By Eric Steele
Telemark skiing is everything to me. So much so, that I’m kind of a jerk about it. I’d take special joy in dropping in on lines that others had hiked an hour to get to, or taking some unsuspecting tourist out into the the to of north chutes a little faster than I should.
And the trees… Forget about it. Skiing the trees confirms my heaven on earth approach to living life. It is like going to church on Sunday, except service is held every day of the week on a patch of heaven just above the Eisenhower Tunnel.
I was never scared to be in the woods. I felt safe, even protected while skiing in the trees. As a result, it wasn’t uncommon for me to ski them alone. Regardless to how many times I’ve told others that skiing in the trees alone was a bad Idea. I didn’t take my own advice.
On 2/25/2011 I learned just how mortal I really am. The trees are not just a wooded winter wonderland. A place where the magic happens. Most trees might just as well be concrete posts surrounded by white, fluffy quicksand. A deceptively soft experience that immediately punishes bad decisions.
I was on a run that I had skied a hundred times before. A little line through the trees between Chair 1 and 6 at Loveland. This run empties into a beautiful meadow. It’s a great way to start or end the day.
I should point out that my mother-in-law was in a hospice back in Ohio. She wasn’t always easy on my, but I loved her and it was really stressful to see her in so much pain. I had decided to make a few runs to let off some steam. I called my wife, who was at her side, and told her my plans. She replied that her mom wasn’t doing well and that I should be very careful. I told her not to worry.
There was a foot of fresh and my turns were a little slower that I had expected. Ten turns into my first run, I was thrown off balance and did a forward roll into a tree. I hit the tree with my mid-back and compressed my T6-T10 vertebrae. I then went head first into the tree well. Things went black for a split second, then I started to get my senses back.
I felt like I’d been crammed into that hole by a professional wrestler. I was inverted and facing away from the tree. My skis were above me and they felt like bricks. While I couldn’t move my feet out of the snow, I knew I wasn’t paralyzed. I thought about trying to get my phone out, but…
Then the most amazing thing happened; a voice filled my head. It told me to get the out of there. I just heard “don’t get comfortable!”, then “Go to help!”. And this voice was very persistent. It kept repeating the same thing. I wasn’t alone in that hole. It was like I had a drill instructor in my head, yelling at me, “Get up, get out and get to help!” I wanted to lay down and call the ski patrol on my cell and let them find me. That voice wouldn’t let me. I simply was not an option.
The trouble was I was facing away from the tree. I had to shimmy up the tree upside down until I was able to pull myself up using tree branches. It took about ten minutes to get up. And that’s when all the bells and whistles went off. The pain in my back made me see stars. I could tell my back was screwed up. I could feel my feet, but I was really scared. I don’t recall ever being that afraid.
Again, that voice filled my head. “Get Help, Ski Out!” So I did. I didn’t think about the further damage I could do to my spine. I just knew that I needed to get to Ski Patrol ASAP.
I got to the ski patrol around 45 minutes after I struck the tree. I was able to get my skis off and walk in on my own, screaming in pain. They jumped into action and put me on a backboard. immobilizing my head and neck.
One of the patrollers called my wife. “Kim, this is Terry with the Loveland Ski Patrol. We have your husband here, he’s not dead.” to which my wife responded, “My mom just died”. Connie passed when I hit the tree. She has been in my head ever since. I don’t mind the company.