Thanks so much to Jackie for sharing her story. These stories need to be told -
As told by Jackie -
On Friday, January 4th 2019, after my 6th day of my new Physical Therapy clinical rotation, I headed up to Mill Creek canyon for a girl’s night/New Year’s eve resolution type gathering. A group of giggly gals and pups hiked up the trail a ways, sat in a circle, lit candles, drank hot toddies and told of our goals and fears. I shared how I was tired of my fear and anxiety of the future, I’ve never been so nervous for the upcoming, and it was debilitating to being present and staying focused. I wanted to let go of the fear and know that just like all years past, I always figure it out.
I went home to Vlad and we began to pack for skiing the next day and discuss options. The danger had gone down that day, and with a handful of ideas, we went to sleep to see what the next day’s forecast would hold. Tired from being a student in a new setting and juggling all the things I passed out, thinking about the vulnerable sharing’s of all the ladies and how I need to let go of fear.
In the am, we pulled up the forecast to find another all green day, we read the fine print, looked at the previous days observations and felt good about exploring a new place. Broads fork was on the list, I hadn’t been and it looked beautiful. I pulled my maps, even google earthed the zone and expressed my concerns of the complex terrain, the cliff bands, the rock slabs and the terrain traps. We debated other options, like Mineral Fork and decided to go tour up the basin of Broads Fork. Vlad had been in the summer and thought the area would be okay to navigate a ways up.
We left early, sometime before 8 am and pulled up to the trail head behind our friend, Julia and her two ski partners. We discussed each other’s plans, them to Bonkers, us up canyon, and we took off ahead of them. It felt good to be out. I was cruising along, enjoying the sweat therapy after a lot of new and change, being done my last semester of classes and beginning my final semester of clinicals. I stopped at the Beaver pond and took in the surroundings. Bonkers and the diving board had tracks. The weather was colder than the forecast and I threw a layer on waiting for Vlad.
After he caught up and took a rest, we delayered back to base layers and headed up the drainage past Bonkers, through some wondering shrubs along the creek bed to another opening where we met the tracks from Diving Board, there was a light wind moving some snow, but the tracks were not filled in at all. We carried along, now I was breaking a trail up a drainage, then traversed low til the next slope stopped me in my tracks. I waited for Vlad, the wind was more noticeable now, I threw on a puffy vest and wind jacket on top of my sun shirt. I debated ways to go in my head and did not like the look of the cliff bands above us with light spin drift swirling over the short icicle bands.
Vlad joined me and also threw on a layer, and went to break trail. He told me his route in mind and I shot it down, saying to avoid the cliffs and traverse more. The slope in front of us picked up pitch, but still we believe less than 30 degrees and it looked to be wind scoured. Vlad headed up and I waited and watched, some hesitation in the slope ahead. I dug my hand down into the snow to see what we were dealing with, no slab, very sugary. Vlad came to a stop about 175 ft above me which I figured was his signal to follow, I began after him, one switch back then another feeling the wind pick up as we were leaving the shelter of the drainage, and I then looked up at Vlad, as he took one more step and the slope above him shattered like a plane of glass from the cliff bands somewhere near to 100ft above him.
A wave of snow swooped him up and his jaw dropped as he began to slide on top of the snow. I was still about 50ft downhill and 200 ft to the skinners right of Vlad. Damnit! This is bad. Why did I not listen to my gut and process this more. I tried to step out further right, thinking I may be able to avoid it, as I watched Vlad go out of sight, and was immediately slammed by a huge chunk of hard slab. I was thrown around in what a shower in a washing machine would probably feel like and came to a stop shortly after, my body felt like it was being pelted by tennis ball to watermelon size chunks of snow until something slid over the top of me and everything stopped moving... I’m in an air pocket, there is light, I am not that deep from the surface. My left arm is pinned far beneath me. I begin to fight with my right arm and forehead, wiggling my trunk and violently thrashing my feet. I feel a foot go through. I am so close to the surface. I fight and fight and like they say, it froze over and I knew my one-armed punches were useless. I felt completely helpless, trapped just a few feet from the surface.
