You don't stop taking risks because you get old,
You get old because you stop taking risks.T-shirt in Lake Tahoe ski rental shopThis is what the LORD says:
"Stand at the crossroads and look;
ask for the ancient paths,
ask where the good way is, and walk in it,
and you will find rest for your souls.
But you said, 'We will not walk in it.'Jeremiah 6:16 (NIV)
It's a mystery as to how the tree limb came to rest in that odd position, sneaking out of the snow at a 15° angle, perhaps three feet of exposed wood and who knows how much buried. Another six inches of snow would have safely covered it; six inches less would have made it more obvious. The limb was stripped of bark, smooth and as big around as a man's leg...the part of the leg just below the knee joint. The upper part of the tibia, to be more anatomically specific, because sometimes specificity matters.
I suppose that we all undertake activities that others might consider to be risky, and we mentally chide them for being so timid. Perhaps we've done those activities so often and so successfully that they are no longer risky in any practical sense or we simply don't view them as dangerous. Or we've grown comfortable with the "worst case scenario."
Only thing is, the worst case scenario is something that, well, happens to someone else.
Tom and I had been skiing together for the better part of a decade. He's a better skier than me -- unlike him, I have no natural athletic ability -- but not by much, and we've been able to keep one another challenged but not humiliated. (You guys may understand that better than the girls.)
Over the past few years we've developed a fondness for skiing between the groomed runs, which, if you've spent any time on a ski slope you'll understand to mean "through the trees." We're not fast in absolute terms, but we are quick and [generally] precise, the latter being measured by some arbitrary scale that involves the avoidance of contact with immovable objects. We both enjoy the thrill of picking out a line through a forest and improvising when that line proves to be impractical. The trees are usually much less crowded -- sometimes, our tracks are the only evidence of human intrusion -- and a bit less noisy (we would confess to being skiers of the shouting persuasion).
And so it was that on our first morning of skiing at Lake Tahoe's Heavenly Mountain Resort we naturally gravitated (clumsy pun intended) to the line of trees separating two intermediate runs named Liz's and Jackpot (the latter actually has an exclamation point but that's too cute to type), and another line separating Liz's from a black diamond run called Express Line.
After three runs, we were getting warmed up (meaning that I was growing accustomed to falling) and also getting our bearings on a mountain which was completely new to us. (As a parenthetical note of self-defense, let me say that my propensity for falling is not my fault, not really. In its natural pose, my right foot makes a 45° angle to whichever direction I'm facing, and I couldn't stand straight and touch my knees together if my life depended on it. These peculiarities are simply symptoms of the way my bones developed as I grew up, and, frankly, it's amazing that I can ski [or run or bike] at all. Just wanted you to know that.) The sky was that deep blue color you can see only at 10,000 feet of altitude; the snow was packed and occasionally icy, with the last deposit more than a week old. It made for fast and sometimes tricky maneuvering.
Does God have an opinion about our risky activities? Are we exercising faith or are we failing to use the intelligence He blessed us with when we undertake potentially dangerous business? Is it OK to pray for safety before setting out on such things? How should we react when the answer to such prayers is "no"?
Tom and I alternate leading ski runs. It's generally easier for the one following, if only because fewer decisions are required. We're close enough in ability that if I see that he can make a certain turn or clear a certain obstacle, I'm confident that I can as well...all other things being equal. Sometimes the leader can warn the follower about a potential hazard, but that's rare. We try not to follow so closely as to lose escape routes.
I'm leading the fourth run down the mountain, and I'm beginning to exercise a bit more command over that wayward right ski that often seems to have a mind of its own. Sure, I've fallen four times already, but all but one came in the middle of groomed runs, not in the trees. Anyway, like I said, I'm leading...but Tom's not following. He wants to follow, but the newness of the runs has caused us to periodically lose contact. At one point, I see him on the other side of Liz's; he's in the trees, but not the same ones I'm in. I yell at him, he slows up and we regroup. This scene plays out a couple of times. It's not our usual mode, although it's also not a problem.
The run named Liz's winds to the left but if you keep going straight, you find yourself in a steep chute called Sky Canyon. It's smooth and icy...and for some reason, we've never noticed that we've missed the bottom part of Liz's and instead ended up on a black diamond run. Did I mention that the trail signs at Heavenly are sometimes confusing? But that's neither here nor there. What's relevant is that on this particular run I'm approaching the end of the trees on the right side of Liz's, and I've already decided to pull up once I'm in the clear to contemplate continuing onto Sky Canyon.
As I approach the open area, I spot no obstacles that serve as a warning to slow down, so I keep my ski tips pointed downhill. Just as I'm starting to relax and prepare to turn to the left and start slowing up, I see a tree limb inexplicably coming up from the shaded snow, the thick broken end pointed left and rising to a level approximately even with the ankle of my boot. I reacted -- twitched, spasmed, whatever -- and somehow willed my left ski tip up over the limb at the last second. I instantly realized I had dodged a bullet, so to speak, and my heart was pounding as I came to a stop some twenty yards away and down to the left. I turned around to see if Tom had stayed on my trail, or if he was again improvising somewhere else.
The Heavenly ski area is a monster: 4,800 acres spanning two states (Nevada and California); a max top-bottom descent of more than 5 miles; 92 runs and 30 lifts; 7 on-mountain lodges. More than a million people ski at Heavenly each year, and its lifts can carry more than 50,000 people per hour
to the tops of its peaks.
Heavenly also has a fully-equipped medical clinic complete with x-ray machines at its base. The clinic is associated with South Lake Tahoe's Barton Memorial Hospital, and it has its own television ad campaign. Something along the lines of "we hope you don't need us, but if you do..."
I turned and looked back uphill just in time to see Tom left leg slam into the protruding limb. His momentum lofted him headlong while the limb sent him into a 360° flip. His skis flew off somewhere around the 90° point. He hit the ground -- not hard, thanks to his forward momentum -- and he slid down toward the point where I was standing. He was clutching his leg even as he slid to a stop. I yelled, pointlessly but without thinking, bounced off my skis and ran to him.
There's no point in laboring through the rest of the day and the week. My friend had sustained a compression fracture of his tibia. In effect, the bone had been driven up, past the knee into the femur, which sheared off one side of the tibia, and sent a fracture line all the way across it. The laceration of the tree limb against his skin was not serious but it had the unexpected and unwelcome effect of delaying the necessary surgery until it heals, which will be another week. In the meantime, he has to live with a broken leg, and the understanding that he will likely never ski again.
It was his only fall of the day.
This shouldn't be about me, but I can't help it. There are so many "what ifs?" Some of them I couldn't control -- What if he'd been just 12" higher or lower on the trail than I was? What if he'd been closer and had seen what I did to avoid the limb? But some of them still haunt me, justified or not. Here's the biggie: What if I'd had the presence of mind to yell out a warning to him?
Skiing is an inherently dangerous sport. You have to sign a piece of paper acknowledging that fact before you can even rent a pair of skis. At times it seemed as if half of South Lake Tahoe was wearing a cast, a brace, a bandage. The emergency clinic had five injuries before 9:00 a.m. on that Wednesday. Theoretically, the mountain doesn't open
until 9:00 a.m. In the global scheme of things, a broken leg is not a matter of life and death.
But, I gotta tell you, it sure seemed like it at the time. Still does, for that matter. That was Tom's last ski run...and mine, too.