BEYOND OUR CONTROL
Ski Wipe-outs and Speed Limits
Okay, so it’s now officially December, the Thanksgiving Holiday has past and the Christmas season will soon be upon us, and I've finally gotten in to the Christmas spirit.
In typical South East Idaho fashion, winter then made its entrance with a vengeance! I awoke early Tuesday morning to two different sounds: 1. My bladder screaming at me that it was time to get out of bed or pay the consequences. 2. The snow plow rumbling down the street in the early morning darkness. I arose and answered call number one, and then took this snap shot of the 12" of snow piled up in my front yard since I had gone to bed the previous night!
So with old man winter now fully engaged in the holiday season, I thought it would be a good time to share a skiing story of mine that involves an epic crash with near disastrous consequences, and how my foolish actions changed skiing at Grand Targhee resort for everyone for years to come.
Now it’s no surprise that I’m a pretty big guy at 6’3” and over 250lbs (although we won’t discuss how much over!) so when you strap something on my feet that makes me slide and point me down a steep and slippery incline gravity has a pretty significant effect. Add to these laws of physics the fact that I didn’t start skiing until my late 30’s you get a pretty unpredictable combination that may result in a few registers on the Richter scale.
During my life prior to skiing, I had often heard people use the phrase, “things have gone all ski-wampus”, in sentences when things had gone awry. I didn’t really understand what that meant until one of my first big skiing crashes when I got up afterwards and saw my skis, poles, hat and even a glove strewn about me haphazardly in the snow. “Oh, so that’s what ski-wampus means!”
I was probably only into my second year of skiing and my family had a season pass at Grand Targhee. On this particular day, two of my brothers, Dirk and Carl and I had taken a “boys day out” on the mountain together and I was easily the least experienced one of the group.
I have never liked the really big mountains and black diamond slopes kind of thing, and in fact there is one run at the top of Targhee that is called Sitting Bull, after the old Indian chief. But when I was first coaxed into going up to give it a try, I looked down into the foggy abyss below me which seemed to drop off into infinity and I realized why it was really called Sitting Bull, because I sat down on the edge of the slope and thought, “Bull crap if I’m going down that thing!”
So my brothers, who were more advanced skiers, humored me on that particular trip and we stayed on the smaller “kids” hill called the Shoshone. It’s actually an excellent learning hill with many fun, short runs through different terrain that was just perfect for me. The trouble was that after some good easy warm up runs, my brothers got a little bored and soon a little competition began amongst us.
My younger brother Carl figured out that if we split up at a juncture near the top of this mountain, there were 3 different runs which were about the same distance, and if we split up at the same time we could all race down to the bottom. Of course I got smoked the first several times we tried this little rivalry, but I was feeling pretty confident in myself on my skis that particular day. So the next race, I threw caution to the wind and instead of swishing back and forth in my normal conservative speed controlled serpentines, I came out of my little turn through the trees and leaned forward into an aggressive crouch against the front of my boots and bombed down the slope before me.
I couldn’t see where my younger brother was off through the trees to my right, but I was determined to beat him to the bottom of the hill and be in the lead when I reached the final left hand turn which funneled into a narrow track that led to the bottom of the lift.
Unfortunately, my competitive juices drown out the universal law of physics, F=ma, or Force = mass x acceleration. Considering my mass and the acceleration, when I reached the bottom of the hill and that sharp left turn, there was a substantial amount of force involved!
As I leaned into the turn, the pressure on my right leg was too much for my second hand ski equipment and my boot popped out of the binding. The problem was, all of my mass and acceleration were still applying their full force upon that right leg, so my ski boot slammed down into the snow and my leg served as a pole vault which spun me around and launched me out into space.
It’s an amazing thing how clear your mind can become in a situation like that and how much information you can think about in a few nano-seconds of time! As I was flying headfirst and back downward looking up into the sky I somehow had time to think, “Oh no! There are all these trees down the side of this hill and I am flying head first into them! I don’t have a helmet! I hope I don’t break my neck or shatter my skull! I could possibly end up dead or with permanent paralyzing injuries! How could I be this stupid! I love my wife and kids! Will I ever see them again? Please help me in my stupidity Lord!”
I know it might seem crazy or impossible, but these thoughts actually flooded through my mind in that brief moment between catapulting skyward and entering a small grove of aspen trees which stretched down the hillside beneath me.
To help you realize what was going on, I will share a few picture below to illustrate. I took these pictures the following summer when we went back to the ski resort, to the actual spot where these incidents occurred.
Flying upside down and head first, my head miraculously passed between two narrowly spaced trees and the top of both shoulders slammed into the trunks with enough force that it completely knocked the wind out of me.
