Category Archives: Injuries

Out with a misadventure

It was the winter that began with a whimper, slumped into a coma, and ended with a misadventure. On what would turn out to be the final day, we set out with high hopes for Mount Baker’s Skyline Divide. After a brief moment of over-ambition on the access road when we almost sank the car in snow that was deeper than we expected, we found a safe parking spot and headed a short way up to the trailhead and a beautiful hike through a fairytale forest. A light breeze span snowflakes from the trees, and they glittered and sparkled in the sunlight like a reminder of better winters that had come before.

Skyline Divide trail

The snow cover on the lower half of the trail wasn’t great, and as we hauled our skis up half-exposed steps we all acknowledged that it might be a challenging exit. But then we came to open meadows where the snow was dense but thicker, and finally to the open ridge of the Divide where Shuksan hovered on the horizon and a series of progressively steeper drop-ins led to a huge, dreamy open bowl. The snow seemed very stable and we agreed that no pit was necessary, but we should ski one at a time for the first run.

Skyline Divide

It only took two turns for disaster to strike. I was fiddling with gear and had let the other three go slightly ahead, with M taking the first run. By the time I concluded my binding adjustment and joined them, M was down and clutching a knee a couple of hundred yards below us and D was on his way down to join him. J told me that M had fallen and was hurt, and that D was going to check things out.

After a few minutes of watching M rock back and forwards over his knee, I realised that we weren’t dealing with a trivial situation. This is a guy who’s tough as nails. Conscious that we hadn’t done any testing of the slope, I asked J to stay on the ridge and skied down to join D and M. A pale and shaky M explained that he’d hooked the back of his ski as he turned, and it had twisted his knee and he’d heard a pop as he went down. At that point I knew that our day as we’d planned it was over, and that whatever it had turned into was going to be long and hard.

J on the ridge

All three of us agreed that our initial priority had to be getting off the untested slope as soon as M felt he was able to move. D and I thought we were going to have to carry him, but he insisted that he could make it on his own if we were able to take his skis and backpack. One agonizing step at a time, he slowly and painfully crawl-hobbled back to the ridge. Once we were there he collapsed in the snow, and we began a proper assessment of our situation. M kept insisting he wanted us to ski at least one run before we began figuring out how to extract, but D and I were firm that the only remaining objective for the day was to get him down safely.

Blown knee hobble
We did a quick skills and equipment inventory. D was the best equipped to look at making a rescue sled from M’s skis; I had more first aid experience, particularly when it came to knee injuries. We had three decent first aid kits between us. J, unfortunately, didn’t have a first aid kid with him – a lapse that M would later note that he needed to address in trip requirements.

We pooled resources and I used adhesive bandage to strap M’s knee securely, and then used his ski skins, a powder leash and two triangular sling bandages to construct a splint that would hold the joint in place. With the splint secured he gingerly tried taking some weight on the leg and announced that he thought he could begin the walk down on his own. The snow was starting to soften in the midday warmth, and the seven kilometres between us and the car seemed like a very long way indeed.

Ski skin splint

It was a painful journey down. M was determined to make it under his own steam; the ski skin splint held together and gave his leg the stability it needed, but every now and then his foot would sink in the snow or he’d trip on a root or step and yell out in agony. J kept skiing far ahead until D finally told him he had to stay closer to the group in case we needed him. The snow was heavy and wet higher up and patchy and thin lower down, and even on skis it wasn’t an easy journey. M’s determination and courage was astounding, even as his pace grew slower and slower.

Eventually, amazingly, we reached the trailhead. At this point I went ahead to the car, which was only a few minutes down the road, and made sure it was open and ready for M to collapse in a seat as soon as he arrived. I shoveled ice into a plastic grocery bag so that he had a makeshift ice pack waiting. After that, it was just a case of speeding him back to the land of socialized medicine as fast as we could.

Wounded soldier

In retrospect, we did a lot of things right. We made sure we weren’t all on an untested slope at the same time. We prioritized getting off that slope. We overrode M when he wanted us to take a run before starting the extraction. We had the right mix of skills, experience and equipment to be able to deal with the injury and prepare for the eventuality that M might not be able to walk down on his own. And if the worst had happened, I was carrying a Delorme InReach that we could have used to activate a rescue.

We were also lucky. If M hadn’t been able to walk by himself and endure the pain that went along with that, the extraction would have been much longer and harder. And there were some lessons to be learned. J was really uncertain as to how to deal with the situation; we could have harnessed him better with some direct instruction early on. It was also not ideal that we had someone on the trip who wasn’t carrying even the most basic first aid supplies.