Vlad had to be buried. He just took a long ride. This is it, we blew it, in my 11 years of backcountry skiing this is the decision that ends it, so incredibly lame, they were right, this shit is dangerous. I screamed a scream that only myself and that mound of snow will ever know and I hope that sound never leaves my body again. (this is the hardest part to write about) Then I realized I’m wasting my precious breaths and tried to calm my system. I thought about how I wasn’t ready to die, I’m supposed to graduate this year and have so many big exciting events. In years past, the mountains were my life, but now I had traded that in to have more stability, how ironic, I haven’t even used my degree to treat my own patients. What about Vlad, what about my dog, Cole; our story too young to die. But here I am, buried waiting for someone to find my frozen body...tonight? tomorrow? I couldn’t bear the thought. I focused on my breathing. Shortly it became shallow and fast. My eyelids got heavy, I fought them back open and they slammed shut and everything went dark.
A lot is fuzzy for me after this until connecting with the other party down lower, I was disoriented and irritable, signs of brain injury and/or hypothermia. I faintly remember hearing Vlad’s calm but concerned voice saying “Jackie, Jackie are you okay” as if I’d overslept my alarm but he had coffee and breakfast ready for me. I couldn’t speak, I remember moaning, and then screaming help. I faintly remembering wrestling my left arm out, pulling with all my and Vlad’s might. Then I don’t remember anything, until post holing, I remember seeing the mountains around me in a dreamlike state, admiring how peaceful it was and wondering where I was, I thought it was Switzerland or heaven. Vlad was downhill from me, his arms around my waist and chest and his backpack with my skis on it; they were hitting me in the head each step. Blood was slowly dripping from our clothes into the snow, I couldn’t tell where it was coming from. He put a helmet on my head. I demanded to ski, I hate post holing. He helped me click into my bindings. I made turns down the gully I had broken trail up, the tracks beginning to be filled in with wind. I felt so dizzy and nauseas making switchback turns slowly down and pole- less. I was shivering uncontrollably, yet never remember feeling cold or pain. We were getting close to the drainage our friends were skiing and began yelling help.
In the creek bed willow thickets, they arrived, 3 people to help us, thank goodness. I stood shivering and speechless. Julie threw a third puffy jacket on me. The helmet felt tight on my head, I hated it. Vlad decided to send Julia and I out. I agreed and knew I needed to keep moving. We skied some brush, Julia gave me one of her poles, then side stepped back up to the beaver pond where we began to pass more parties of people. I must have looked like a zombie. I felt frozen in my body, unable to lift my arms far from my sides, too focused to talk or interact. We skied further down until we hit a short, steep bobsled like shot and I froze at the top of it. We decided to walk. Julia strapped both of our skis to her pack, my skis looked weird and I questioned if they were broken, but was too disoriented to care.
It felt good to walk, it was making me warmer and the constant pace was less nauseating. Julia told me jokes about dinosaurs and cats that helped, but I was too out of it to laugh or do much in response. We hit the trail where it was super hard packed. Where was Vlad? My feet were killing me, the helmet a bother. We ditched the helmet at some point. I finally found a mound of snow to sit on to undo my boots without sitting all the way down, that seemed impossible. Julia gave me a swig of her purple Gatorade. I hadn’t had anything to eat since breakfast and I hadn’t had much water. I stood up and felt immediately nauseous and was spinning, I threw up, I forgot how much I dislike purple Gatorade. I marched on, focusing on one step at a time. I felt like a drunk person trying to hide just how drunk they really are. Where was Vlad? Tears formed, but I held them back, keep walking. I threw up a few more times, wiping the spit from my mouth, standing up and carrying on. I’ve done my fair amount of slogs in my lifetime, but nothing felt longer than this. The other two guys on skis caught up to us and reported that Vlad was with a snowshoeing party that was packing a trail for him not too far back. They skied past to get to the cars.
We hit the National Forest boundary sign, it wasn’t much more. I’ve never left the mountains this defeated and ashamed, I usually leave refreshed, inspired, tired. The sounds of cars began. Julia answered a phone, it was Vlad, she gave the phone to me and he asked how I was doing, I replied “I’m okay but not normal”, recognizing to some degree my brain was off. He was just a few minutes behind us. We got to his car and sat me down, I’ve spent 2 and 3 week time periods in the mountains, but this topped everything in the relief of returning to a car. We organized some of the gear and Vlad showed up. He thanked them, and came to me in the passenger seat, we hugged and let out deep, body shaking cries.
