When something suddenly happens to you that has the potential to change your life forever, you look back at those moments just before to search for some sort of meaning. Was what you were thinking some sort of clue that went ignored? Was choosing one path over the other just a decision among dozens we make every day, a different choice just delaying the inevitable?
I’m sitting here starting the second week of six with my right leg gripped in a brace from the ankle to hip after blowing out a tendon skiing, getting emergency surgery, and spending nearly a week in hospital.
I was skiing along a ridge following
little red-haired girl as we made our way back to Samnaun, Switzerland, when I stopped to look at the vista spread out to the right. It was like everything you dream a day in the mountains should be. The sky a deep blue, the roiling froth of mountain peaks spread out in all directions. No wind. Uncrowded. Just a Dad and his girl seizing the day we’d planned and looked forward to for months and months. The second day of two weeks and it was already perfect.
We were in Austria, but the Swiss mountains loomed closer, and as I glanced over at to my right down the cliff and the blinding clarity of the snow across the valley, I called out ahead for her to stop and just take a look at it herself. I wanted to catch up with her so we could stand there together, so that I could remind her that this is what it’s all about. It’s not just the feel of your skis on the snow, the sweet spot you hit when years and years of practice lets you accomplish a fluid and effortless turn one after the other. It’s not the speed – though that’s part of the exhilaration you kind of get addicted to – and it’s most definitely not about looking good or trying to impress anyone or comparing this one to that.
It’s about stopping to appreciate what’s all around you. The feeling you get when you really see where you are among the mountains, the vista, the fresh air.
But she was already so far ahead of me that she didn’t hear, and I felt compelled to move on and catch up far sooner than I wanted to.
We met up at the top of a black run down to the left. The ridge traverse led to a blue run – a much easier way down – which we could see in the distance further on and down to the left.
“So which one do you want to take?” she asks me. “The blue or the black?”
“The black, for sure.”
We flew off beside one another down the wide, flat expanse. There was no other skier near us. The first few turns felt really good as they had both days, and I was thinking about which lift we might take first to get us closer to the Swiss border and home, and what we’d be making for dinner, when suddenly it felt like my right thigh burst out of its skin, and I was down. I squirm and cringe just writing this, a feeling I get when I rehearse to myself in German what I’m going to tell the doctor. The pain doesn’t come back, but it’s this feeling of helplessness and incomprehension, because I still don’t know how it happened.
In an instant I knew from the pain that something serious had gone wrong and that this would be my last time on skis for a very long while. I was just beginning to bounce head first down the hill on my back as that thought flashed, but by the time I’d stopped and rotated so I could use the good leg to get up to a standing position, I thought: this isn’t so bad. I don’t feel anything at all anymore.
Two women stopped and asked if I was OK, as they’d seen the fall and heard me screaming. They asked if they should tell the ski patrol at the bottom of the lift.
“I think I’m going to be OK,” I said, the red-haired girl standing beside me. “I’m going to try to make it down by myself.”
No chance of that. My first attempt at moving the leg was instant agony, and somehow I was on my ass again, sliding down a few metres further, my daughter scrambling behind to grab and stop me.
Refusing help was denial of that first thought that this was a serious injury. This can’t be happening. It’s never happened before. It’s only the start of our ski vacation. I’m healthy, I can ski well, I’ve got the rest of my life to enjoy this and I’m going to prove it.
Another pair of skiers stopped to ask the same thing, but this time we were pretty emphatic.
“I’m really injured,” I told them. “I’m going to need to be taken off the hill.”