Overall, it felt like the right day to call time on a winter that fell so short of our hopes.

Not according to plan

A couple of weeks ago my friend C and I had intended to spend the weekend participating in our first 24 hour race. But life intervened as it sometimes does, so instead she flew to Vancouver and I promised we’d spend as much of her visit on the trails as possible to make up for the change of plan.

Cass in Squamish

We hooked her up with a little full suspension ETSX-70 from the wonderful West Point Cycles, and after a getting-to-know-the-bike afternoon in Pacific Spirit Park, headed out to Squamish. I’d shown her a video of Half Nelson and we’d decided to make that our first goal. It mostly went very well, minus one slight mishap.

To give C credit, she dusted herself off and rode out the rest of the trail. The next day she took a break to rest her shoulder, which had gotten pretty banged up in the close encounter with the tree, and I went for a quick spin on the Test of Metal course with my ski buddy C and his wife.

Fifty Shades of GreenThe following day C and I headed for the Whistler bike park. It was my first time in the bike park too, and we had an absolute blast. We mostly rode easy greens in the morning in deference to her shoulder, which was still not feeling great, then moved on to some fun blues and small jump lines in the afternoon. I was also able to convert all of my unused Edge card days to bike park tickets, so there will be much more of this to come.

EZ Does ItAll in all we had an excellent few days, and it was great to give C a small glimpse into the world of west coast trail riding. Hopefully she’ll be back in spite of the close encounter with the tree.

Another dumb crash

I’ve been braced for a bike crash for a while. I’ve been riding trails that someone of my limited technical ability really has no business on, and working hard at finding urban features to practice my skills during my day-to-day riding. I’ve been riding down short flights of stairs, jumping off ledges, and generally testing the limits on every commute.

It’s been a long, hot summer here in Van. Last night, after one of the longest sustained dry spells in recorded history, three months’ worth of rain fell in two hours. It was like a wall of water crashing into the city, lit up by bursts of thunder and lightning. I went out to the roof deck and stood there in the violence and chaos, drenched to the skin, soaking up the madness in the air.

I didn’t really stop to think about what the torrential downpour meant for my regular commute. So today I went belting around a False Creek corner on a wooden dock, and my rear wheel shot out from under me on the slippery rain-soaked wood. Thanks to my speed I went down hard, taking the brunt of the force on the outside of my right thigh and the rebound on my poor long-suffering right arm.

I took five minutes to let the pounding adrenaline subside at least a little, put the bike back together (the chain had flown off and the rear derailleur was knocked sideways) and gave myself time for some deep breaths. Then I got back on and pedaled slowly towards work. Because I’m nothing if not too dumb to quit, I rolled a couple of sets of stairs on the way.

Once I’d taken the time to clean up my scraped arm and get changed into work clothes, the adrenaline had worn off entirely and I was just shaky, sore and mad at myself for making such a dumb mistake. Ice and Advil both helped, but I was shocked by the increasing pain in my leg each time I stayed sitting long enough for it to stiffen up. The saucer-sized muscle contusion was already swollen about half an inch high.

At the end of the day my manager very kindly offered to drive me home, but I declined as I wanted to get the bike back so I could get it into the shop to get the derailleur fixed. The first turn of the pedals was enough to let me know I’d made a major mistake. I lurched the 7km home with my right leg virtually useless, letting it hang from the pedals on every downhill stretch.

The sad thing is that I was 78km away from my highest mileage month ever, and had a 160km ride planned for tomorrow that definitely won’t be happening now. I still can’t quite believe that after all of the crazy stuff I’ve been doing on my bike recently, I went down turning an ordinary corner on my regular commute.

Impinged

The shoulder impingement I’ve mentioned a few times recently has been getting steadily worse. I’m not sure exactly what I did to aggravate it so much, but in the second half of June it went through a period of hurting so intensely and constantly that I just wanted to lay my head down on my desk at work and give up. It was a peculiarly harsh, stabbing pain that felt like someone was shoving a knife directly into my shoulderblade.

While I worked with my physiotherapist on trying to settle things down, I did everything I could to avoid increasing the inflammation. This meant temporarily abandoning the road bike and commuter, both of which have rigid forks, for the squishy comfort of the full suspension ETSX. I’m supposed to be preparing for a couple of 160km rides later this month, but recently I’ve traded road rides for trails interspersed with steep, gravely hills.

