I've fallen and I can't get up - an accident on the Cog Railroad

Disclaimer: This blog contains graphic images of actual injuries - you have been warned. 

 

The Story

At 11:25 on Friday, February 17th Jacob and I started skinning up the Cog Railroad, a popular, mellow, backcountry ski line on the west side of Mt. Washington in New Hampshire. It was an absolutely stunning day. It had been snowing through the morning, but by the time we started skinning, the sun was shining, it was 25 degrees and there was no wind at the lower elevations. The icing on the cake however, was the foot of fresh, light powder that covered the landscape. The Cog was in amazing shape.

Jacob and I were making great time, ticking off the first 1,000' feet of our skin in just under 40 minutes. By 12:50pm we had reached 'Jacobs Ladder' a well known feature on the Cog located at 4850' in elevation. Jacobs Ladder is a popular turn around spot, because here the shelter of the vegetation at lower elevations disappears, and the terrain becomes significantly more scoured by prevailing West & Northwest winds very classically known on Mt. Washington.  On this particularly Friday, the Summit of Mt. Washington was being blasted by sustained 50mph winds, with a 10-minute minimum wind speed of 42mph and a maximum of 65. The devastating effect of the wind becomes clear and Jacob's Ladder, 6-10" of windslab over bullet hard ice. As expected, it was time to turn around. At 1:03pm we began our decent in some of the greatest Northeast snow conditions I've ever experienced. 

Just below our highpoint for the day. This narrower section of the trail runs adjacent to the actual cog itself - and skiied quite well. 

 

After skiing through the upper section, Jacob and I stopped as the trail mellowed out (Compared to the first photo above which is a narrower run adjacent to the rail line). After quickly resting, we took off again, skiing for another minute or two before stopping on a short flat section. Because the skiing had mellowed out slightly, I asked Jacob if I could go ahead and take some photos of him skiing. He said sure, so I told him to wait two minutes and follow me down. Focusing too much on the amazing untracked powder, I failed to notice a secondary (non-raised) rail line that ran adjacent to the main raised line in this section. As I was skiing, I began to feel my skis chatter (think Northeast icy groomer). Not realizing I was skiing over the line, I turned left towards the edge of the trail, knowing the snow was deeper towards the woods. As I turned, the tip of my ski caught underneath the left side of the track, burring itself and causing me to flip forward. On my way down, my left knee made contact with some part of the rail line, either metal or wooden, we're not sure. This occurred at 1:08pm. 

I landed sitting upright, both skis off, and immediately felt a throbbing pain in my left leg. Thinking I had just bashed it hard and would be able to get up in a second, I waited for the pain to subside. It didn't. After a minute or so Jacob caught up to me and called out, asking if I was ok. Unable to speak, I motioned for him to join me. Jacob skiied up to my left side, and quickly observed a large rip over my left knee in the pants I was wearing. Jacob unzipped the pants (full size zips) and tore a bit of my base layer away to get a look at my knee. He quickly informed me that I would not be skiing out of here. 

Jacob, who is a trained Wilderness First Responder, quickly jumped into action, never hesitating for a minute. He got my med-kit from my bag covered the wound with a 5x9 gauze pad and wrapped it with roller gauze and a cravat. He got me up off the snow (onto our packs), and into all of the extra layers we had with us. Meanwhile, I phoned the NH State Police HQ in Concord to ask for advice. I was quickly transferred to a Fish and Game Officer in the area, who I relayed my information to. Ten minutes later, I got a call back from the officer, informing me that they were planning to pick me up with a snowmobile, and they would arrive in approximately an hour and a half. 

In that hour and a half a number of things took place. Jacob finished dressing the wound and took steps to make me comfortable, unbuckling my boots, propping me up, and covering me in layers. I had yet to eat my lunch, so I had my sandwich, some water and started making phone calls. Since I was supposed to be at the College Outside Collegiate Ice Carnival that weekend repping for adidas TERREX and assistant-guiding for Cathedral Mountain Guides, I got in touch with event coordinators as well as some friends from home. After I had made all the calls I could, I streamed Park's and Rec on Netflix, and waited to be picked up. 

Waiting to be picked up. A few things to notice in this picture. First is my tracks, running to my right, (your left), as well as the section of buried track directly to my right, which is where my ski clipped. 

 

A officer from Fish and Game arrived on scene around 2:50, checking in with me and making sure I was OK to move. After a few minutes, I loaded onto the back of his one-seater Polaris and headed down the hill arriving at the base by 3:09. Not the most enjoyable ride, but sure as hell beats sliding down on my ass. Jacob followed down on skis, and after filling out the necessary paperwork, Jacob and I were on the way to Memorial Hospital in Conway shortly after 3:30, a mere 2:30 hours after being injured. 

