“So how’s turning 24?”
Dane asked me as we sat looking up at the girl’s field ripping their lines on the first day of the K2 Big Mountain comp at the Craigeburn Club Ski Field.
“Ah, it’s alright. Doesn’t really feel like my birthday; 23 was cool, but 24, eh.” Maybe that was it; I asked for interesting and not too long after, things did just that.
For a good 45 minutes, plopped in the snow, I studied the course and the line I had picked out during inspection. There was a small air off a wind lip at the top, into a fairly narrow chute. If all went well, I’d carry on a hundred yards or so from the exit into a nice sized air, land, charge left around the big boulder that forked the bowl, throw in a big right handed turn and huck the last two bottom airs before skiing it out to the finish. I visualized it over and over in my head. All I wanted that day was to charge the chute stomp my airs and ski back to the lodge bouncing off the wall.
Out of a, stacked, field of 26 guys, I was slotted to drop in 21. After standing around for the majority of the day, finally it was time to harness into the nutcracker, (a wild rope-tow system native to many of the New Zealand club fields) and head to the start. The snow conditions were less than ideal. A few cm’s had dusted the hard layer the night before and anything that resembled soft snow had been slayed during the three previous disciplines that had dropped.
Standing on the small cornice that marked the drop in, I listened to the radio transmissions passed between the course crew and Stu, the start man and main event organizer. The adrenaline that surged was almost overwhelming; all I could think about was the first chute and how many people I had seen speed check it during their runs. Below it, I could see the take off for my first air–a menacing looking lip, situated between two tall rocks that stood proud like the ears on a Doberman.
“Bib 42 ready to drop,” he called over the radio. “3…2…1…dropping” and with a few clicks of my poles I was off. I took a cautiously small air off the first wind lip and set my sights on the throat of the chute. Two quick icy turns and I found myself effortlessly charging through the belly of the first beast. It was just like skiing tight tree lines back home, when rain had been the more familiar precipitation and ice the most common surface layer.
Exiting the chute, I was, in all respects to the phrase, feeling it! My confidence level surged and I pointed my tips for the next obstacle…maybe it was that excitement that did me in. I approached the take off, with a ton of speed and sent it. There were no windows to roll down, I was way up in the air and my body felt as still and solid as a buddhist locked in meditation. The landing approached and my feet stomped into the ground. Immediately a resounding “yes!” echoed through my head as I stuck it. But, that’s where the run ended, right there; only a quarter of the way down the course.
In the next split second something went wrong, I came unstuck and before I could figure out what was going on, I was tumbling. The speed that I had carried into that air, matched with the icy conditions and the pitch of the slope sent me rag dolling–self arrest a luxury I wouldn’t be granted.
The boulder, my next landmark remained in play, only, unlike my visualization, I would meet it head on. I saw it coming during one of my cartwheels and fear leapt into my throat. Impact. I smashed right off the beast, it’s ferocious stance stripping me of breath–I was only half way down the course.
In a state of shear panic I gasped for air as I continued to tumble. I flipped and rolled all the way down my line, luckily, cartwheeling over another set of rocks that could have had the final say. Eventually, the ride in the washing machine ceased and I slid to a stop near the finish line. Pain and anxiety swarmed my body and some instincts kicked in. Immediately I went to wiggle my toes; a brief smile cracked my whaling lips–I wasn’t paralyzed! I can’t tell you how excited I was to feel my toes dancing in my boots.
Seconds after coming to a limp halt, I was surrounded by ski patrol, Dane, my Queenstown shred buddy, Pete and another competitor; all eager to help assist.
Funny enough, I had met that third guy during our inspection run a few hours earlier. We were scoping an air on the other end of the course and he came by to do the same, only to let me know he had gotten wind swept off of it a few years earlier, smashed into the rock on the left and broken his neck.
The comp was put on hold for a good half-hour or so as the rescue team braced my neck and prepped me for the inbound heli. As my adrenaline cooled and my senses staggered back, I knew my wrist was broken and something wasn’t right with my hip. After what felt like ages, and never ending cold, I could hear the whipping blades as the recuse bird swooped in.
After some seriously skilled work on behalf of the rescue team, I was in the air, my veins running with morphine and headed for Christchurch Hospital. Thanks Pete for the rad photo!
Eight days, one wrist surgery and a heap of nauseating pain medicine later, I was released from the hospital and planted on the Greene’s couch. Rosie and Peter Greene were there watching their son Pat compete that day, had seen me tumble and, without prompting, called Stu to let him know that they would have a bed and all the comforts of home waiting for me, in the event I needed a place to stay before I could fly back to Queenstown.
I spent just over a week with the Greene’s. Their generosity was unbelievable and reflects the attitude carried by most of the people in this amazing country. Now I sit, in my newly upgraded apartment, another gracious hand out from Dane’s boss, basking in the warm sun and counting my blessings. Not even a month has gone by since the crash and I’m walking around the house, without my fancy red crutch and beginning to flex my wrist.
I am astoundingly lucky and grateful that I was flown away from that crash with only a few broken bones; none of which will keep me from getting back on my skis in a few months when the snow starts to fall in Vermont. I’m headed back to the states in a week, excited to rest up in the comfort of my own home and the company of my good friends. But, I’m sad to leave this amazing place and the awesome friends I’ve made throughout my journeys these past few months.
As soon as I am fit, I’m setting my sights on the first steps towards becoming a AMGA Ski Guide and my return to Queenstown next May. Thank you to everyone who has selflessly given an arm and a leg to help me through my travels and my recovery.
It’s time again to start thinking about those soft, fresh turns!