It hasn’t been all bad. I haven’t been very far afield or ridden anything particularly technical given the need to avoid jarring the cranky shoulder, but I’ve explored pretty much every inch of the Pacific Spirit Park trails and ridden endless circuits on some of the gentler Stanley Park singletrack. On these baking hot summer days, there are far worse places to be than riding smooth dirt under cool trees.

Singletrack

A stupid way to crash

There are no excuses. It was early. I hadn’t had coffee. It was dark. A raccoon shot out in front of me, and I swerved without thinking. I hit a curb I hadn’t seen coming, and because my weight was forward from the reaction and the swerve the bike’s suspension was pressed down and couldn’t absorb it. The back wheel went up in the air, and all of a sudden I found myself launched over the bars in a classic superman pose above a very hard landing on concrete.

It was about as much fun as you’d expect. My left knee and elbow took the impact directly, shredding the top layers of skin on the elbow and blackening the kneecap. My right shin landed on the lip of the curb, bruising it down to the bone. My right arm took an awkward impact that saved the skin, but damaged muscles right through my neck and shoulder.

As is often my first reaction after accidents, I stood up. Then I sat right back down again when I realised how much my legs hurt. I let things sink in for a little while, then got back on my bike and trundled painfully onwards. It probably wasn’t the smartest decision, but no-one was coming to get me and I was aware that I needed to use the adrenalin while I could. A few hours on, reality had sunk in and I left the bike at work for the night.

My physiotherapist is on the case, and I hope I’ll be back to normal soon. In the meantime I have strong painkillers, and a lot of practice to draw on.

Crash

On Monday I had an unanticipated day off. The sun was shining, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky, and so I loaded the ETSX onto the back of the car and headed over to Mountain Highway. My plan was to lap some of the green and blue trails lower down the mountain, and then power up to the Grouse Peak for some serious cardio and a rocket of a ride back down.

It started off well. I took a spin on Roadside Attraction and King of the Shore, which seemed a good level for practicing and building confidence. I was reminded again that so much of the success of downhill riding lies in trust. If you believe that you can ride through something, you relax and can easily shift into the right position and absorb it. Stay nervous, and you get bounced jarringly over the top.

King of the Shore

I looped back up on the fire road, planning to hit Bobsled for a quick, flowing ride down. But a sign on the right lured me down to Griffen, which looked like another good practice trail.

It was a simple rock roll that did me in. It probably wasn’t more than two feet tall; one slightly higher, uneven rock on the left, and a nice smooth roll on the right. I went to hit it and pumped the pedals around one last time on the run in. I wasn’t quite fast enough. The left hand pedal clipped the very top of the uneven rock, tipping me sideways. The ride out was very narrow, and as I came down I threw a foot out to counter the tip. But I was too late; the front wheel was already off the trail, and my foot met nothing but clean air. I realized that when the wheel hit I was going over the bars, with nothing at all to cushion my fall.

Everything froze. For one endless second, I had all the time I needed to mentally process what was coming and yet not enough time to take a single physical action to help me avoid it. In the space below the wheel, a steep embankment littered with piles of rock and broken branches. And one thought: this is really going to hurt.

Except that it didn’t, not right away. Initially it was just jarring and noisy. I flew off the bike, hit the rocks hard, bounced and came down again. Behind me the bike clanged off the rocks and then crashed hard into my lower legs. It all seemed a lot harsher and more abrupt than any fall I’ve had before: banging metal, unforgiving rock, and tearing skin.

When the movement and noise stopped, I lay still for a moment. I’ve learnt from previous accidents that the first few seconds, when the adrenaline is flooding, are not the time to make an assessment of how badly you’re hurt. I raised my arm, and saw blood dripping from my elbow. I pulled my phone from my backpack, and checked that I had a signal in case I needed to call for help. I moved one leg, then the other. Everything felt jarred and shaky and hurt, but nothing screamed or refused to respond.

Fromme crash

I untangled myself from the bike and made my way back to the top of the embankment. I sat there for a few minutes in the rays of light filtering through the trees, waiting for the adrenaline to retreat enough to allow a proper assessment of the damage. Apart from the elbow, my legs felt battered and my right shoulder and neck were starting to twinge. As the shakiness subsided I dragged my bike back up to the trail, popped the chain back on, wobbled back to the fire road, and then started riding uphill toward my original objective. Within a couple of kilometres, it became clear this wasn’t a good plan. The elbow jarred and throbbed every time I hit a small rock, and my neck and shoulder were starting to seize. I turned the bike around and headed back to the car.

