It’s August, 1995. I’m in Falls Creek on a skiing trip with some friends. I’m a 24 year old yahoo who has no freaking idea how to ski. I fool around for the first few days and by the fifth day I’m a goddamn Olympic level skier. Or so I thought when I skied straight down a rather steep run. When I say straight, I mean skis pointing down the hill – no turns. Like I’m taking off for an aerial ski jump. But I wasn’t jumping. And I was going so fast, and it was so icy, that I couldn’t figure out how to turn. I certainly wasn’t able to slow down. Which ended up being not so great for me when I wanted to stop and kinda didn’t know how. I was aiming straight for a lovely, big red sign with the word STOP! emblazoned on it and, since I was going to crash into it rather rapidly I decided to do what anyone else would in that situation. I decided to fall.
Who can tell if that was the right decision to make. Perhaps if I’d just ploughed on into the crowd lining up for the ski lift, some lovely person might have broken my fall. But no, I took a hit for the team and tumbled down the icy slope in a most ungraceful and awkward fashion. What’s supposed to happen when you fall down skiing is that the bindings holding your boots onto the skis are supposed to release, so that you don’t injure yourself. Unfortunately for me, that didn’t happen. I don’t want to say that the ski rental place set my bindings too tight, but the bastards at the ski rental place set my bindings too tight. If the skis had come off during my fall, I am certain that I would have just ended up with some nasty bruises. As it turns out, I felt (and heard – oh yeah, HEARD) my right knee snap as my leg twisted under the ski. I estimate that I did at least five somersaults on my way down and I landed pretty well right in front of that stop sign with my right leg at a most unpleasant angle.
I clearly remember the impact of the fall, and then blacking out. And then, the pain. Ohhhhh my word, the pain. I heard the screaming a few seconds before I realised that it was emanating from my own mouth, which is always rather startling. I passed out again and woke up to a young boy’s voice asking someone, “Is she dead?” I tried to move and realised that my ski was still on, twisting my knee even more. I’m sorry to say that I closed my eyes and expelled a nice, long, robust “FUCK!!!!!!!!!”. Sorry kiddo! Eventually my friends caught up to me and helped me undo my ski so that I could straighten my leg. That helped, but I was still unable to stand up. My body was broken. Once they realised I was alive, my friends started making fun of me, as only good friends can in these situations. They laughed at how I’d sailed past them on my way down, shouting “I. Can’t. Stop!!!” They still remind me of that, to this day.
Finally, the ski patrol came down to stretcher me off the mountain. I was kind of mortified at having to be skied off in a stretcher, but there was also something a little bit magnificent about it. It wasn’t fun though. It’s not a smooth ride, and every little bump on the mountain was excruciating. I fainted several times. They took me to a medical facility on the mountain where the nurses administered first aid and bandaged up my knee with a splint. They weren’t able to give me a diagnosis but they suspected some ligament damage as I wasn’t able to put any weight on my leg at all. We were supposed to be heading back to Melbourne the next morning but my friends decided to make the six hour drive that night, so I could get home and get to a doctor first thing. I love my friends.
During that long drive, the painkillers I’d been given at the first aid station wore off and every little pothole and bump was agony. Going around one corner a little enthusiastically, my friend Mike drove over the curb and I screamed out in pain. I couldn’t help it. He was, of course mortified. He made it up to me later on when he stopped off at a hospital just before midnight, waltzed into the emergency room and sweet talked the nurses into giving him a few codeine tablets. My hero. Suffice to say, I forgave him.
The next day, I went to see an orthopaedic surgeon, who confirmed that I had torn my anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) and medial collateral ligament (MCL). The ACL lies within the joint and prevents excessive forward movement of the knee, and also controls the knee during twisting and rotating. The MCL lies outside the knee joint on the inner leg, attaching the shin and thigh bones and adding stability and strength to the knees. So, it was a pretty serious injury. The surgeon recommended surgery but I was a destitute government worker at the time, without private health insurance. Approval for the operation under the public health scheme would take two years. I went home dejected.
To make matters even worse, three days after the injury I woke up to find my right leg swollen to almost twice its size. This was quite frightening and I went to see a doctor right away. Turns out that the combination of a traumatic knee injury along with the leg probably being bandaged a little too tightly right after the accident, had resulted in me getting a deep vein thrombosis. A DVT is essentially a blood clot that develops deep within the body. The risk is that the clot will dislodge and travel to the lungs where it might block a vein, resulting in damage to the lungs and possibly even death. I was immediately prescribed blood thinning oral medication for three months, as well as daily injections of medicine in my stomach fat for ten days. The injections were administered by the Royal District Nursing Service, a charity that provides at-home medical services, which is pretty awesome. The nurses were lovely, but the injections were distressingly painful. I shrieked with pain each and every time they jabbed me- it never got easier. My friend Mike was usually at home when the injections were happening, and one day he asked if he could watch. He’d heard the howling and wanted to see exactly what was causing it. Yes, he is a sicko.
