayaking off waterfalls, I know that means a free fall of at least eighty feet. The eighty-foot waterfall I ran, both times, had a two second freefall when I played back the GoPro footage.
The scariest part for me was not knowing what I was going over and where the ground was. Like I said, I tried to sit down to stop but only ended up doing half of a backflip off a huge cliff. The only thing I could see was my legs up over my head and the blue sky behind them. Those three seconds felt like a full minute to me. Initially, I thought, oh no. This is bad and I’m going to get hurt. Then when I didn’t hit the ground, I thought, yep, I’m going to break my back for sure. Then when I still didn’t hit the ground, I thought, what’s happening to me? Am I flying? No, I’m kidding, I didn’t think I was flying, but I did know that I was going off an enormous cliff and thought I might die or at the very least break my back. All that was left for me to do was accept it. I gave in to the sensation of falling and waited for the pain to come crashing in. A blur of rocks and trees broke my line of sight, then poof, I made impact. I landed on my shoulders in a big fluffy patch of powder. I was rattled, surprised, and amazed that I didn’t feel any pain at all. I found my GoPro that had been knocked off my helmet mount. If you watch the video, you’ll see it was dangling from a shoelace I used to tie it on my helmet so I wouldn’t lose it. I whipped it off, very happy that I wasn’t injured or dead. Then I looked over and saw Maggie skiing past me. I yelled at her, “Did you see that? I just went over that,” pointing to the steep cliffy section behind me. She didn’t hear me and continued skiing past.
I landed right at the base of a cliff, between the edge of the rock and a big tree. All the powder from the entire season had been collecting right there with no one having skied through it. It was a most excellent and lucky spot to land. If you slow the video clip down, you can see my ski tip and ski pole graze the rocks just before I land. I was so lucky.
When I skied down to the chairlift and met up with everyone else, I said, “I just crashed huge.” The other two of our friends were like, “Oh yeah? Awesome.” Maggie was like, “Oh, is that why you were in that tree well?” Judging by their underwhelmed reaction, I considered that I had overplayed the events in my mind. Then I reminded myself of that massive freefall. I insisted that I was pretty sure I had an impressive crash. Nobody really payed much attention to it. None of them had seen me go flying off into the clear blue sky.
That night, I plugged in my SD card and watched the clip. It amazed me. I showed it to my roommate who said something like, “Holey crap. That’s like the biggest crash I’ve ever seen. You need to put that on YouTube.” So I did. I uploaded it to YouTube and told some friends about what happened. Two days later, my mom called me to tell me that my ski video was on the home page for MSN’s website. I went viral for sure, and of course, it wasn’t for something clever or smart that I did. It was for a major accident that I was lucky to walk away from. Since then, that crash video has been featured in many Jerry of the Day highlight reels, Tanner Hall shared it on his Facebook, and some friends told me they saw it on MTV’s Ridiculousness. I wasn’t able to find the episode of Ridiculousness that my friends told me the video was on, so I don’t know if they mistook me for another crash, or if it really was my video. I met Tanner Hall, the famous skier and Montana native after my crash, but I didn’t realize who he was so missed an opportunity to tell him that video he shared was of me.
As I write this, I have not had a major ski crash like those again. I like to think that I’m in more control now that I’m thirty. Though, two years ago, I had some glorious crashes that landed me a disapproving head shake from ski patrol at Bridger Bowl.
Hope you enjoyed my telling of my winter wrecks. Thanks for Reading :-)
Here's a link to the video if you want to see the big crash - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=09aF8pvJhKI