All in all, I was lucky. I gashed my left elbow pretty badly, pulled a muscle in my right shoulder, and bruised up both legs quite severely. Looking back at the crash site, I could very easily have broken bones. It was a small mistake that normally wouldn’t even have resulted in me coming off the bike, but in that particular location it had consequences. Rocks and wood are not terribly forgiving surfaces for a hard landing. If I want to keep doing this, it’s time to get some body armour.

Sick as a dog

It’s hard to believe that it’s already Labour Day. This summer feels like lost time.

I never really got better after the horrible illness that made the Valley GranFondo such a tough ride. The symptoms cycled on and off, with two week spells of nauseated misery followed by a few days when things would go better, activities and food were manageable, and I would start to hope I was on the mend. The cyclical nature of the illness seemed baffling to the doctors I consulted during the relapses, who consistently tested me for the wrong things and then reassured me it would eventually clear up by itself when the results came back clean.

By the time I eventually got a diagnosis and the right meds (thanks to a coworker who recognized the symptoms and suggested a different test) it was the end of August and more than six weeks since I’d been able to eat properly. In that time I’d lost twelve pounds, developed deficiencies in just about everything, and reached a state of exhaustion so severe that at red lights I would slump over the handlebars on my bike, unable to keep myself upright. Even when I had pneumonia in 2007, I don’t recall being so totally drained of energy and life. It felt like I was viewing the world through a thick, dense fog that left me three steps behind everything around me, moving with limbs as heavy as lead.

I’ve been reassured by my doctor that once I’ve completed the course of antibiotics, it should only take a couple of weeks for things to start feeling more normal. In the meantime I can at least eat again, and my strength is slowly coming back. This weekend I’ve been doing what I can to make up for lost time, although it was a bit disconcerting to find myself keeling over with exhaustion at the end of a 25km bike ride on Friday. In less than a week, I’m supposed to be riding to Whistler. At this point I’m really not sure about my ability to make the distance, but I do know that I’m going to try as hard as I can and go as far as I can and even if I don’t get to the finish line, that will be better than not trying at all.

Hit and run

Saturday did not go according to plan.

After a long and somewhat stressful week, I was looking forward to a mellow day on the slopes. A few inches of new snow this week promised some slightly softer conditions, and an opportunity to get to know the Praxis better. I’ve had them out on bomber ice twice and super variable backcountry snow once, so I was interested to see how they performed in regular conditions. B and I decided to start out with a couple of quick warmup runs under Green chair while we waited for a friend of his to join us, and then head over to Blackcomb. It was free-pass-for-Santas day, and the mountain was covered in red-and-white outfits.

On our second run I was cruising down the last stretch of Ego Bowl back to the lift when a skier slammed into me from behind with no warning at all. She hit my left side hard and her speed took her right through me, driving me head- and shoulder-first into the hard-packed snow. I felt my legs and skis hitting the ground in a sliding, bouncing tumble and the only thing I could think about was my left knee. By the time I slid to a halt I’d lost both skis, my backpack was busted open, and my goggles had blown off my helmet. The other skier was a ways downslope of me, with one of her skis above her and one below.

I knew immediately that the knee felt okay, but I’d hurt my shoulder badly. I tried to stand up but that arm wouldn’t support me and I sat doubled over on the snow, clutching it and waiting for the pain to ease. Below me, I saw the other skier standing up and gathering her skis. With the wind knocked out of me from the fall, all I could do was watch as she glanced at me, gave a panicky look around, then got her skis on as fast as she could and took off without a word. Even through the pain, I was furious. There are always inconsiderate skiers on the mountain – especially one as busy as Whistler gets – and I’ve seen people leave the scene of collisions they caused before, but not when the skier they hit was still down and obviously injured.

I hauled myself to my feet, at which point the adrenalin hit with full force. I got my skis back on, but as soon as I started to head downwards I realized that I couldn’t use my left arm at all. I skied down to the lift with my poles in my right hand, watching closely for the other skier – at that point I was hoping that she was on the chair and I could let the lifties know and have a patroller waiting for her at the top. Needless to say there was no sign of her; having mown down another skier in a designated slow skiing zone on a green run, the cowardly little creep had hotfooted it out of the area.

