The Van Gogh Ski Crash

The look on Mat’s face told me everything I didn’t want to know. I could feel the blood running down my neck into my shirt, and when I turned my head to look down at my skis, the blood in the snow proved this wasn’t a minor fall. Still, that look of horror on my ski partner’s face really freaked me out.

In 2005, Mat Walden, Travis Nichols and I headed into the Aneroid Basin for some spring skiing in the Eagle Cap Wilderness near the town of Enterprise in northeast Oregon. We suspected the spring avalanche danger was too high to warrant touring high on the mountain crests, but we also knew we could find some safe slopes and have lots of fun skiing more moderate terrain. Safety first.

On our first full day in the basin, we cut a few tracks on the slopes closest to camp, and we toured to a brilliant viewpoint for photos. During the second lap down the hill, Travis released a little pinwheel of snow that grew and grew, almost like a cartoon, until the snowball reached nearly 4 feet in diameter and crashed into a tree. We were astonished, and this single event created a big debate years later.

At the base of that run, I cruised along a modest slope looking for their tracks to rendezvous for the next climb. I could hear voices but I couldn’t see them, so I was scanning the uphill trees and wasn’t watching the ground directly in front of me. Somehow, my skis passed under a branch or log buried under the snow, and the sudden stop catapulted me forward. Picture Bugs Bunny stepping on the wrong end of a rake, and imagine the force of that face plant.

But the second half of the fall was even worse. When I lurched forward, the loaded branch under the snow released my skis, and when the heels of my ski boots hit my ass, the back tip of my right ski plunged through my earlobe and into my jaw. Coughing and sputtering in the snow, I wondered if I was going into shock. That’s when Mat showed up.

Gettin' fixed. // Photo courtesy of Wallowa Hospital.
Gettin’ fixed. // Photo courtesy of Wallowa Hospital.

Miraculously, my earlobe had ‘softened’ the blow, and the gouge in my neck and jaw wasn’t severe. But my earlobe was hanging by two shredded flaps of skin, and we actually considered just ripping it off the rest of the way so it would be easier to bandage. At camp, we pooled together our first aid supplies, and I winced while Mat used Steri-Strips to tape my ear back into place, followed by a bigger bandage to protect my ear under my winter hat.

Looking back now, the accident was a total fluke, and I’m certain I’m no longer flexible enough to recreate it. Nevertheless, this backcountry accident prompted me to improve my first aid kit, which has come in handy so many times since that trip. However, prior to this incident, I rarely considered a first aid kit because I didn’t want the added weight. Furthermore, I rarely asked ahead of time if anyone on a trip had any first aid training.

We made it back to the car in the dark, and my wound started bleeding again when I changed out of my ski clothes. We pulled into the minor emergency clinic in Enterprise, and the attending nurse clearly thought the whole story was bizarre, as if we were hiding something. Pretty soon the doctor had me laying on my side with a surgical drape covering my face while she used the tiniest stitches possible to reattach the earlobe – nine stitches on one side and twelve on the other.

I believe all three of us learned a few lessons on that trip. All of us improved our wilderness first aid skills and subsequently improved our backcountry first aid kits. All three of us agree you owe it to yourself, your backcountry partners and your loved ones to watch out for one another and do your best to learn basic first aid.

Lastly, in case anyone out there is keeping score, Mat claims he has cut loose a larger snowball on a backcountry ski tour, but no one saw it, therefore Travis remains the snowball champion. //

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