A Nearly Fatal Birthday in the Backcountry (Ep.47)

Blister Podcast, Blister Review

Nine days ago on the 9th of July (which, happens to be my birthday), I went out with six of my good friends on a ski tour on Independence Pass in Colorado. But what started as a fun day in the mountains with friends turned into something much darker. There was a bad accident, and I am very fortunate to be alive. But I am not exactly okay. I suffered a broken neck while tomahawking — unconscious — down a scree and boulder field.

So I am sitting here recording this with a broken neck and a severely unstable cervical spine, and I undergo surgery this Thursday. I am extremely fortunate to be alive, and I am beyond fortunate to be able to walk and talk.

The purpose of this episode is twofold: first, we wanted to get the details of the accident out, especially to the many of you who have contacted me expressing your concern. Thank you so much for that.

Second, anytime there is an incident in the backcountry, it is imperative to go over the details of what happened. And so this podcast is a conversation with 5 of the 7 of us who were out on Independence Pass that day. It is the first time we have all been together to talk as a group, and to debrief. And our major hope is that you will take away some lessons that may keep you and your friends safer in the backcountry.

This episode is a pretty tough one, but if you — or anyone you care about — spends any time in the backcountry or in wilderness areas, we hope you will take the time to listen.

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TOPICS & TIMES:

  • Jonathan’s friends describe the crash (0:00)
  • The group — who was there (5:00)
  • The objective that day (10:00)
  • The line (17:30)
  • The crash (27:57)
  • The response (39:20)
  • The decision to walk out (55:36)
  • The bear incident (1:17:17)
  • What’s next (1:24:12)

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49 comments on “A Nearly Fatal Birthday in the Backcountry (Ep.47)”

  1. 5 years ago I was in an almost fatal ski fall. I fractured my should in 2 places and my lower back had multiple fractures. Stay strong my friend. There’s always something to learn from the accident. Thanks to my friends and medical doctors I was able to receive the emergency care I needed to get off the mountain. My only words of advice for the healing process is to know one day YOU WILL come back a stronger and wiser outdoorsman. Keep up the good work, your advice and reviews on Blister helped me decide on safer and better gear while recovering.

      • Oh, that’s great news, Jonathan. I’ll let the crew know at Pugski. There was a lot of concern, lots of words of display of appreciation what you guys do here, and good vibes sent your way. We never met personally, but maybe some day – the ski world is smaller than it seems :)

        All the best!
        Leo

          • Definitely on snow! The recovery already started. One day less for your next ski trip! Have fun! I truly appreciate that you had the balls to go ahead and reconstruct things, for the benefit of the community.

            In hindsight, we are all 20/20. And, even in hindsight, you guys were super responsible and extremely well prepared. Time to start PT as soon as cleared, and tuning all these skis. And working on the wonderful material you guys provide here. Some of the best on the web.

  2. Thanks for sharing this–I know it’s not easy. I’ve been on both sides, the most experienced medical provider in an emergency situation, and the victim in need of help, so I can identify with many of the feelings. There is so much to talk about–you could do 5 podcasts–and I don’t want to start the whole “back seat quarter back” thing. I really think your friends did an amazing job with some difficult and subtle interactions and decisions. I’ll just say two things: one of the thing I really identified with was when the group, climbing up the boot pack, kind of split into two groups. Some continued up, some went to the side. That indicates that there were probably some slightly different feelings in the group, and that maybe not everybody was communicating their ongoing assessments, and that’s when things started to get complicated. And then, when you came down for the second time, waited, wondered what was going on, and moved to the side (and then fell), that’s often how these things seem to happen, at odd moments, when things are not going exactly as planned but still seem fine, when the “regular” routine is disrupted…it is so hard to identify, because any normal day in the back country is often composed of many of these moments. Anyway, it’s amazing and great and incredible that you came away with only the injuries you had, and hopefully we can all learn something. Thanks again.

    • This is a phenomenal post, Bruno, and on several levels. First, *every* single time there is an accident, it is possible to start decrying the obvious mistakes that were made. Your tone here is a study in how to charitably offer observations and assessments of what went wrong. As an editor – but more importantly, as one of the people impacted by this event – I thank you and salute you. *This* is how it’s done.

