Mickey’s Misadventure on East Moscow Mountain

February 13, 1999

X-ray of broken arm

Catscan of broken arm (single view)

Catscan - 4 views

Fixed arm front view

Fixed arm side view

Over the past few years, I’ve spent a lot of time free-heel skiing on Moscow Mountain and East Moscow Mountain, just to the northeast of Moscow, Idaho. I have the best gear (T2’s, Tua’s, releasable b indings, Gore-Tex gear, technical backpacks, etc.), know the area well enough not to get lost (I carry a compass, GPS, and topo map), have good back-country first aid skills (former Nordic ski patroller), but my ski skill level still needs improvement  51; as this story will indicate. (Regardless of how we hate to admit it, good skills can overcome poor gear, but good gear cannot overcome poor skills!) As my skill levels improved, I have challenged myself with more difficult terrain. One of my goals is to become good enough to ski all the terrain on the mountain that is just behind my house (a 10-minute drive) so I don’t have to drive long distances to ski.

Saturday looked like a great day to work on that goal. I wanted to ski and explore some clearings on the southwest side of East Moscow Mountain. It also looked like a great 3-day weekend for my wife Suzanne and I. We had been to a good play the nigh t before, I was going to ski in the morning, and then we were going to go to some friends’ house for dinner that night. We’d probably spend the next two days skiing around our property and across the road or on Moscow Mountain and soaking in th e hot tub at our place in the country. Our house feels, and looks, like a ski chalet this time of the year, and we enjoy playing close to home.

The mountain had a snow good base with a fresh powder cover. The plan was to get up around 5 am and be on skis by 6 am, but I was a bit lazy and did not get up as early as planned and did not get on skis until 8 am. I was the first person to head up the snow-covered road that morning, but many more would follow because the snow conditions were as good as they ever get on Moscow Mountain. When I left home, I told Suzanne I’d be home by 2 pm.

The road is plowed up to about 3,350 feet, at which point you park your car and take off; you can only walk, ski, snowshoe, or take a snowmobile past this point. It is about a 10-15 minute ski up to the old Tamarack ski area which has been closed for 15-20 years. I used to hate snowmobiles — after all, I am a cross-country skier and I was supposed to hate them — but I have found they are really kind of nice to pack the snow on the roads for easier skiing. I’ve also learned, from my se rvice a few years ago in the National Nordic Ski Patrol, to think of them as a safety aid in rescues.

At the bottom of the old ski hill, I stopped to rest and marked the base on the GPS (8:23 am, 3800’). Then it was on up the road a way to an old spring box. There I turned off the ridge road (an east-west road that runs 10-15 miles along the rid ge of these hills) on what must have been the access road to the top of the old ski hill. The snow was perfect - about 1-2 feet of virgin powder over a 3-4 foot base. Great for the new mohair skins I got for Christmas. At the top of the old ski hill I marked another GPS point (8:55 am, 4200’).

Next, I started a traverse around the west side of the mountain to reach the clearings on the southwest slope. After a few hundred feet down a tree-lined trail, I got to the first clearing. I skied this a couple of weeks ago, and the goal for this tr ip was to connect this lower clearing to the upper one and ski to the top of the mountain and back through this clearing. The GPS waypoint (9:10 am, 4300’) here served a couple of purposes: I finally knew exactly where this clearing was on the map and I could find my way back to it coming from above.

After I took the reading, I realized I could locate myself on the map (I had an enlarged copy of the topo with UTM lines added) and use a bearing to route-find the top. The bearing turned out to be 330°, so I got out my orienteering compass, set it to 330 °, and took off through the thick forest and underbrush looking for the next clearing which connected to the 4720-foot summit. I had been looking at this clearing on the southwest side of the mountain from down below for a few years but ha d never exactly located it while I was on the mountain. It looked steep, but I thought I was good enough to ski it, especially in the powder.

