The day of the accident was sunny and not too cold, upper twenties, a nice day for Nordic striding. It had been warmer the day before, and where the afternoon sun had swept its gaze over the snow a delicate surface crust had formed, like fine cement, while the shadier areas remained powdery. As I glided into the trees at the beginning of my favorite local trail — a hilly loop of approximately fifteen kilometers winding through meadows, mixed hardwoods, and stands of hemlock — I ran into another skier on her way out. “Pretty sketchy out there,” she remarked. No novice, this woman was a regular on the trail, and an accomplished racer on the master’s circuit. She didn’t seem to have skied in very far, and something in her voice – a slight insistence, as if she intended more than small talk—gave me a moment’s pause. But only a moment. Was it really that bad?
A few kilometers in there is a long downhill featuring two treacherous hairpin turns. The track was fast and pretty badly rutted out from the preceding weekend. In places the surface was clattery and I was forced to step around the turns instead of making my preferred sliding telemarks, but conditions were no worse than they had been on countless other days. I continued along the trail, reveling in sensation of flying through the Great Northern Forest with the cold wind on my face. I live for skiing of every stripe; it’s the reason I embrace winter and never want it to end. Plus, I told myself, I could always bail out.
What I failed to consider was that you can only bail out if you foresee what’s coming.
It was on a series of rolling downhill curves that catastrophe struck. I was carrying some speed, and I might have caught an edge in the crust. Before I could react, I found myself twisted sideways and flying through the air. Of the impact itself I remember very little. I do recall thinking, oh boy, this is going to be a bad one. I might have felt a pop in my left knee, I’m not sure. I do have a clear memory of lying on the ground, staring in horror at my left arm, which was bent ninety degrees in the wrong direction. The pain was intense. I’m sure I cursed quite a bit. Some of the cursing might have taken the form of screams.
I pulled the mangled arm back into something resembling its normal angle, but the flesh under the stretch-nylon sleeve of my ski shirt was badly disfigured. Gritting my teeth through a red haze of pain, I succeeded in releasing my bindings and pushing them to the side of the trail so that they wouldn’t trip up another skier coming down the hill. Holding the injured arm across my waist with my good arm, I managed to stand up without passing out.
There was a paved road about three hundred yards downhill through the hardwoods. This was a stroke of good luck; if it had happened elsewhere on the trail I truly might not have made it out. I had to posthole through deep snow, but it was downhill, and in a few minutes I was on the pavement trying to flag down cars. I couldn’t wave, because I was afraid of what would happen if I let go of the mangled arm, so from the drivers’ perspective I must have been an alarming vision: a staggering, ashen-faced skier, wild-eyed and unshaven, looking at them with desperate eyes and shouting something they couldn’t hear as they drove by with their windows rolled up against the winter. No wonder they didn’t stop.
The second and third car accelerated by, and I began to walk. Town was four or five miles distant. It was a rural road, and I had time for more cursing and moaning. It had begun to sink in that my ski season was over, although I still maintained wishful illusions about skiing one-handed with a plaster cast. At last a car stopped, a young construction worker who was kind enough to perceive that I needed help, and apparently confident enough in his own ability to defend himself not to fear my extreme condition. He drove me to the town medical center. An RN gave me four ibuprofen, which of course had no perceptible effect on the pain, and drove me down to the emergency room at a hospital about twenty minutes away.
Another RN gave me several shots of morphine, which also didn’t do much to erase the pain, but warped my sense of reality enough to provide a distraction. I sat by myself in a small room, blearily contemplating my future. After about an hour the orthopedist on duty came in, a big, gruff physician who seemed amused, or perhaps merely impressed, with the job I’d done on my arm. The calm nurse cut away my favorite ski shirt, and an x-ray revealed that the elbow was dislocated. The terminology surprised me, because given the extreme pain and deformity in my arm I expected something more dramatic than dislocation – a multiple fracture at a minimum, if not compound. In retrospect I understand that severe elbow dislocation is actually more serious than a break, though to the uninitiated it may sound more benign. Depending on the degree of dislocation, one can look forward to many months of physical therapy at a minimum and possibly, as in my case, the need for surgery.
I was heavily drugged but still awake when the doctor, assisted by a nurse, managed to “reduce” the dislocation by pulling hard on my arm and letting the elbow settle back into place. The pain began to recede immediately. In the morphine fog my eyes welled up with gratitude as I thanked the doctor and nurse profusely for putting an end to my torture.
It was only after they’d splinted up the arm that the doc began to examine me for other injuries. The most painful of these, after the arm, was a torn adductor muscle below the right groin, which had already begun to swell and which would turn an unearthly shade of blue-black over the next few days and remain that way for weeks. But this was also the least serious injury. The most serious was one I hadn’t even noticed: the ligaments in my left knee were blown out. After a cursory examination the doc gave me the verdict: I’d torn both the ACL (Anterior Cruciate Ligament) and the MCL (Medial Collateral Ligament). My ski season was definitively over. There would be no one-handed striding through the trees, no Telemark turns in the spring corn, no drinking of maple sap from the bucket after a satisfying fifteen kilometer loop.
* * *
The next several weeks were a particular hell, in large part because of the pain and discomfort involved in simply getting up and sitting down. Because of the arm injury I couldn’t use crutches; I settled for hopping around on one foot with a cane for balance. The hardest thing was the sudden end to my ski season. Going cold turkey on that psychological addiction, especially with beautiful snow still falling, was like having my mental oxygen supply cut off.