      And you’re right — there is so much to talk about, and we will try to keep rolling out information that might be useful to others. But right now, as my friends and I continue to discuss the event (most of the group was in my hospital room after the surgery yesterday), the primary thing we continue to focus on was our communication – or lapses in communication – preceding the event. So when you write this…

      “That indicates that there were probably some slightly different feelings in the group, and that maybe not everybody was communicating their ongoing assessments, and that’s when things started to get complicated.”

      …we all think you are 100% spot on, and our group is already working on putting new communication protocols in place for when we are out in the mountains, and this is something that we intend to share on Blister.

      Thanks again, Bruno.

  3. Sounds disturbing. I hope your surgery will go well and you will fully recover. Hope to see you back on skis when season starts. All the best from “over the Pond”.

  4. So happy to hear that you are recovering. Good luck with your surgery today. I’ll be thinking of you.

    To the friends that helped him, thanks everyone for helping out Jon. We’re old friends from high school. It’s been fun to watch Jon build up Blister (with all of your assistance). Thanks for helping to make sure the journey continues.

    Thanks again,

    Jason

  5. Wishing you all the best with your recovery. I really appreciate you sharing with us and I hope the conversation continues.

  6. I was involved in a whitewater incident years ago which unfortunately involved a fatality. After listening to the podcast I just want to join my voice to the refrain that everyone should have some level of first aid/CPR training, if not for your partners sake then for your own mental well being. In my case we had raft guides, outdoor education leaders and a medical student all with relatively recent qualifications. While our outcome was much worse then Jonathan’s we were all able to sit down together afterwards and know absolutely that there was nothing more that anyone could of done for our friend. Everyone throws around the phrase “you did everything you could” after a tragedy but to know that it is true makes the difficult process of recovering a little easier.

  7. I listened to your story in its entirety today. We have met in person Jonathan through mutual friends at the gym and the ski hill. I’ve had not one but two close friends break their necks doing what they love most–skiing. Don’t hang up your skis please. Be patient and be good to yourself. I am wishing you a quick, but more importantly, a thorough recovery.
    K Fischer

  8. A really valuable podcast. Hope the operation goes well. Perhaps you can catch up on some of those long promised Raven review while your convalescing!

  9. Very lucky escape, congratulations on not being paralyzed Jonathan! I mean it, been there myself in a skydiving accident. You need to chill out and recover – it’s going to take a while.

  10. I am glad to hear that that your surgery went well and I hope you have a smooth road to recovery. The best advice I can give is listen to your PT and don’t try to push yourself to quickly.

    This brings up something that I have been pondering over the last year as I have been recovering from a much less serious injury than yours. Are incidents like this inevitable and part of the outdoor experience? Decision making plays a huge role however a lot of times we are working in a grey area. Wither it be avy forecasts, trying to decide if a placement is adequate while trad climbing, or deciding how hard to go while skiing or riding, there is rarely a 100% safe path to take. If we do something that has a one in a thousand chance of resulting in an injury, the chance of something happening any one time is not high. However when you look at it cumulatively over ten years for an avid outdoor enthusiast, you almost have to expect it.

    • You’re probably right. Then again, we accept many, many risks every day that we don’t even think of — driving, texting while driving, the amount of time spent around cell phones and computers, the amount of time spent staring at cell phones and tvs and computers, spending large amounts of time every week doing work that isn’t fulfilling … while all of these risks seem mundane because we accept them — or rather, don’t even consider them — every single day … I find the risks that we accept outdoors to seem quite acceptable by comparison.

      I believe that risk is inevitable, simply a part of life. And some of us are fortunate enough to be in a position to determine (1) which risks we will live with, and (2) how much we are willing to dial up (or dial down) these particular risks.

      And while I tend to think of life in terms of sorting out what’s worth valuing and what isn’t, you could argue that life is often about deciding which risks (and what level of risk) are we willing to accept, and which we are not.