B and I made our way to the Roundhouse, where another fabulous WB ski patroller checked me out and told me he thought I had a separated shoulder. By this time I couldn’t raise my arm without a sharp, burning pain in the shoulder, and I could feel waves starting to radiate out into my back and neck. We downloaded and the WB car took me over to the clinic. The verdict: type 1 shoulder separation and some underlying muscle damage. At least this time I was skiing with a friend; B generously gave up his day on the slopes to make sure I was okay and drive me back to Vancouver.

In spite of the fact that I’m still mad as hell about how this happened, I’m surprisingly sanguine about the injury itself. I’ve got the NSAID and ice routine down pretty well at this point, and two days later the mobility in the arm is starting to return. It’s still sore, but the pain is diffusing out and is less intense than when it first happened. I’m hopeful that it’s going to heal up quickly. The whole ACL journey changed my perspective on injuries; a couple of weeks out with a sore shoulder is frustrating, but I’m very aware of how much worse it could have been.

As for the other skier, the Ski Patrol put out an alert based on the description I provided. While I know it’s unlikely that she was caught, she was wearing a fairly distinctive outfit so there is at least a chance. I’m not vindictive by nature, and if she’d just stopped to check that I was okay before she took off I would most likely have let it go. But since she clearly cared more about having her pass pulled than she did about the damage she’d caused to another human being, I really do hope that they found her and made her face up to the consequences of her actions.

Wipeout weekend

I went up to Whistler on Saturday with two friends, K and R. It was a perfect day, with 10cm of overnight snow under a bluebird sky. And I reached one more of my personal milestones: I took the Shoguns back to Whistler. I fell in love with them all over again the second I made my first turn.

With big mountain skis on my feet and all that fresh snow, it was probably inevitable that I would eventually give in to temptation. A short run behind K and R on the Horstman Glacier was enough to convince me to make the bootpack to the Blackcomb Glacier, an open bowl of ungroomed snow so big you can’t even imagine it until you’ve stood on the wind lip preparing to drop in. For the first turn – maybe even two – I tried to be cautious, then I just let everything fly and rocketed through beautiful soft snow and powder pocket after powder pocket all the way to Glacier Road. By the time I got to the bottom I couldn’t even form a coherent sentence; all I could do was sort of yodel joyously at the sky.

I know I’m not supposed to be skiing off piste this season; I know I shouldn’t really have been there. But it was the best run I’ve had since I started skiing again, and made every single second of this feel worthwhile.

To get back from the glacier you have to take a 5km cat track that is one of the most boring pieces of slope on the mountain. It’s flat, narrow, dull, and interminably long. I was ambling slowly along with my mind wandering when I caught an edge on a bump that I missed as I moved from light into shadow, and fell backwards onto my skis at the exact same angle that I fell when I tore the ACL a year ago. My knee gave a good twinge, then I hit the bank and stopped and just felt sick.

My rational mind knew perfectly well that the twinge was the knee being forced through that last 5 degrees of flexion that are still stiff. It knew that nothing felt bad, and as I skied out afterwards there was none of that weird unattached feeling in the lower leg that had characterized the remainder of the run after the ACL tear. It watched me climb the stairs at Glacier Creek without discomfort, and reminded me that within half an hour of the original tear I could barely walk. Unfortunately I also realized that my irrational mind wasn’t going to be able to listen to my rational mind until I’d heard from a doctor that everything was okay. So I downloaded and went straight to the clinic.

They got me in immediately; by then it was obvious that the knee was fine, and I felt a little shamefaced while answering the doctor’s questions about where it hurt. (“It doesn’t. But it’s my new ACL!”) She xrayed me as per policy, then checked the knee and pronounced it more stable than most original ACLs. I was in and out in an hour, but just missed the last chair back up the mountain at 4pm.

Regardless of the outcome, I think going to the clinic was the right decision. It’s the first time I’ve fallen directly on the bad leg, and while a 5kph tumble on a cat track doesn’t compare to dropping 5 feet out of the air at speed there was that similarity in the way that I fell that really freaked me out. I was way more unnerved by this than the big crash the other week, because this directly involved the bad leg. There’s no way I could have relaxed until I got it checked out, no matter how it felt.

So I headed back to Vancouver, and K and R stayed to ski on Sunday. Then on Sunday afternoon I got a call from K. She had taken a bad fall on Spanky’s Ladder, leaving her with a torn calf muscle and fractured pelvis. I feel terrible for her, especially because I know from my own experience just how tough it is to be on the sidelines. Heal up fast, K.

On the wind lip