So my moment of recklessness on the ski slopes resulted in me requiring crutches for seven weeks, assisted showering for four weeks, painful injections for ten days, three months of daily Warfarin tablets and regular visits to the haematology lab to check my blood work. Once, chopping up a piece of fruit, I nicked my finger with the knife. The cut didn’t stop bleeding for six hours. I thought I was going to bleed out. When my knee finally got better, I vowed never to ski again. But of course three years later I found myself at Mt. Bulla, nervously navigating the nursery slopes. But it wasn’t the same. I was scared, and the fun had gone out of it. I didn’t strap on a pair of ski boots for another 16 years.
* * *
David and I have some friends in Dubai who are avid skiers and they so inspired us with their enthusiasm for the sport that we were very easily convinced to give it another try. We figured we’d have a go, nice and easy, and see how we liked it. We went to Baqueira, Spain in 2013 and loved it. We skied again in 2014, in Andorra. And then again the year after in Nagano, Japan. We returned to Japan in January of this year and enjoyed a week of incredible powder. It snowed over two metres in the one week that we were there, and more than ten metres for the season. You just don’t get snow like that in Australia. Or many other places, really. The conditions were amazing. Because Nagano is relatively unknown to foreign skiers, we spent most of the time skiing completely deserted slopes, which is simply heaven. We stayed in a beautiful rustic guesthouse, Hotel Shirakabaso in Shiga Kogen, where they served incredible Japanese breakfasts and dinners and where we bathed in soothing onsens at the end of each day. We slept on futons in a tatami room and wore kimonos all the time. It was truly delightful.
Because we hadn’t skied in two years, it took me a few runs to start feeling confident again. But it only took a couple of days before I was carving up the slopes with confidence. I was a much better skier than when I’d injured myself in ’95, and I was a lot fitter too. But unfortunately, I wasn’t as fit as I needed to be. And I think this contributed to what happened on the second last day of our trip. Right near the end of a long day of great skiing, we started making our way across the 607 hectare ski resort towards our hotel. I must have been tired. Or maybe it was the beer I’d had at lunch (though I doubt it, because I always ski better after a lunchtime beer, natch). Whatever the reason, starting down the fairly steep, ungroomed run I appeared to have lost my mojo. I made two turns where I leant backwards instead of forwards, almost losing my balance. The third time it happened, I was unable to correct myself and took a very nasty fall down the mountain. I hit my head so hard that I had whiplash for a week afterwards – it’s lucky I was wearing a helmet.
Just as it had happened nearly 22 years ago, the bindings on my skis didn’t release, and the speed I was going meant that my knee was subjected to forces it simply couldn’t withstand. This time I didn’t hear the ligaments pop, but I sure did feel them. And just like in ’95, the pain overwhelmed me and I lay there wailing, unabashedly. I do remember being rather moved that David whipped his skis off and ran down the mountain to where I was awkwardly strewn. He helped me remove the offending ski, and comforted me as I cried. We sat for a minute, to regroup and assess how bad the injury was. When we figured out that I wouldn’t be able to ski the rest of the run, he carried all four of our skis the 30 metres back up to the trail (no easy task) while I schlepped up in my boots, labouring through the deep powder, tears streaming down my face. When we got to the top, a ski instructor schussed up to us and insisted on calling the ski patrollers. When they arrived, they decided to (once more) stretcher me off the mountain in what amounted to a body bag on skis. I didn’t feel so cool this time. I felt great disappointment. Hurting myself so badly at 45 felt significantly worse than doing it at 24.
When we got back to Dubai, I had an MRI and was diagnosed with a Grade 3 (complete) tear of the MCL. The surgeon recommended surgery right away, but I was super reluctant to be operated on, so I got a second opinion. The new surgeon downgraded the diagnosis to a Grade 2 (partial) tear of the MCL and ACL which can (hopefully) be treated with rehab. Call me conservative, but I’d really rather go the exercise and physiotherapy route than have someone cut me open and sew me back together. After all, I healed perfectly after the first injury. I think I might have to work a little harder to get back to 100% this time, but I’m totally committed to doing the work.
And yes, we’re planning on skiing in Japan again next year. Just try and stop me.