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Lessons from the Winter that Wasn't

On January 2nd, 2012 in Tahoe, any snow on the ground was manmade. With Squaw and Alpine combined, all we had were 4 groomed runs. It was a tough time for me because I’m someone who lives to ski and although we were in midwinter, the mountain biking was far better than the skiing. But I was trying to make the most of it. When life hands you lemons, you make lemonade, right? 

I figured skiing icy groomers could bring back some of those east coast hard-pack carving skills. But after a few runs, I found myself working on tricks in the mini-park. I’ve always enjoyed having a few little tricks in my pocket - this was a great time to bring them back! So I decided to dial in my 360’s. Maybe with a little training, I’d be able to spend the season spinning threes just about anywhere on the mountain when it finally start snowing...or so I thought. I’d never crashed spinning a 360, so no big deal. 

At the top of the terrain park in-run, I ran into a friend skiing with a group of kids. I expressed how much fun I’d been having hitting the little jumps. It was actually really cool! On the 10th spin that day, maybe the 100th in the past 3 weeks, I landed with my weight on my tails and came close to falling down. But since I was under the chair where everyone would see me crash, I fought it and remarkably pulled it off. 

But the combination of my weight being back, a little twist left over from my spin, and the forces from fighting the fall set me up like they describe in the textbooks - and I blew my ACL. I also partially tore my LCL and meniscus. I always wondered what it would feel like to blow a knee. And I found out very clearly the moment my femur and tibia shifted in different directions. But, at least I didn’t let anyone see me fall! I skied off like nothing happened, bearing weight on one ski, straight to the car. My season was over before it really began.

As a big mountain and backcountry skier, the idea of blowing my knee in a mini-park was just as painful as the surgery. I felt like I made myself the butt of my own joke. Despite taking lots of chances and “calculated risks” in the past 11 years and skiing well over a 100 days a year, I’d never really been injured. I’d been extremely lucky.

I’ve never wanted to grow up. I guess I’ve been a Toy-R-Us kid. Until my injury, I perpetually felt like that starry-eyed 22 year-old who moved to Tahoe in 2001. But the injury reminded me that I’m 33 years old and I don’t live in Never-Neverland. My life of hard skiing caught up with me in that moment, in one horribly executed 360 over an 8-foot jump.

I don’t regret any decisions I made leading up to my injury. I wasn’t rolling the dice or doing something that was unnecessarily risky. I was having fun, making what I could of a reluctant winter. But when all the ingredients were combined in just the right proportions, I found myself with a true taste of a knee injury.

Fortunately, I have health insurance because my parents were  insistent I get my own policy once I was no longer covered by theirs. But given the cost and the fact I hadn’t come close to injury for over a decade, it seemed unnecessary at times. But that all changed in an instant. Knee surgery, the follow up doctor visits and physical therapy added up to $50,000! But also, the fact that I’m a waiter and and was unable to work on my feet, I found myself in a pretty deep hole. As much as I hate paying my insurance premium, especially when it keeps increasing every month, I realize I would have been up the creek without it.

If you ski a lot and at a high level, chances are high you could blow your knee. It happens a lot easier than I ever thought possible - nature of the beast, I guess. However, blowing one’s knee is not the end of the world, not even close. Life is often about recovery. 

Orthopedic Surgeons practicing in and around ski towns are some of the best in the business. Do your research, ask around, and find the best surgeon you can. Dr. Orr, who works in Carson City, Nevada and South Lake Tahoe, performed my surgery and I couldn’t be happier with the results.

The quality of your surgeon is important, but what you do after it is just as much so. Ski towns have some of the best physical therapists in the country and when you combine them with mountain athletes who are desperate to return to the sports they love, the recoveries can be remarkable. I’ve never put as much effort into anything as I did my knee rehab. My expert PT, Ladd Williams, helped guide me to a full recovery. Sure I cursed him at times, like when he forced my knee to full range, but he set me up for success. He sent me home each time with an exercise routine and when outside of his office, the rest was up to me. 

Overtime, I learned that my “recovery self” was actually much stronger than my usual “athletic-self”. The work was intensive. Twice a week I spent 4 hours at the PT office. 5 days a week I spent 2-3 hours at the gym. 7 days a week I spent 2 hours massaging, icing, and maintaining range of motion. It was a full time job and I became a little obsessed with it! But like anything worthwhile in life, you get out what you put into it. I achieved the results I was after. 

Once I was cleared to exercise outdoors, the world opened back up. I welcomed the early retreat of last winter’s meager snowpack and found myself riding my mountain bike more than I ever had in my life. Six months flew by. Then 9. And then winter was just around the corner. 

When the first early season storm rolled through in late October, I was apprehensive and for the first time in my life, I actually hoped for a couple more weeks of autumn weather. Even though I’d done everything possible to prepare myself to ski again, I was a bundle of nerves, anxiously anticipating how it would feel.

But when the first real storm dumped three feet in the higher elevations, I couldn’t resist and found myself geared-up and hiking. After all, I love early season skiing. After one extremely tentative tips-up run, I was relieved that everything seemed like it was going to be alright. So I shifted into a drop-in-heavy mode and found myself in an early season powder skiing bender. 

Clearly, the winter of 2013 is off to a better start than last year. I have over 30 powder days already and that’s about 30 more than last year. My knee is functioning perfectly and my goal is to keep it that way. I realize I have to adjust my approach so you might not see me hitting any jumps this year. I’m also eliminating flat landings from my program, perhaps for good. Fortunately I’ve been able to stick to my smooth-snow-only rule given the quality of storms we’ve had. Most importantly, I feel like that kid again who moved here a decade ago. But this time the kid is a little more patient and smarter. 

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