Route-finding to the next clearing was not easy. I had to pick my way through the trees, deep snow, and slopes approaching 45° in places. I was glad to be in the trees to minimize avalanche danger. After abo ut 30 minutes, I broke out into the clearing that connected to the summit. The GPS waypoint (9:36 am, 4350’) would be used on the trip back down. I could see the summit from the bottom of this clearing. The slope was 30-35°.

It took about 20 minutes to make it to the top. Once there, I took off my skins, put on a polar fleece jacket, tightened my boots, and took a GPS reading, more to remember the time (10:10 am) than for location. I had been to this spot on East Moscow Mountain many times before. The snow was great, fresh powder (a foot or two deep) with a few spots of wind-blown crust. I started down the 400-foot run, staying a bit to the right (NW) of my skin track up. I planned to ski to the bottom of the clearing and traverse back to my GPS points, maybe finding a better route to connect the two clearings.

The tresses were kind of close — about 30 feet apart — but the turning on the 20-25° slope was easy. I’d make three or four turns and stop and enjoy being alive and on the side of this mountain. I was approaching the bottom of the clearing and decided to make one more set of 3-4 turns and then start the traverse along the bottom of the upper clearing.

Then something went terribly wrong on that last right-hand turn. I caught my inside ski on a snow-gremlin (buried tree branch), hooked an edge, misread a snow transition, or whatever, but before I knew it I was headed downhill backwards. I saw a tree out of the corner of my left eye and threw out my left arm to protect my head. I landed face up, head downhill, in the treewell, thinking "Wow, that hurt." In retrospect, I think I might have been knocked out for awhile. I reached for my ski pole with my left hand but did not feel the pole. When I looked to the left, expecting my hand to palm down about waist high, I instead saw my hand palm up way above my head. My fingers were moving, and my first thought was that I had severed my arm. My brain commanded them to stop moving, and they did, so I knew my arm was still connected!

First good sign — my arm was not severed and I could still move my fingers, which meant there was no major nerve damage. The bad news was I knew I had badly broken my arm or dislocated my shoulder. I grabbed my left arm with my right arm and sel f-splinted it against my stomach, just like I learned on ski patrol — except it was supposed to be someone else’s arm.

Many thoughts raced through my mind as I lay there. Should I get out the cell phone and call Suzanne for help and give her my GPS position? This was always part of my self-rescue plan if I got hurt skiing alone. Did I have a compound fracture, was I bleeding? Should I get out my first aid kit, take some pain pills, and do a better job splinting my arm? Was I going to pass out and die in that treewell?

Getting to the first aid kit or cell phone would mean getting into my backpack. This would entail letting go of my left arm, and that didn’t appeal to me in the least. Gravity kept my left arm in place as I reached up to take off my skis. Then I stood and headed down the hill, taking one look back at the skis and the tree — not being sure what to think, except I was on my own to get myself out of there.

I was in the woods, on a steep slope (25-30°), in deep snow (3-4 feet base and a couple feet of powder). I knew there was an old, unused logging road (I’ll call it Felton Creek Road, because it runs parallel to Felton creek) below me that wo uld take me back up to the ridge road.

I formed my plan: hike down to Felton Creek Road (probably no more than 100-200 feet vertical), head uphill on it (probably 1/2 to 1 mile and 500 feet vertical) until I hit the ridge road. On a weekend day there w ould be snowmobilers and skiers on the ridge road; a snowmobiler could haul me back to my car (3-4 miles and 1000 feet vertical down) and drive me to the hospital in Moscow (30 minutes).

I came upon Felton Creek Road as expected and breathed my first, of many, sighs of relief. This road is blocked at both ends, so motorized traffic cannot access it. I’d hoped someone had skied or snowshoed the road to break trail, but no one had .

I considered hiking down Felton Creek Road. This would bring me out onto country roads with houses. It might take less time, but I felt less sure of finding my way out, and there would be no chance of help until I made it all the way out.

