Life is about discovery. Whether its discovery of knowledge, love, hate, or just how far we can push ourselves physically or mentally it’s all in the name of discovery. As a chronic pain patient, living a life of discovery is different than someone who is healthy because I never know from minute by minute what will cause me pain. The human body’s way of teaching us no, nice try, or give it up dude is usually using pain. Pain hurts; no one wants to live a life of pain. However, after recently trying to participate in a backcountry ski class I not sure if I accept pain as a “bad” thing. Maybe, just maybe, pain should be thought of as my reward for trying to keep my life about discovery and smiles.
For those of you that don’t know, I have been skiing since I was 5 years old. During high school, I worked in the Ski Check at Bogus Basin Ski Resort for something like $4.00/hr (yes I’m old). After high school, my group of friends and I decided it was time to live the glamorous life of a ski instructor. I ended up teaching on and off for 10 years before I fell off a cliff rock climbing which brought my teaching career to an abrupt stop. Unfortunately, my youth and competitiveness kept me focus on achieving the next level of certification or skiing ability, I hardly ever took advantage of opportunities to learn how to snowboard or cross country ski for example, it was always about earning that next level.
Enter a backcountry ski class. Again, for those of you that don’t follow the ski industry backcountry skiing has taken off in the last 5 years. With better training and nutrition techniques combined with insane advances in skiing technology backcountry skiers are no longer just the extreme skiers made famous in Warren Miller films. More and more backcountry skiers are like me, people with a solid skiing base who want to expand their knowledge of the sport and discovery. This is especially true with the advent of cameras like GoPro or Mirrorless Camera Technology, anyone can be an extreme backcountry skier now.
I came by this introduction to backcountry skiing class by accident. While looking at bogusbasin.org, I saw a little post about a previous backcountry class that had just completed. Intrigued, I found the website for the backcountry guides teaching this course and discovered there was another class coming up. Now my training and nutrition have been crap as of late, between 6 weeks in the fall of getting spinal epidurals and 2 weeks of dealing with a cranky water heater and furnace had taken its toll on me. However, I discovered a slight ray of luck on the application. Per the guides, all I needed to be able to do skiing wise was ski an intermediate run. I may not be in the best physical shape right now but I can still ski an intermediate run backwards with 5 3-year old between my legs. It was go time!
The class began Saturday morning at 8am in the upper lodge at Bogus called the Pioneer. We spent about 2 hours in class going over things like avalanche red flags, trip planning, equipment, and setting up for a rescue scenario. We saw footage of several avalanches, including one involving the lead instructor of the class. Did you know that in the first 15 minutes of an avalanche that you only have an 8% chance of survival, at 16 minutes that goes down to near 0%? As we got told multiple times with emphasis, the biggest cause of avalanche deaths is human’s inability to make wise decisions for ourselves. Sometimes, the most extreme skiing is the freshly groomed corduroy at a ski resort. Much like chronic pain, if Mother Nature wants to win the day she will. If she wants you to win the day she will let you. The key phrase being “she will” let us win.
At 10am it was time to hit the snow for the first time. The plan was to ski down a beginning run called Lulu and head over to the Deer Point chairlift. At the top of the Deer Point lift there is a beacon park where one can practice avalanche search and rescue. I must admit, despite Bogus being a second home I had no idea that this park even existed. A new discovery is a fun Saturday activity for sure!
Long story short, by 2 turns on Lulu I knew I was in trouble physically. By 4 turns both hips had started to spasm uncontrollably. At roughly 6 turns in I could feel the bone in my right leg where they attached part of my hip replacement piece start to hurt. This hurt brought extreme nausea and almost an instant 7 headache. Being a good chronic patient I had disclosed all my medical issues on my application so my instructor knew what was going on. At this point, all I could do was complete one turn and then stop either due to pain or from being scared by what I was feeling in my right replaced hip.
I made it to the bottom of Lulu and caught up with the rest of the class at the Deer Point chair. Due to my experience with being a chronic pain skier I knew I was done. No amount of stretching or pain pills was going to save the day. The conditions at Bogus Basin were simply too icy for my failing body. Bogus had received several days of rain followed by freezing temperatures during the night. Randall, the class instructor, encouraged me to at least ride up the chair to the beacon park before deciding what I wanted to do.
While on the chair, I began to explain to Randall my entire health situation. Along with both of my hips being replaced, I have a plate in my neck, screws and anchors in my left shoulder, both knees have been scoped, and I had 10 screws and a plate in my left wrist after my fall. This is on top of my rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis, post trauma osteoarthritis, PTSD, and bilateral hip dysplasia diagnoses.
The Deer Point Chair is a quad chairlift. Since it was a busy Saturday, Randall and I rode with 2 other people. While explaining my medical situation, the 2 strangers on the lift both said “pardon me, but you are incredible for still skiing despite all of that”. Both strangers were a good 20 years older than me. Both strangers also called me an inspiration. Now, I know that there are many people in the arthritis and chronic patient community that hate it when strangers use us as inspirational porn, to them I say take a breath for a moment. First, my situation made them more grateful for their ability to still ski. Second, both individuals reminded me why I still do things like this, I am not done with my life yet! I will make it into the backcountry eventually; I must figure out how to do it on my terms instead of the more traditional way. If used right, inspirational porn can and should work in both directions, let’s not forget that!
Luckily the beacon park was just off the top of the Deer Point Chair. There I got out of my equipment and tried to listen to how to use an avalanche beacon in an event of an emergency. I’m 90% sure I caught 90% of what was being talked about but after just 15 minutes of standing I could barely move. It was time to call it a day and head to ski patrol. At that point I knew there was no way I could ski anymore and would require help to get back to my car. Not exactly how I wanted to the day to end but that’s my life as a chronic pain patient, sometimes “it” just wins and runs up the score.
After about 45 minutes of resting in the ski patrol hideout at the top of Deer Point, I received word that the class had decided that the conditions where too bad to continue and where going to go back to the Pioneer lodge at 3:30pm for some more class time. At this point it was around 1:30pm. Ski patrol had arranged for me to ride down the Deer Point Chair (I’ve never rode down a chair before) at which point the director of ski patrol would drive me back to my car at the Pioneer Lodge. Despite having 2 Norco’s and severe pain, I made it back to the class at 3:30pm to finish with the group. Sunday’s class was then canceled due to the conditions.
While sitting in that final section of class I had 2 main thoughts going through my head. First, was the utter disappointment in not being able to ski down Lulu without so much pain. I wanted to participate and learn this skill set, I’m not sure how much longer I can ski at a high level before having to become a weekend groomed run warrior. Secondly, I had absolutely no reason to feel like a failure. The only time I hesitated at all during this event was when they wanted me to feel out the health section on the disclosure form. Otherwise, despite everything, I went after the art of discovery just like anyone else would regardless of physical or mental issues.
Life happens every blink of an eye. Yesterday my Mom’s sister passed away on her birthday. In addition to that loss, I was also involved in a call yesterday that could potentially lead to a messy and expensive legal situation where no one will come out a winner (this is all I will say about said call for now). Despite all the swear words and sadness towards yesterday it was not a bad day, I realized it was just another day in the continuing saga of Big Al. Discovery can happen at our lowest, most painful moments along with at our highest, happiest moments. Pain is the exact same way. I’ve been in just as much pain as I was during this Saturday while laying on my couch with ice packs. However, by trying this class, I regulated pain from a teacher of no to my reward for trying to continue to live.