My friends would call to check in. This was a nice gesture, but I could hear the exhilaration in their voices left over from daily forays out on the snow that they were usually too polite to mention. Oh yes, the epic season continued. The contrast between their energy and my own wreckage, sitting indoors on my arse with little companionship beyond my own misery and pain, was too much to bear. There was something else, too. When I saw people skiing now, or playing basketball or ice-skating or even walking normally, it was as if they were performing a miraculous athletic feat bordering on the impossible. I couldn’t believe that I’d ever been able to move like that.
Ten days out from the accident the orthopedist removed the plaster arm splint and replaced it with a hinged brace fashioned of heavy black steel, foam rubber, and Velcro. Out in the air for a few minutes my left arm felt strange, puffy and atrophied, as if at any moment the elbow could pop out of joint again. I contemplated the possibility that I might not regain the full range of motion. My knee was, if anything, in worse shape. There was a feeling of instability as if my lower leg were hanging by a thread. The orthopedist informed me that the MCL had to heal before he could go in to surgically repair the ACL; this could take another four to six weeks. Meanwhile I had to keep using the cane, and both limbs on my left side needed to remain encased in hinged steel. When I hobbled past people at the store or at the doctor’s office they winced sympathetically. Most assumed I’d been involved in some kind of motorcycle accident.
The recovery process was going be long and grueling; there was no way around it. Three weeks out from the accident my knee would quickly fill with fluid if I stood upright, so I spent most of the day lying on the floor, elevating and icing. There is a slow-motion horror in watching yourself decline from peak physical condition, a kind of helpless desperation that surely echoes, in a speeded up way, the process of growing old. It was mid-March. There was still plenty of snow on the ground. We cancelled our spring break trip to Utah and went down to Florida instead, where I could at least make some minimal movements in the pool. I never thought I’d be glad to be in Florida during ski season.
Six weeks out from the accident I had my double surgery. I was eager to get on with it, but also filled with low-grade dread; orthopedic surgery goes well for most people, but you never know. One last look at the blue sky before I hobbled in through the automatic hospital doors. A businesslike nurse came in to shave my leg and arm, and the orthopedist stopped by for a bit of jolly repartee as he signed my left knee and elbow with a sharpie to remind himself not to dissect the wrong limbs. I was connected to the IV, the anesthesiologist gave me something to relax, and a team of nurses wheeled me to the OR. The anesthesiologist leaned over and murmured something barely audible from behind his blue mask; then, nothing.
In the next moment I woke up feeling terribly seasick. The knee was in more pain than I’d expected; it felt severed and strange, like a war wound. I was groggy and needed to throw up. From one moment to the next I couldn’t remember anything anybody told me. All I wanted was to go home.
* * *
The next three days were a blur of painkillers and Netflix. I couldn’t get comfortable; my back and shoulders ached from weeks of lying on the floor. And there was the pain of the wounds themselves, which were held together by brutal-looking metal staples.
A week out from surgery I got permission to take a spin on the exercise bike using the good leg only. It was awkward and slightly scary, with the splinted leg resting on the handlebars while I pedaled with the other, but at least it was movement. Two weeks out the ortho removed the staples from the sutures on my elbow and knee and gave me a smaller, less intrusive hinged knee brace. I could finally take a shower. Three weeks out the physical therapist gave me an A+ for my progress so far: minimal swelling, good extension, normal flexion. One morning I woke up to see that the last patch of snow had melted away. In my derangement, this made me feel better.
Five weeks out from surgery I went crazy and actually tried a sun salute. I could do most of it, even a one-handed downward dog, but I felt like I was pushing it so I didn’t try again. Eight weeks out I was taking stairs fine on the way up, using railings on the way down. I was stationary biking with two legs now, swinging weights to work on the arm at the same time, and working on an assortment of PT exercises. Eleven weeks out I procured a slippery mat called a “slideboard,” upon which you do side-to-side skating motions to work on the muscles surrounding and supporting the knee.
Progress was not uniform, and there were a few setbacks. But I was road biking regularly in July, and in early August I went to Colorado for a hiking trip. My therapist advised me to hike with ski poles for stability; I liked it so much that it may become a regular part of my summer routine. On September third, after twenty-two weeks of physical therapy, I was cleared to roller ski again. The left leg was still five to fifteen millimeters smaller in girth than the right leg, which is normal, but it meant that I had to keep strengthening it on my own. This I accomplished with a regime including long hilly bike rides, progressively longer bouts of roller skiing alternating fast and endurance intervals, continued work on both the elbow and knee with a contraption called a “sports cord,” and, once the snow finally started to fall again, more than 100 days on skis of various shapes and sizes.
Less than a year had passed, and I was back in motion in ways that had seemed nearly impossible when I’d witnessed people doing them after the accident. The body’s capacity for healing is truly miraculous, and the mind heals too.
* * *
Toward the end of the ski season, on a sunny mid-March day just over a year from the accident, I was on klister skis, doing laps on a slanted hayfield. The snow conditions were exhilarating, corn snow over a firm consistent base allowing for the most precise and delicate telemark turns. Nearing the top of the field I looked up to see two red-tailed hawks circling on the thermals. There didn’t seem to be any particular purpose to their flight; they weren’t hunting or cruising for food, and it seemed to me they were soaring simply for the grace of it. They were noble creatures, with broad white underbellies and dark well-feathered backs, ruddy brown against the pure blue sky as they banked in the wind. I imagined how it would feel if one of them crashed to the ground and broke a wing. He might look back on this day with wistful disbelief. Had he ever really been capable of flying like that?’
This essay originally appeared in Cross Country Skier magazine.