Once on the road and headed in the right direction, I took another look at my injury. I looked behind me and saw no blood trail — a very good sign. I also felt no blood around my arm. There was very little pain, and moving my fingers helped rel ieve it. I had kept my ski poles to help me walk and to use as a splint. The pole was useless for walking (because the snow was so deep), but worked well as a splint. I suspected I had broken my arm a few inches below my elbow because it hurt there, an d I thought I had seen that area move.

The snow was very hard to break trail in. I was wearing a midweight zip-tee undershirt, a 100-weight polar fleece jacket, and a Gore-Tex windbreaker on top, lightweight longjohns and ski pants on bottom, a headband, and plastic telemark boots. It was about 25°F and cloudy. I was sweating and feared heat stroke, so I went slowly. I’d take about 100-200 steps, counting as I went, and then rest for the count of 30-40. I have always found counting a good way to keep me distracted.

I kept this pace, knowing that if I didn’t make it off this road and onto the ridge road I would spend at least the night and maybe the rest of my life on this unused road. Several trees had fallen over the road, and I had to get on my knees and crawl under them.

Finally, after 1-1.5 hours, I hit the ridge road and gave the biggest sigh of relief of the day. There were fresh snowmobile tracks on the road. The packed snow made it much easier to walk. However, I broke through the snow after a few steps, which sent a jolt shot of pain through my arm, the first real pain I’d felt.

I guessed it was about noon by then. It would be about a two-hour walk back to the car, and I felt fine so I started off east on the ridge road. From where I came onto it, I would go uphill for a short distance to the turnoff to East Moscow Mountain and then downhill past the old ski area and on to my car. The pain was starting to get worse as I headed up the road.

After walking for 10-15 minutes without encountering anyone, I saw some movement about 50 feet up and 10 feet off the road. Oh boy, I thought, a person! But as I got closer, I saw instead it was a full-grown moose munching on some brush. Our eyes me t and we let each other go our own way.

After about another 15 minutes, I came to the turnoff to East Moscow Mountain. I stood there for a few minutes and pondered stopping and waiting for a snowmobile. I thought a snowmobile might be going east on the ridge road, take this turn, and not g o on as far east as I was heading. But I still felt just a little pain and decided to go on.

A few minutes later, I heard snowmobiles behind me. But their noise disappeared — I thought they must have taken the turnoff. About this time a strong pain hit my arm and I had to stop walking and kneel on the ground. After a minute I tried to get up, but the pain was too much. I decided that my arm needed to be horizontal, which meant I had to lie down. I still had on my backpack, so I laid down on it, deciding that this was where someone else would take over. I hit the tree about 2.5 hours earlier, and it was at least another hour’s walk to the car.

A few minutes passed and I heard snowmobiles coming down the road again. As they came around the corner, the first guy looked me over and rode past me, as did the second. My heart almost stopped — they are NOT going to help me. As the third one approached, I looked straight into her eyes and said "I’m hurt, help me." She stopped and asked if I needed help, but I could tell something was troubling her. I told her that my arm was broken. She shut off her snowmobile and got off. Saved!

At first, she thought I was a cross-country skier protesting snowmobiling. She said they have had several bad encounters with skiers on the ridge road. She was a nurse and could tell I was in pain. Her two friends behind her also stopped their snowm obiles and got off to help.

They gave me some pain pills and water from my backpack. I learned that the first man to pass me by was one of my former dentists, and there was another dentist in the group. Two dentists and nurse — I felt lucky. I got on the back of one of th e snowmobiles and we headed down to where I’d parked the car. It was about a 15-minute ride back to the car.

When we got to my car, they were hesitant about driving me to town and leaving one of their snowmobiles unattended because they were afraid a skier would vandalize it. But my former dentist clearly felt badly about passing me by on his snowmobile, so he volunteered to drive me to town. I was really glad he did; he’s a funny guy with a great sense of humor.

