Worst Fall I’ve Ever Taken

| November 19, 2008

In the name of exercise and fresh air, we skinned up the groomer at Alta this morning and once at the top of the Collins Chair, I looked over toward Mt. Baldy, which brought back memories of the worst fall I’ve ever taken.

At the time, I was still kind of into resort skiing and was up at Alta on a nice day with my wife (now ex-wife) when the Patrol opened the gates to Baldy Chutes.  It was late in the season and I was amp’d to get up there, so I punched out the booter approach and waited at the top of what I think is called “Perla’s” on the trailmap.  While waiting for the wifey, a bunch of skiers passed me and headed over to Baldy Chute, so I decided that this untracked line would be good enough and waited for my wife.  And waited.  And waited.

By the time she showed up (all of about five minutes later, but I never said I was a patient person), I was ready to go.  The line had a micro cornice on it and I had tossed a snowball down on the landing to see if it was soft, which it appeared to be.  Once Chris-The-Ex showed up, I slid off the cornice, expecting to land on a little soft ridge of snow.

Instead of a soft ridge, it was firm and I immediately fell backwards.  At this point I was still pissed off about waiting, so I didn’t panic too much, but suddenly, I realized I was airborne and accelerating really, really fast.

I was trying to spot my landing, but hit on my side, which kicked me up in the air even higher, and not only that, now I was cartwheeling.  I still wasn’t panicked by the time I hit again, but this time it was like the turbocharger had kicked in – now I was waaaaay off the ground cartwheeling completely out of control.

Oppph... this brings back some bad memories.  Perla's Ridge at Alta.
Oppph… this brings back some bad memories. Perla’s Ridge at Alta.

I saw the landing coming, but again landed on my side/head, and now picked up even more speed and altitude.  At some point, rocks, trees and sky all blended together and I realized I was either going to break my back or die.

The next time I hit…  I landed upright with both my skis on at a complete stop!  It was 100% pure luck. I had covered about 500′ of vertical distance hitting only four times and only lost my sunglasses.

Since it was a warm sunny day in the spring, there were a group of people hanging around at the top of the then Germania chair, who gave me a round of applause.  A minute or so later, a lone ski patroller came out the traverse (I had stopped about five feet above it) and asked if I was alright.  I said I was, to which he said “You are really lucky, you know that?” 

It was for sure, pure luck that I wasn’t hurt and more than anything in my skiing life before, changed the way I ski.  Nowadays I’m much more conservative, don’t huck cliffs, try to get falls under control immediately, and of course, never, ever wait for my ex-wife.
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Category: Events

About the Author ()

Andrew McLean lives in Park City, Utah and is a gear designer, writer, photographer, ski mountaineer, climber, Mountain Unicycle rider and father of two very loud little girls.

Comments (5)

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  1. Andrew_L says:

    I often think what’s lost in the steep skiing discussion is how quickly things get out of hand if you lose control. Skiers on 45 deg (or greater) slopes are essentially perched on cliffs. It’s an oddity of our sport that we can feel completely comfortable in such a context. But as you learned during your fall, reality can intrude in a hurry!

  2. Andrew says:

    That’s exactly what I brought away from surviving this fall – if you ski enough steep slopes, you get comfortable in that kind of terrain (which is good), but at the same time, you can easily lose track of the serious consequences (which is bad).

    Once you start tumbling, there is not much you can do aside from pulling a nonexistent ripcord. Ice axes work well in theory, but in the case of this fall, I wouldn’t have been able to get one out in time, let alone assume the position. Honestly, I think flying around like that with an ice axe in the mix would have been more of a liability than an asset.

    Nowadays, I’m all about stopping a fall and/or slip IMMEDIATELY, which is why I ski with two self arrest tools. They may not actually stop the fall, but they do help orient you with your feet/edges downhill, which is a big part of regaining control.

  3. Polly says:

    That and enjoy waiting for your (current) wife! :)

  4. Hacksaw says:

    Did you end up very black and blue?

  5. Andrew says:

    No – aside from the mental scaring, I was completely untouched. The slope was steep enough that when I did hit, it was more of a glancing blow than anything.

    I took it as a sign from above and changed my evil ways, even though it may not seem very apparent.

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