After leaving competitive sports behind in high school and spending most of college searching for something else to keep my competitive juices flowing (whiffle ball and Beirut did not quite cut it), I found mountain biking. Mountain biking was the perfect outlet for me, as it challenged me physically against myself as well as against my riding partners. Furthermore, it became a gateway for me into the world of outdoor athletics. My mountain biking friends eventually brought me hiking in the White Mountains. Hiking in the Whites led to more challenging trips around the country. Soon looking to add more challenge to hiking, I found backpacking. All of these sports led me to seek employment at Eastern Mountain Sports, as I searched for new challenges, a change of lifestyle, and a new group of people to pursue my outdoor passions with.
At Eastern Mountain Sports I was introduced to, and quickly fell in love with, rock and ice climbing, snowboarding, and telemark skiing. While all of these sports are excellent ways to get outside, get healthy, and challenge yourself, they are far from benign activities. Anyone who tells you these sports are safe is lying to you; you are always one misstep, miscalculation, or bad break away from entering the danger zone. I was reminded of this the other day when Ashley and I were joined by Mickey Spades from the Foxboro store and Doug from the Climbing School for an easy day of sport climbing in Western Massachusetts.
Ashley and I were enjoying our first real ‘rest day’ from the Demo Tour in over a week, and were psyched to be climbing real rock and soaking up the sunshine. We were having a casual day, sampling from some of the area’s more moderate climbs as Doug worked with Mickey on honing his climbing systems and bolstering his confidence climbing (for those of you who do not know Mickey Spades, I assure you his climbing confidence is the only confidence of his that needs any bolstering). It was an easy going day until I heard a thud and a snap, followed by a scream of pain. A climber on the crag adjacent to us took a fall, hit a ledge, and broke his ankle.
Our party arrived on the scene just as the injured climber was being lowered to the ground. The climber was in obvious pain as his foot was pointing in the entirely wrong direction from his leg. The other EMS (Emergency Medical Services) were called immediately and Ashley was sent to meet them at the road. We quickly made the injured climber as comfortable as possible, and began our preparation for the inevitable evacuation. To make a long story short, EMS got to the scene quickly, stabilized the climber, and evacuated him from the cliff to the parking lot in a relatively short period of time thanks to the combined efforts of multiple rescue personnel and climbers.
The accident served as a good reminder that no matter how careful you are, accidents happen. The fall that the climber took was not incredibly different from many of the falls I have taken climbing. The difference was that he just had bad luck. Reflecting further upon the incident, I can think of four other times in my seven years at Eastern Mountain Sports in which I’ve witnessed major traumas: a broken hand mountain biking, a ground fall trad climbing, a ground fall ice climbing, and a torn knee backcountry skiing. These traumas have resulted in everything from an assisted walk out to an airlift evacuation. For all of the major traumas I have witnessed, there have also been countless close calls or minor problems that could have blossomed into epics.
Perhaps I am just a bad luck charm. For a fair share of these accidents I was not in the party that was victim, I just happened to be close by. I believe that the more stuff you do outside, and the more time you spend pursuing the activities that I participate in, the more likely you are going to be part of an incident. The more you get out to pursue your outdoor passions, the greater your risk of an accident or injury becomes, whether it be a sprained ankle while hiking in the backcountry or a broken bone while backcountry skiing.
I have faced the reality that accidents happen and our best protection against them is simply to be prepared for when they happen. While I am no expert on backcountry preparedness, I have learned through trial and error what I need to pack and what I need to do to safeguard myself from turning a simple mistake into a full blown Between a Rock and a Hard Place epic. I have taken a wilderness first aid course and would encourage anyone who ventures into the backcountry to take one as well. While help will most likely always come if needed, you must be prepared to be self-sufficient just in case.
Lastly, I have developed a real appreciation for the people who deal with these type of incidents on a daily basis. Everyone from local Emergency Medical personnel to Search and Rescue groups are amazing with what they are able to do, and the way they are able to handle high stress, high stakes situations.