FALL ON SNOW, SKI MOUNTAINEERING, EXCEEDING ABILITIES, INADEQUATE EQUIPMENT, BINDING ADJUSTMENT
Alaska, Chugach Mountains
From June 28 to July 5, 1992, I (Todd Miner, 36) was co-leading a University of Alaska Anchorage Wilderness Leadership Expedition. On the 5th, while skiing down the Raven Glacier, I fell, resulting in an injured knee. (Later diagnosed as a tom anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), torn medial collateral ligament, torn posterior cruciate ligament, dislocated patella, and damaged meniscus of the left knee.
It was the last day of an eight-day traverse of the Eklutna Glacier system. We had arisen at 0500, broken camp, and ascended 1700 feet to the Raven Headwall. It took us about three hours to get 15 people (13 class participants and two recreational climbers who met us at top) down the 600 foot high, 30 to 70 degree slope of the headwall. From there we had to ski down the Raven Glacier and then hike out the Crow Pass trail. The weather was warm (50° F), calm and we were in and out of a low hanging cloud with occasional rain.
The accident occurred about 1430 while we were skiing down the Raven Glacier, about half way between the Raven Headwall (where we accessed the glacier) and Crow Pass, where the glacier terminates. I was skiing in the rear on a two-person rope team, with a student. We were the lead rope team, roughly following an old ski trail, skiing large “S’s” down an approximately 20 degree slope. Both of us had large packs (50-70 pounds) and old skins on our skis. I was also pulling a plastic sled with cord. I was skiing on Europa 99's with an older model Ramer binding.
While attempting to turn back to the right, I crossed my skis. I fell forward over my left knee. I screamed for Chip to help me as I immediately knew my knee was traumatized. I could not get up on my own due to the knee being stuck underneath me and to the large pack. Chip quickly came to my aid and helped me to sit up. When I looked at my knee I thought the patella was dislocated. The pain was intense, so in an attempt to relieve it, I asked Chip to slowly straighten out my leg. He did and I immediately felt, saw, and heard a pop; I assumed the patella had re-positioned itself. The pain level also immediately dropped, though it was still enough to make me nauseous. I got an ensolite pad underneath me and rested.
By this time the rest of the class had caught up. I was assisted with a sleeping bag around me, a hat, a pack to lean on, water (I was terribly thirsty), and lots of reassurance. Several students fashioned a splint out of a “Cra2y Creek” chair, a piece of an ensolite pad, webbing, a cravat, and pack straps. Upon tightening of the splint, the pain was further reduced.
While the splint was being constructed, co-instructor David Cockerall was developing a rescue plan, conferring with our student “Leader of the Day,” Ken Kibe, who is also a member of the Alaska Mountain Rescue group. Using our emergency aviation radio, student Jackson Fullbright established that radio communication was possible with passing airliners. I asked that I be given a chance to walk out before we tried a carry (or to sled me down) or call for a rescue.
I tried walking without a pack or sled and with the assistance of ski poles. My steps were tentative, but it was not too painful nor unstable so we gave it a try. The class distributed my gear amongst the other 12 members and with all of us on foot and roped we continued the descent. One and then two teams went ahead to scout the route. I could only take small steps but the snow surface was smooth and I could keep a steady pace. The further I went the less pain I felt. Every once in a while I would feel my knee start to buckle, but between the splint and the ski poles I was able to recover.
We decided to make the end of the glacier (or the start of the Crow Pass trail) the immediate goal. The only real difficult part was traversing a steep (45 degree) snow slope to get off the glacier. Thankfully, at this point, we ran into Scott Horacek and a party led by Diane Salee, folks who were hiking up the trail to meet us. They helped kick steps on the slope and to carry gear. Once on the trail the walking (limping) returned to being relatively easy for me. We regrouped at the U.S. Forest Service Crow Pass Cabin to see what our next move would be. I still felt like continuing on. Even if I hadn’t felt like continuing, the “down to the deck” ceiling would have probably kept helicopters from getting in. In any event, it would have been hours before any kind of organized rescue could have gotten to us, so onward and downward I plodded.
Around 2030 I arrived at the trailhead along with a sweep crew. We loaded up the van and a pick-up truck and drove down to Girdwood. By the time we hit town it was too late to go to “FirstCare.” We grabbed dinner and headed back to Anchorage. About 2330 assistant instructor Karen Pzeitmeir and I were dropped off at the emergency room at Providence Hospital. The knee had swollen considerably so diagnosis was apparently difficult. I was sent home some time after 0200, the doctor agreeing with my assumption that I had probably dislocated my patella.
I believe the accident was the result of several contributing factors:
I am a poor, to at best mediocre, skier. One cannot learn if one does not fall. However, falling with a big pack in the back country does have risks.
I was having fun, perhaps too much fun. Contributing to this was my excitement at having gotten down the crux of the trip, the Headwall, and at being so close to the end of the trip. Hubris can be costly.
The binding was set too tight. We had exchanged bindings just before the trip and even though I knew my bindings had been tightened considerably, I did not take the time to re-loosen them. It is no wonder they did not release. This was the main contributing factor to the injury.
Perhaps I wouldn’t have fallen if I hadn’t been roped. (The rope was a distraction.) Maybe this is a case where going unroped would have been a safer alternative than roping through the very few crevasses. (Source: Todd A. Miner)