Immovable Objects and Humility

I’m going to hit this tree and die! I tried to adjust my snowboard, but the patch of hard snow I’d hit only added to my momentum toward that tree. My next thought was:

Whatever you do, don’t smash your face into this tree!

In a split second, I leaned my face forward and tried my best to avoid hitting the tree head-on. My snowboard barely cleared the roughly one-foot diameter pine tree, but my left arm, shoulder, and rib had hit directly. It all happened so fast. The shock wave traveled through my body so powerfully it made a whoosh sound that I could hear in my head. 

My shoulder felt as though it had been yanked out of socket, the force of hitting the tree while the rest of my body was still propelling forward evident. My rib felt as though I’d been hit with a baseball bat. I came to an abrupt stop in deep powder, just past the tree. My first thought was, I’m going to need Ski Patrol to come get me. 

I had just hit a tree, and I was hurt. Luckily, I hadn’t hit my head, especially because I wasn’t wearing a helmet. Yes, that’s right: no helmet. Stupid, I know. 

My left arm, shoulder, and rib were throbbing immediately, tightening up my range of motion. Within seconds, my husband Ron caught up to me. Desperate to make sure he saw me, I shouted, Help! Help!

He stopped next to me, and I told him I’d hit a tree, but hadn’t hit my head. I felt it was important to let him know that right away after telling him I’d hit a tree. He helped me take off my jacket and assess my arm, which was already bleeding and swelling where I’d hit the tree, just below my elbow. My ribcage was red, but no blood. My shoulder was definitely strained in some way, if not dislocated, but I was basically alright. Here are some pictures of the scene of the crash. That little pine tree doesn’t look like much, but it stood there like a concrete wall when I crashed into it. It didn’t give one bit.

I’ve been snowboarding for nearly thirty years, and I’m pretty ripping for an average rider. It’s my main activity on the weekends in Winter, and Kirkwood is my spot. I love riding in the trees, carving fresh, creative lines through a maze of evergreen. I’ve had some close calls with trees in the past, getting a good scare; a few times I’ve encountered branches whose skinny little limbs grabbed me like an octopus’ arm, smacking me to a complete stop. Trees don’t move. Even their relatively small branches hurt. 

I’d had my first really close call with hitting a tree last Winter in 2020 up at Kirkwood. It was Superbowl Weekend, the first weekend of February, and would end up being my last snowboarding weekend of that season. I almost hit a tree; I had even pushed off of it with my hands at the last minute. I wasn’t going very fast, but it was close. It spooked me. 

When I first started snowboarding as a kid in 1992, pretty much no one wore a helmet. As the years went on, helmets became more commonplace, which makes perfect sense considering the heightened risk of head injury that comes with an outdoor sport like skiing or snowboarding. From icy slopes, to trees that don’t move, to rocky outcroppings, there’s no shortage of hard surfaces to potentially hit your head on should you lose control for a split-second. That’s all it takes: a split-second. I learned that intimately when I hit this tree on February 6, 2021.

My Baby

I’d been meaning to get a helmet since my near-miss in February 2020, but my life as I knew it was put on hold to face one of the biggest immovable objects I’d ever faced: breast cancer. I was diagnosed with it the day after I’d almost hit that tree up at Kirkwood, on February 3, 2020, and went through months of chemotherapy and radiation afterward. 

Now, barely over a year later, here I was, back at Kirkwood, and Bam! I hit a tree.

I’d been meaning to get a helmet, but hadn’t gotten around to it yet this season. I felt unbelievably lucky that I didn’t hit my head, even though my body was knotted up in pain. 

After the crash, I got emotional. I almost hit my head! I could have died! I could have smashed my face in!  I started crying a bit, taking in the gravity of the moment. There are few times in my life where I’d thought I was actually about to die, and this was the most intense, by far.

How did this happen? How does an experienced, expert snowboarder hit a tree?Ask any skier or boarder that question, and if they’ve been at it long enough, I guarantee you they have a story of their own to tell – a close call, if not a direct encounter. It’s like any precision outdoor sport; there are multiple factors that go into it. All it takes is for one or more of those factors to go awry, combining in a perfect storm, derailing your flow and grace. In my case, it was a combination of a few different things. 

