True Tales: Birthday Blowout

Dislocation in the Cooke City backcountry.

Some people love their birthdays—I’m not one of ’em. But my bad birthday mojo hasn’t stopped me from trying to have a great time, and last winter, for my big 3-5, I decided to go skiing in Cooke City with some friends.

The morning was perfect: crisp winter air, bright bluebird skies, and lots of coffee. After a bit of monkeying around with gear, we were off—three sleds with drivers and five of us towed behind. The ride was full of giggles and smiles as we made our way toward Lulu Pass.

In hindsight, I should have tuned into the funky snow conditions when my husband Jake took two award-worthy tumbles on his first run. Instead, I teased him and went on with the day. We sledded to another slope, made a plan to ski, eat lunch, and skin up for another run. Two guys descended first and then it was my turn—“After you, birthday girl!”

The snow was grabby, but deep, and I was having a ball singing in my head and cruising along. I decided to scrub some speed by taking a wide turn and didn’t think much of the sled track I’d be traversing. My uphill ski did as expected, but my right caught a chunk of ice in the track and ripped my lower leg dramatically upslope. I attempted to ballerina out of the twist, but the damage was done.

Turns out I have some lungs on me. I screamed so loudly that not only was Jake by my side within a minute, but shortly afterward, a complete stranger arrived on scene to assist—he’d heard my cries from across the drainage.

With some difficulty in the fresh snow, we finally got my ski off. The guys below skinned up to me and within minutes I was surrounded by all seven of my friends, who assessed the damage. It was immediately obvious that things weren’t right, but with my ski pants on it was hard to tell how not right. I wanted to faint and throw up all at the same time—I couldn’t even look.

In hindsight, I should have tuned into the funky snow conditions when my husband Jake took two award-worthy tumbles on his first run. Instead, I teased him and went on with the day.

Fortunately, I was with a knowledgeable crew and their skill was a comfort. Immediately, one person went to town. He raced so fast he nearly became the second victim of the day, a classic mistake in rescue scenarios. Search & Rescue arrived like the cavalry and had a gurney that put to shame the DIY sled we’d made of packs. I was moved to the meadow and awaited heli pickup.

While we waited, the National Park medics arrived with heat packs and Fentanyl. The four-hour wait was a perfect mix of blurry and sharp. I remember Jan, from Search & Rescue, telling me that in 15 years, she’d never seen a knee like mine. I’m not the type to scare easily, but I was terrified.

Loading into the helicopter was a struggle as my knee was so far dislocated that it didn’t fit in the narrow track and had to be jammed into the cockpit. Despite the fact that the flight was smooth with beautiful views, I anxiously awaited my arrival at Bozeman Deaconess.

Meanwhile, our friends skied with my husband out of the backcountry to our car in Cooke City and he made the solo drive back to Bozeman.

In the first three hours at the hospital, I underwent X-rays and had my knee reset. After spending the night, I learned that as a result of the dislocation, I had torn my ACL, MCL, PCL, and posterior lateral corner, and shredded my meniscus. I was looking at a full year of intense recovery and wouldn’t be able to walk or drive for the next two months.

Recovery has been hands-down the most challenging thing I’ve done—my world was rocked. For weeks, I dreamt about skiing; I’d wake up forgetting I was hurt and would then be forced to relive the entire accident. The pain was nonstop levels of bad to worse. I had to keep my leg straight for 23 hours a day, and the other hour was reserved for my physical therapist’s careful work bending it. It was weeks before I could bend it 90 degrees, and at six weeks post-op, with a completely atrophied leg, I was given the green light to learn to walk again. Who knew something I’d done my whole life would be so tough?

After five months, the daily physical therapy appointments were down to every other day. I have a long road ahead, and a long while before I’ll be cleared ski again, but ski again I will—that I guarantee.

Life can change in an instant—sounds like a cliché until yours does. Even when you’ve done everything right, accidents happen. This is what I’ve grown to understand and appreciate as I work my way through rehab. I’m still processing the incident every day, and some days I worry I’ll be scared to get out there again once I’m healed; other days I can’t wait to be strong enough to do all the activities that I love. It’s a process, and I’m grateful every day for the support of those around me while I struggle to slow down and appreciate all that I still have.