Timeline of events

 

I arrived in the ED and had little to no wait as the doctors admitted me - perks of getting injured in the middle of nowhere. After a few X-Rays to rule out further damage, they flushed the wound with a 1L of saline and stitched me up with 7 sutures, leaving the ER around 6:00pm to head to the event venue. After a beer and some pizza and a bit of story telling, my two friends Steve and Amy arrived around 10:30 to drive me back to Burlington, where I finally arrived home at 1:30pm. 

My Knee (yes it does look like a heart)

Hanging out in the ED awaiting sutures 

As for the recovery, I'll be keeping my left leg fully splinted (immobile) for 10 days following the accident. While Friday after being released from the ED I was feeling OK, Saturday I woke up in quite a bit of pain. It wasn't until Monday that I was able to really lift my left leg at all (scary feeling) and Tuesday until I could walk (sort of) again. At this point in time (Wednesday) I'm able to get around for about 5 minutes or so before needing to sit and rest the leg. Hopefully once the wound closes the bounce back won't be super long... 

The Lessons

As you can imagine, I've had a great deal of time to think about what happened and how this accident could have been avoided. At the same time, I've had a lot of time to reflect on how many things went my way, mainly as a result of being well prepared and equipped. 

Lets start with the accident itself. At the end of the day, this was a very avoidable accident, and ultimately has become a costly lesson in caution. As a relatively new backcountry skier (and skier at all for that matter), my main mistake was the failure to observe. Skiing at the resort is one thing, you hop of the chair, pick a color and go, knowing all well that there probably isn't some major obstacle lying in wait to deceive and injure you. The same does not hold true in the backcountry. The mountains are full of objective hazards, and the Cog, while relatively mellow, is an easy place to let your guard down. As soon as the terrain went from steep to mellow and open, I noticed my focus dissipate, the fun and joy of powder skiing take over. Had I taken an extra moment to stop observe the terrain below me,  and chose a line intentionally based on observation and reasoning (as one should when backcountry skiing) I have no doubt that I would have noticed the secondary rail and avoided it. While it was buried, and hard to notice in places, certain characteristics of the terrain would have given it away.  Choosing the terrain you ski, and how you ski it, is a fundamental decision making and risk avoidance skill of backcountry skiing, one I have clearly yet to master. 

Now moving onto things that went well. When all is said in done I am lucky that things went as well as they did. Getting pulled out of the woods in about two hours after your accident when you're a mile from the trailhead and 1000' up in elevation is pretty much unheard of. While there really isn't ever a good place to get injured... but... the Cog is a pretty good place to get injured. Combine that with the fact that NH Fish and Game were close by and otherwise unoccupied that afternoon, and I was back at the parking lot before I knew it. That, and the fact that I had a stocked medkit, extra layers, a portable battery for my phone, a running GPS (Gaia app) and a partner with medical training, this was a situation that we were well equipped and had trained for. Knowing how Search and Rescue was organized in NH, and having the ability to instantly read off accurate Lat & Long, the Fish and Game had no issue reaching me. 

Here is my advice to you: 

1. Even the "mellowest" adventures hold the potential for injury. If this happened to you, would you have known what to do? If the answer is no, the solution is to seek professional training. At a minimum, take a Wilderness First Aid class if not a Wilderness First Responder course. These skills are invaluable and last a lifetime. Carry a med-kit, always. Don't just buy a med-kit and throw it in your bag. Start with a pre-made kit and customize it to your needs. Do you need 15 bandaids and anti-sting relief, no, but you do need extra gauze, and cravats. Don't know what a cravat is, click HERE. 

2. Carry a portable phone charger. I can't tell you how comforting it was knowing that my phone wasn't going to die as I was coordinating with first responders. Goal Zero makes a cheep, and light charger that will now ALWAYS live in my pack. 

3. Know where you are. Google Maps is not a backcountry GPS app. If you are in a location without cell service (most backcountry areas) being able to tell where you are is critical to first responders. Gaia GPS is a fantastic GPS app that can not only tell you where you are, but is incredibly useful for navigation and training. For $20, I highly recommend it. If you chose another program, be sure that you can download maps and view them offline, as well as access your realtime lat & long. 

 

Thank You's

I owe a number of folks huge thanks for assisting me. First, to Jacob who did a fantastic job caring for me while we awaited rescue, transported me to the hospital, and eagerly watched and took photos as I was being sewn up. His ability to respond quickly and without hesitation is a perfect example of why medical training is critical. A huge thanks as well to the NH Fish and Game Department for quickly organizing and effective rescue, and picking me up. Next, to Steve and Amy who after a full day of working/skiing, drove 3 hours to pick me up, threw me in the car, and drove three hours home to Burlington, got up the next morning, and went to work the next day. Of course, to the many friends who have reached out, stopped by, brought me dinner or offered their assistance, I thank you. Thanks to Tim, Sarah and my co-workers at Petra Cliffs for jumping in and helping out while I'm unable to work. And finally, to Sophia, my amazing partner, who since Friday evening has been by my side, helping me with everything that I have been unable to do (which turns out is quite a bit). I would literally be stuck in my bed without her. 

 

Be safe, and have fun out there. 

Cheers,

Max