My Mammoth skiing accident

In 1998, while living in Santa Barbara, I had my worst-ever skiing accident. The location was Mammoth Mountain, a gigantic ski resort located on the Eastern side of the Sierra Nevada, the closest decent mountain terrain within driving rangeĀ of the greater Los Angeles area and 585km away from Santa Barbara. The chairlift I rode on that Spring day in 1998 was Chair 23, which deposits you on a steep mountaintop in such an exposed zone that the unloading area is fully covered. You can see the Mammoth Mtn layout on this trail map. Here's the relevant bit highlighted:-


I chose the Wipe-Out No.2 chute and started my run. If all had gone to plan, I would have descended the chute quickly by constantly turning to avoid the rocks (this is the thrill of a chute), then I would have got a rhythm going on the moguls further down, and finished off with some big turns on the bowl piste towards the bottom of the chairlift. But all did not go to plan. On my second turn, my left ski binding released. It must have been faulty, as I had had the bindings screwed down so tight that any tighter setting would have broken my leg rather than releasing. Now, I can ski on one ski for maybe a hundred metres, on a bunny slope, on a good day. But this was an extremely steep slope with imminent rocks and I did not stand a chance. For the first fraction of a second or so I tried to keep my balance and just succeeded in wrenching my left hip. Then I lost my right ski too, and started an uncontrolled tumble.

Miraculously, I somehow avoided hitting the rocks. I thought I had my poles strapped on tight, but they broke off in the fall. I tried to use my arms and legs to slow my descent, but this was the wrong thing to do: it just resulted in more soft tissue injuries. Moguls are so much fun when you get the right rhythm going, but they are downright punishing when you are tumbling over and over and over them quickly like you are in an industrial clothes dryer with heavy ski boots on. Next, I started gathering a worrying amount of speed in the bowl. At this point I knew that my life was in danger. My life did not flash before my eyes, but my sense of time was seriously warped as I was gripped by visceral fear.

Then, without warning, I was hit with full force in a high-speed tackle and stopped dead. The guy who did this selfless thing probably saved me from subsequent spinal cord injury or worse - if I had kept gathering speed in the bowl, I might have hit and hurt other skiers as well as myself. He had got off the lift just after me and seen me fall on the chute, knew the mountain, and realized what was going to happen next. As I fell on the left side of the lift line, he bombed straight down the right side on his snowboard, and then cut under the lift and across into the bowl to tackle me. He was all-muscle and must have weighed almost twice what I do, and was going fast.

When I finally caught my breath, the first words out of my mouth were, Are my ears still there? To this day, I am grateful to him for not laughing at me. Instead, he said gently, Yes. They're fine. Give me your hands and I'll show you.. When I did, he gently pulled my mittens off and carefully directed my warm fingers to feel the contours of my frozen ears. I could not move them as they had been grated against snow all the way down my fall line. He convinced me that they were still intact by dabbing each one with a tissue: there was no blood. Once I had thanked him and said that I could ski down to the ski patrol by myself, he was gone as quickly as he came. All he had revealed is that his name was Jim. What a hero!

Even with adrenaline pumping, I knew I was really hurt and had a gigantic headache. In retrospect, I really should have called Ski Patrol and let them take me down the hill in a litter, then do a proper medical examination and supervise me for several hours. Instead, I stoically gritted my teeth and skied down, and barely said boo to them, downplaying my pain and injuries. I did at least let them run some basic neurological checks, which was less foolish. Fortunately, I did not have to try to drive back to town; I was a passenger in someone else's car on that trip. But it was the last day of the season, which made my later return to skiing that much more terrifying.

In the end I sustained several injuries. My cervical spine got hyperflexed and hyperextended repeatedly as I fell hundreds of metres, yanking my nerves around thoroughly. The tackle was a hard one, and I had never played contact sports. Overall, it was a miracle that I did not lose any motor function, and that I avoided a concussion -- back then, like most adults, I was not wearing a helmet. In the immediate and short-term aftermath, I was in such an extended sea of bodily pain that I did not realize I had broken some ribs (until treatment for something else revealed remodelling many years later). My long bones and vertebrae were intact, but I had a bucketload of soft tissue injuries. And I was left with long-term neuromuscular pain in my neck, shoulders, back, left arm and left leg which continues to affect me moderately to this day.

I never ski without a helmet now. I also no longer look at a slope wondering how awesome it would be to schuss down it; instead, I imagine how much it would hurt to FALL down it.