First and probably most important, my stance was off. My binding screws had come loose, so my front foot had slid all the way up to the front of my board. I decided to do just one more run before I would stop to adjust it. Basically, I was having so much fun, I didn’t want to take a break from riding to fix my binding. Even though my stance was widened, and I could feel the loss of control from my awkward positioning, it was still rideable, and I wanted to get just one more powder run before I took the two minutes it would take to adjust my bindings and tighten the screws. I should have fixed my bindings right away; it’s a safety issue. Hindsight is twenty-twenty.

Second, I was going a little too fast for taking a slightly new line. Though I know Kirkwood like the back of my hand, I still uncover new subtle nooks and crannies every now and then. Ron had shown me a new sideshoot of an area we frequently ride, and though I knew where we were, I hadn’t directly ridden this particular section before. I was going too fast for not having ridden it, in retrospect. You’re always supposed to be looking ahead when you’re snowboarding (or mountain biking, for that matter), and my body had gotten in front of my eyes. I was moving faster than my eyes could scan the horizon and assess what was coming next. Suddenly, I saw that little pine tree in front of my path of travel; I didn’t have as much time as I usually might to react. Riding in blindly to this section, I hadn’t anticipated this tree lying beyond the knoll.

The third and final kicker was hitting the exit-path out for skiers that crossed just above this tree, between me and the powdery section I’d just come from. In an instant, the snow texture changed from soft and light to rock hard, frozen bumps, chunky from skiers and snowboarders riding it over and over. With my feet out of my normal stance, my board wasn’t as quick to respond to my corrective movements. Instead, I slid on the ice even further toward the tree. And I was going fast. At that point, I knew I was going to hit, and thought to myself, I’m about to hit this tree and die!

It was absolutely terrifying. In all my years of snowboarding, and outdoor sports for that matter, I’d never had such a close call. I’ve had few moments where I thought consciously that I was about to die. I’ve been scared before, and done things that were life-risking, but rarely have I thought I was literally about to die in the next second. This was the scariest experience I’d ever had snowboarding. 

It was really humbling. I’m a big fan of humility all around, which is the balancing trait to the confidence that comes with doing outdoor sports, but sometimes it’s a hard pill to swallow, especially when it hurts you. It’s a balance of charging, and conserving. This reminded me how dangerous things can be, and how quickly things can turn. Moreover, it reminded me how important precision is with outdoor sports. Your equipment and gear need to be just so, fitted just right to you and your needs. It makes a world of difference when you are set up well, as opposed to trying to maneuver an ill-fitted board. I usually have my board set up perfectly, and I should have stopped to fix it as soon as my front foot had slid forward out of alignment. 

Additionally, it reminded me that sometimes, we can lose control. I’ve done a lot of snowboarding in my life, and even with all that experience, I hit a tree. I was probably going too fast for the new terrain, and didn’t give myself enough time to scan the horizon. Of all the times I’d ridden fast through the trees, I usually kept a good look ahead, no matter what. But all it takes is one time to lose control, and possibly, lose it all. It is fun and exciting to challenge yourself outdoors, but not at the cost of your life. 

‘Bout to Drop

This crash was the final impetus for me to buy a helmet, already. Crazy enough, on the chairlift up to that fateful ride, I had been thinking that it was high time already for Ron and I to get ourselves helmets. I bought myself a helmet, and will wear it every ride moving forward. 

I should have gone to the doctor, but I was afraid to get more radiation from x-rays after all the radiation I had last year from cancer treatments. After a week of soreness, I emailed my doctor pictures of the new bump on my left clavicle, and my bruised arm that hurt like fire to the touch. She inferred that I might have a hairline fracture on my arm, and should get x-rayed. I was out of town the next four-day weekend for President’s Day, however, back snowboarding at Kirkwood. Last week, I had other appointments in the afternoon, so I never ended up getting it x-rayed after all. I feel better, though, with less soreness in my shoulder, rib, and arm, and am sure I’m healing. 

Life will throw immovable objects in your path. Some of them are slow-moving, like cancer, while some will be sudden and abrupt, like crashing into a tree, or something else. They may be near-death experiences, or catastrophic and fatal. In both cases, the best defense is prevention, but there is inherent risk regardless of your preparation. Outdoor sports are risky, and the stakes can be high. Accidents happen, even to the best of us. Awareness, anticipation, and agility are all essential for a safe snowboarding experience, but none of them are possible without your brain. It is wise to protect it. Fortunately, I didn’t learn that lesson the hard way – this time.