Sitting still felt good, the car started up and the heat felt amazing. It was 4pm. I realized just how soaked my bottom layers were. Vlad began to drive. I began to attempt my convincing to go home rather than the hospital. I wanted a hot shower more than anything, but I didn’t dare say that. Vlad wasn’t falling for it. He took an exit that didn’t go home. Oh no, I hate the hospital, but I had no fighting power, just trying not to throw up in the moving car.
We pulled up to the ER doors, I returned my focus to my wet layers and began removing jackets as we approached the desk. They asked how they can help us, I replied “I have a headache and don’t feel really well.” The lady looked at us confused, I’m sure we looked haggard, and Vlad chimed in “she was buried in an avalanche” in his cute Romanian accent; I just assumed she knew that detail. She wasn’t sure what to think, and asked for my insurance card. She began punching the keyboard and asking the surrounding people if they should admit me. They looked at us and shook their heads yes confidently. A weird rolling wheelchair like thing scooped me up and delivered me to the trauma bay. They told me to get in the bed, I said “I am freezing, I need to take my wet clothes off.” I began taking layers off, passing them off to each new doc, nurse, whatever that entered the room, it was suddenly full of people. I watched a trauma come in last summer on my clinical at the U hospital. Now I am the center of attention, damnit. A thoughtful one held up a gown and I ditched my wet sports bra behind it and threw on the gown and into the bed I go. I told them, “I think I broke my ribs, my head hurts but otherwise I think I’m fine, just very cold”, now feeling how cold I actually was.
A lot happened fast, they checked my body for gross injuries, all clear. They put a C collar on my neck. Then inserted an IV into my arm and began to pump warm fluids. I think I had some anti- nausea meds. A warm air-filled plastic bag was thrown over me. I was so cold and they kept removing the inflatable warmth to perform tests. They Xrayed me then wheeled me to the CT scan and in I went to a small chamber, I told the nurse I was worried I’d throw up in here. He said just stay calm it’s okay.
We went back to the bay, and I was silent. The doc asked me if I was okay, I began to cry and said “I’m just scared”, the reality slowly setting in, Vlad ran his fingers through my hair. We realized our dog was still home alone and Vlad began sending messages to friends to help. When the results of the scans came in clear, we called my parents and his parents. I don’t really remember but they were relieved we were okay and said to call later once things settled a bit. Vlad called into the UAC to report our accident in hopes of preventing someone else from something similar.
The doc told me that they wanted to admit me to be sure I got warm and had no additional complications arise. I had a hypoxic brain injury, a bruised chest wall with likely cracked rib cartilage, and my eye was sure to form a bruiser from my sunglasses. They wheeled me up to a room, which meant taking the warm bear hugger air blanket off. I was still so cold and beginning to feel really hungry. I asked the nurses if I could keep the air blanket and ditch the C collar, they were doing the best they could and gathered a pile of heated blankets. That wasn’t enough. Eventually the air blanket was plugged in and tucked around me, I finally started to warm. Dinner was served shortly after, I began to attempt to drink from a carton of milk with a c collar on, it was ridiculous.
The food was warming me, but I needed more sustenance than salad and jello with my chicken. I asked for more food. They gave us a left-over lunch sandwich and I had a few bites until I was finally full. Kelly and Chris arrived, my childhood best friend and her husband, my mom in PA notified them and they came right over with chocolates and food to share with Vlad. We all sat in disbelief and the quiet gratitude that we walked away with minimal injuries. We managed to gather more first aid gear, and Kelly and Chris the vets looked at Vlad’s knee and helped rebandage it. I was beginning to overheat. We both began to feel the exhaustion. I asked the nurse if I could go home to sleep better. It was about 8pm at this point. Vlad climbed into the bed with me, we began falling asleep. Kelly and Chris gave hugs and let us rest. We accidently hit the call light multiple times as we tried to get comfortable in a tiny bed as were going in and out of sleep. The ER doc came up and warned me of risks of going home and to return if symptoms increased, they gave me some papers on concussions and a chest wall injury and let us go at about 10pm. We got home and tucked me into bed. Vlad waited for our roommate to return to take himself to the U hospital as we had different insurances to get his knee looked at. I snuggled Cole the dog. My roommate woke me at some point to check my symptoms. And later Vlad returned.