Yes these are the actual trees that my head passed through without crushing my skull!
My feet flew up above my head and my ski boots and one remaining ski bounced off the tree at least twelve feet up above ground level. We know this height was accurate by the big hunk of bark which my brothers noticed torn out of the tree a few minutes later when they found me.
What happened next was kind of a blur, but I still had enough force and momentum that after bouncing off that first tree, I flew cartwheeling another 20-30 feet down the hillside while ping-ponging through a series of more trees. I was like a helpless massive rag doll being pummeled on all sides by giant baseball bats.
As I came to rest at the bottom of the hill, I found myself half buried in the powdery snow looking up into the sky. My first recognition was that I was alive, and gratitude overcame me! Then I realized that I couldn’t breathe because the wind had been knocked out of me and I started to panic, wondering if I had broken my neck! I wiggled my fingers and then my toes… I could move! I was again overcome with gratitude that I was not paralyzed! Finally, I was able to take in a gasping breath of air and roll over onto my side and sit up.
At that point I heard my brothers up at the top of the hill through the trees talking to each other. One of them was asking “Where did he go? I thought he was ahead of us this time?” The other replied, “I don’t know, the last I saw he was making a turn down by the trees.”
I then let out a groan as the effects of my bludgeoning through the trees finally settled in throughout my body. My brothers, like true brothers, laughed when they saw me and all my equipment strewn out down along the hillside amongst the trees. Then they asked if I was alright.
It was nothing short of a miracle! Other than getting the wind knocked out of me and some residual muscle soreness, I had suffered no broken bones or other injuries whatsoever. My brothers and I were amazed as we surveyed the scene and considered what had happened and how life-threatening serious that situation could have been. One brother even commented that “angels must have parted those trees” and guided my body through them, because there’s no other way I could have come out uninjured. The mercy of God had truly been extended to me in my stupidity.
Needless to say, that ended our racing escapades for the day and I was a much more conservative skier from that point forward. When my family and I returned to ski there again less than a week later, I took my wife to where the accident had happened and was surprised to see a Speed Limit 5 mph sign posted on the trees in the exact location where my crash occurred,
I felt a mixture of embarrassment, but also a little bit of pride in knowing that my actions had changed the rules of the ski resort and perhaps would protect others from the same stupid mistake I had made. (Of course I don’t really know for sure if it was my accident that resulted in the posting of the speed limit sign… but I will take credit for it anyway).
As I ponder back on that experience, I am still extremely humbled and grateful that I am still alive and with my family, that I can walk and think and move and live my life as a normal human being! I realized that while I thought I was just trying to have some fun, I had failed to realize where the boundaries of my control were, and the result could have been disastrous.
On that day, it was as if those trees stood there as sentinels to warn me, “If you get out of control and go off the designated path, the road ahead will be much more difficult and painful and you will suffer some consequences.”
And that’s how it is with God’s commandments.
Some may think that the Commandments are restrictions of our freedom and agency to do whatever we want, but they really stand as markers to show us the safer route to follow if we will but heed them and follow the Lord’s designated path to safety and happiness.
If we decide to just do our own thing and don’t pay attention to those guide posts and markers, then the result is not that we break the commandments, but that we break ourselves against them. The rules and laws of God are unchangeable guardrails which show us how to avoid the dangerous cliffs and pitfalls of life which lead to pain, sorrow, broken hearts and broken lives.
Of course, like me on the ski hill that day, we all make mistakes which cause our lives to spin out of control at times. We can make our own silly choices, but we cannot control the consequences of those actions. But luckily for us, our Lord and Savior and loving Heavenly Father are merciful to us. I know that they protected me from more serious harm on the mountain that day, and I also know that they lovingly try to protect us from harm when we make mistakes. Their patient and caring call after we have fallen is to beckon us to rise up, come back up to higher ground, and once again place our feet upon the designated path they have laid before us which leads to safety and happiness.
It’s not about restricting our agency or freedom. Once I had gone off the designated path, I lost control of my situation and had absolutely no power to make any decisions about what happened to me as I careened and banged my way through the trees below me. I had absolutely no freedom or agency at that point, but was under the complete control of the foolishness of my actions. I had failed to recognize where my limitations were and was instantly beyond any sense of control of my life.
Like the speed limit sign posted in those trees, our loving Heavenly Father and Savior Jesus Christ have given us commandments to place spiritual warning signs and guardrails along the trail of life to clearly mark the safest path if we will but see them, recognize them and stay within their guiding influence.
May we all take better heed of those warning signs and guideposts as we run this race of life that is before us, and be grateful for the patient, caring guidance and loving protection we are given each and every day!
As far as me and skiing... with advancing age and failing knees, I've now decided to stick to snowshoes instead!