When I got in the car, it was 12:53 pm. I knew Suzanne would not be worried yet. It should have been a 30-minute drive to the hospital, but we drove slowly because every bump hurt. The dentist was great on the drive in; he kept giving me encourageme nt on how well I was handling the pain and told several jokes. He recalled that I got gas just to get my teeth cleaned and said I was doing a good job with this real pain.

Upon arrival at the emergency room, the nurse greeted me with a wheelchair. I told her that I had some knowledge of human anatomy and thought I had a tib-fib fracture just below the elbow. She, of course, informed me the tib-fib (short for tibia and fibula) were in my leg and doubted my diagnosis. I, of course, meant to tell her that I thought I had fractured my ulna and radius. She, of course, thought I was clueless. She asked if they should carefully remove or cut off all the "expensive clo thing." I replied, "don’t do anything that slows down the drugs." So within 10 minutes of making it to the hospital, I got a shot of Demerol and felt much, much better.

I asked the nurse to call Suzanne and tell her what was up. She did, after they had X-rayed my lower arm and found it to be fine. The nurse told me (and Suzanne) that maybe I just had a bad sprain. I knew it was more than a sprain, so I suggested it was my humerus. I think the on-call doctor also had his doubts about me, but when he felt my upper arm and I screamed, it was back to the X-ray room. This X-ray confirmed that I was not totally clueless; the doctor said "you’re going to have surgery." They called in the orthopedic surgeon (Steve), who would do the job. After he studied the X-ray, and ordered another one at a different angle, he put his hand on my right shoulder in a reassuring manner and said, "I’m not sure h ow I’m going to fix your arm." While this may have bothered some people, to me it was very reassuring. I thought, here is someone confident enough to admit he is unsure what to do, so I knew he was telling the truth. He had me admitted to a r oom upstairs and said he would come back later.

In the room, Suzanne called Andrew (one of my graduate students). Andrew had told me on Friday that he wanted to snowshoe on Moscow Mountain, and I thought he might want the mission of retrieving my abandoned skis. Andrew arrived at about the same ti me as Steve and saw the X-rays and heard the doctor’s plan. I saw the look on Andrew’s face before I saw the X-ray — it was not one of joy. I looked at the x-ray and apologized to Suzanne one more time. The bone was broken in three place s and was clearly dislocated. I think it’s harder to care for an injured person than to be the injured person, especially if you live in the country and have to plow and shovel snow and split and haul firewood. I knew this whole ordeal would be har der on her than me, and felt worse for that than the broken arm.

It appeared from the X-ray that the head of the hurmerus was broken off from the lower portion of the bone, but it did not show this for certain. If this was the case, I would need an external rod to reconnect the upper portion of the bone to the lowe r portion, and I might also need an artificial shoulder if the blood supply was cut off from the ball. Maybe it was the pain medication, or the fact that I was in the hospital being given the very best of care possible, but I just thought, whatever, I 46;m alive and not on the side of the mountain waiting for nightfall and hoping someone will find me. Nothing he said really sounded that bad.

Steve needed a better look at my shoulder, so it was off to get a CAT scan. It gave a good 3-D view of the shoulder and appeared to show that the upper portion was still attached. Good news. It would be a "r outine" operation now. It was about 4 pm and the doctor ordered the titanium plates and screws he would need for the operation to be flown down from Spokane. He thought it would be best if we waited until the next day to do it. He said Sundays wer e nice days for operations because no one is in hurry. I know I wasn’t in a hurry.

So what started at 8 am as a routine ski trip on Moscow Mountain was probably, at least I hope, one of the most eventful eight hours of my life. A week later (with much help from Suzanne and lots of good pain pills ), as I complete this misadventure (typing with both hands) it appears the 3.5 hour operation of last Sunday was a complete success. I saw Steve yesterday, he took off the cast, looked at some new X-rays (with those cool 1.5-2 inch Ti screws), and said & quot;You’re a free man (i.e., no cast). Just go home, don’t fall on your left elbow, and move all those joints around. And come back in 2 weeks."

To summarize the whole adventure, I was very lucky and things went perfectly one second after I hit the tree.