  11. Jonathan,
    Thanks for the insightful and thought provoking podcast. There were some serious and important topics covered. I was bummed to hear about your accident and I hope your surgery went well. Also sending vibes for a speedy and complete recovery.
    Get well,
    Paul

  12. On my 40th birthday (now 20 years ago) I broke my neck surfing in Mexico crushing my C-5 and C-6 vertebrae. Like many stories it wasn’t a particularly dangerous outing (head high surf at best) but a series of errors, misjudgements and bravado led to being a human pile driver into a very shallow sand bar head first. I was also fortunate to not have injured my spinal cord and after 4 months in a halo came out relatively ok.

    Two things I reflect on to this day. 1) Everyone will tell you how “lucky” you were. You were not lucky if you were you would not have been injured. You were fortunate it wasn’t worse but you made mistakes that I’m sure you will not make again.
    2) You will have some apprehension about engaging in the same activity again. Ask your doctor,. It’s rare they have ever treated anyone twice with this injury so you have that going for you. Also back to 1) you will not make that mistake again.

    So recover, get strong and get back at it but dial it back just a bit. We all love what you do and want yo to be doing it for a long time.
    Mark

  13. Finally had a chance to sit and listen to the whole podcast… what a tale, group debriefing and life lesson for the masses (backcountry or not). Interesting focus on your choice to remove your helmet on the way up… scary “what if’s”. Glad you had a great team with you… any ER staff will tell you, decisions are never made independently. High stakes hike out indeed. Thanks for sharing. Wishing you a speedy recovery! The C6 C7 intervertebral disc is overrated anyway.

  14. Glad you came out relatively OK and best of wishes going forward. And thanks for the detailed de-brief – it’d be great if more accidents of every sort had this sort of documentation. Any pics from the scene?

    I’ve been witness to a couple of similar summer snow falls in the past. This is one listed here: http://www.estesparknews.com/rmnp_news/article_3e7dc20a-1ea4-11e5-bd88-8f9cdaddb8cc.html
    I think that one of the traps is that many people are highly advanced skiers but not as practiced or equipped specifically for the realities of travel up/on steep, firm summer snow. Lots of us are experienced in descending steep terrain on our skis/board but climbing up is a different game. Once that snow consolidates into true neve its going to be very firm/ice underneath and behave differently than winter and typical spring snow. And add in the factor that almost any line skiable will be above rocks/talus. IMO Whippets or ice axes mandatory with crampons advised.

    That’d be the lesson I’d suggest from your incident. Skiers need to be heads up that the summer ski game is a different creature with different exposures than winter/spring travel. Slide for life instead of avalanches and self arrest equipment instead of transcievers/probes/shovels as the mandatory equipment.

    Thanks again for the great podcast.

    • All good comments, Sean. And while I’ve spent a lot of time in the spring / summer on terrain that was steeper than 40 degrees, as I underscore in our follow-up podcast, the problem was letting my antenna down on a short section I hadn’t traveled on that day.

      But certainly one thing is true: going forward, I definitely intend to use a whippet on spring / summer tours. No reason not to.

  15. Hi JE….yeah puke is the word….listened to 1/2 late last week then the rest just now….so happy that you have a good if not great prognosis….a fusion + PT with a super duper chance of being 100% is a blessing. Many prayers coming your way and look forward to your next updates. Guy and Heidi Anderson Seattle WA

  16. Wishing you only the best in your recovery, Jonathan. As one who has not had as serious an injuring as that, but has slowly been *mostly* triumphant over a chronic spinal pain issue over the past 5 years, I promise the rush of returning to fast, fluid skiing beat the rush of any crazy line I did in my early 20’s.

    I have not listened to the second podcast yet but plan to, please forgive me if this has already been discussed. I am not an expert backcountry skier, just an observation- Has there been any discussion of traction? Did anyone in the group have any? I always get funny looks in tuckerman Ravine in the white mountains in NH when I show up with micro spikes and an ice axe for the boot pack but I don’t care, it helps me feel safer and, I think, ascend faster. More common to see this gear in some of the less – found, even steeper lines of the Whites.

    Thanks again for putting this podcast together, I’ve never heard anything quite like it. Seems like a great group of people.

    See ya on the slopes some day soon!

  17. Former paramedic here. I commend you all for performing exceedingly well in responding to the accident. Really good job. Hindsight can torment. Use it to be better prepared for the next time you are needed. Great podcast. Get well soon Jonathan!

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