When we woke late the next morning, I could barely move. My arms couldn’t lift up, I couldn’t lift my head up, my ribs hurt like hell when I moved...how did my 90 year old grandma survive broken ribs from a car crash? I did what I’ve taught patients to do. Log rolled to my other side, braced my ribs and pushed up, giggling at what a scene this was. We made waffles, and rested. Our emotions fluctuated from celebrating life to wanting to hide in a dark room until the planet warmed enough that avalanches no longer occurred and we would never have to speak about it again.
I couldn’t look at electronics (my injury resulting in post concussive symptoms with short term memory and long term focus problems). Vlad read off all the other accidents that came in from that day, 8 total with several other people caught and carried. What happened? Something was weird about all this. A lot of other zones we had considered checking out.
I remained on the couch, laughing at what a poor state I was in. We made one small lap of the neighborhood and got some groceries. Friends brought dinner and gave us hugs. We talked of all the times we’ve probably just gotten away with a worse decision and how this time we did not. We were so thankful for being able to self-rescue.
Over the weeks, I’ve processed the accident over and over. Talking to different friends and seeing it at a different perspective. There are parts that hindsight makes so obvious, small decisions adding up to a big mistake...moving too fast, not communicating clearly, not fully realizing we were mostly sheltered from winds up higher that were moving snow significantly, letting the green bullseye of a low danger day in the back of our minds have power. And there are other parts that still don’t fully make sense, or that feel like we were in the wrong place at the wrong time and probably could have done it 10 more times and gotten away with it. Snow science, risk, terrain management and decision making are funny things.
I am incredibly grateful that we were able to self-rescue as we had no cell service. That Vlad was able to stay composed and rescue a hypoxic mild TBI and hypothermic patient. That our friends were nearby and able to assist the evacuation. That somehow despite poles, helmets, and skis being broken that we were not.
A few days later, we met up with the avalanche forecaster who wrote that day’s forecast. He felt like he blew the forecast, we felt like we blew our decision making. He called Vlad a hero. We bonded over our shared experiences working with Outward Bound and Vlad connected with his background on search and rescue teams. We shared stories, he connected us with resources and the option to contact other avalanche survivors to process our trauma. Meeting him helped us let go of shame sooner and helped us feel supported by the community. And he told us when we were ready, to go ski with him, that to hang up our skis is like already being dead.
We have skied since the accident, but its different. For the most part, the accident still feels unreal, until I try to go ski and a fear sets in. I channel it to be intentional in my decision making, who am I going with? Where are we going and how does that correlate to the current conditions? Where are we going to reassess conditions? Do we have equipment to stay warm/ stabilize if someone is injured? What’s our emergency plan? Where are the keys? Are we finding what the avalanche forecast says completely accurate or are we finding conditions in our location different? All basic questions answered most days but occasionally not getting the attention they deserve in the hussle and bussle of balancing a busy life and squeezing in skiing.
My dad always told me that if I am going to take risks then I better know the consequences. Though this day, we certainly did not go out to take risks nor do we still feel like we made a super risky decision, but ...mountain travel is inherently dangerous and we didn’t foresee all the pieces of the puzzle that day. We were prepared in our trainings to handle the rescue, this is the day we trained for...though we certainly could have had more first aid supplies and warm clothes. We lose sight of the risks of mountain travel after days and days of repeated successes, Vlad and I have had many amazing accomplishments in the mountains in the last year. Vlad and I also know the human brain forgets, how do we remember this in 5, 10 years down the road and how do we make each outing intentional even if it is just a quick dawn patrol before work? We also know the human brain makes mistakes. We double triple check our climbing knots to prevent this human error. That error that puts milk in the cabinet, drives past an exit, loses the keys. Complacency, familiarity, consistency.
I previously read avalanche accidents in a way to determine that I would not make the same mistakes to justify my own need to ski, now I want to read them as how I could have fallen into the same traps and how to avoid them. In hindsight, our accident makes sense. There are plenty of factors pointing to a likelihood of snow failing where it did. But in the moment, we fell short of identifying this, perhaps just because we can’t always outsmart mother nature. But how can we be better at avoiding human decision making errors? We’ve since decided to remind ourselves of the rules of making decisions in the mountains: don’t make complex decisions with high heart rate or low blood sugar and to be honest with our emotional state for the day. My revised New Years goal is not to push away fear, but to use it productively; to process it with myself and others and to accept where its coming from and what to do about it.