A Black Diamond Story, or the Perils of Being Overly Confident

My day started like any typical Saturday. I woke up, drank a cup of coffee, and prepared my breakfast. The Seattle winter had been dreary and cloudy, but this morning, there were high clouds and partly sunny skies. After two cups of coffee and oatmeal, I was fueled and ready for a road trip. The morning was off to a great start. My new friend picked me up, and we headed to the freeway. Through a series of winding roads we made it to the Mt. Baker Ski Area. We arrived around mid-afternoon and headed to Mountain Shop to rent our gear. Trying something for the first time mixes anxiety with excitement. I was pumped with adrenaline. Throughout the two-hour drive, Blaine—whom I had just met a few weeks ago—gave me the lowdown on skiing. This would be my first time on skis, and I had no idea what lay ahead of me.

Soon, we were off for my first run. It was a piece of cake, and I felt like a natural. After an hour or so, we made it through the easiest runs and decided to give the more difficult ones a try. At sundown, we took a break to refuel and discuss taking one more run before heading home.

As we ate, we looked at the ski map and talked about what would be our next and final run. He mentioned we should try a “black diamond” run, saying the only difference was that it started a bit higher. I had no reference to understand what he was saying, so I mentioned I was not afraid of heights. “So I should be OK, right? I thought. I might be frightened out of my pants traveling 100 mph down this run, but I decided to keep quiet. Blaine looked up from the map and said, with a confident smile, “It’s a bit more advanced than the others, yes. But after seeing how you nailed it today, I assure you that you will sail through like a pro.” My ego had been stroked and there was no turning back. A thought kept running through my head, though: What had I gotten myself into!

We made our way out to the ski lift and climbed aboard. Instantly, my gut was talking to me. I started to feel clammy. As the ski lift climbed higher and higher, I did the worst thing. I turned my head and looked back. I lost my equilibrium and grabbed tighter onto the ski lift. It seemed that the other lifts we had been on were 20 miles down the mountain, and we still had not reached the top. I felt my stomach turn. My knees shook, and I was dizzy and disoriented. Blaine noticed I was turning green and said, “Hey buddy, don’t look back. Everyone gets dizzy when they look back. Take a deep breath and don’t look back!” I was not totally reassured.

I don’t understand how I had missed the skulls and crossbones on the map, nor the text—“Danger Cliffs”—in red. I suppose I wanted to impress Blaine. I was having such a great day that I didn’t want to spoil anything. At the top, bright stadium lights shined to the left, and there was darkness everywhere else. A voice inside my head said, “Find a toboggan and get the hell off this mountain!”

As we inched closer to the start of the run, I looked for emergency stairs, thinking I could meet him at the bottom and live another day. Blaine yelled, “Take it slow, but don’t die! I am outa here.” Laughing as he blew by, he did not give me a second look and disappeared out of sight. He must have taken my look of absolute terror as excitement.

Standing there alone in the darkness, I had no idea what to do. I imagined the lights powering off, like Kmart at closing time, thinking I would be stuck up here and die of hypothermia. I wonder why the fear of hypothermia was greater than the fear of plunging to my death at 100 mph. I inched closer the edge and looked down. It seemed like a sheer cliff with snow attached. I took a deep breath and willed myself to move another foot closer.

After what seemed like forever, I finally worked up the courage to go for it! I scanned the slope and did some simple calculations in my head. All I had to do were three or four sharp zigzags. My chances of surviving were pretty good.

First zig and zag completed, I felt success. If I worked my way down the hill slowly, I would make it. I had kept my movements small at first. However, the downward angle of the hill increased, and the zigzags were coming faster and faster. On my seventh zag, I got on my knees and looked around a curve that seemed to disappear into nothing. I thought I could plow into the snow at the far right of the curve and use the snow to absorb the impact. I got up and willed my body to go.

I headed toward the snow bank faster than I had imagined and blew right through it like nothing was there. There was nothing there. I flew through the air and headed straight toward a tree. What took mere seconds felt like five minutes played back in slow motion. I remember my ski making the first impact against the tree trunk. My bindings did not release. My entire body began to spin out of control, while my leg, caught in my boot, wrapped around the tree. The initial shock of my knee twisting made me scream, and I saw stars. I looked for something to grab to keep me from projecting right off the cliff. My hand grabbed a branch, and I knew I would live. A second later, my hand went dead. The weight of my body dislocated my shoulder, and my grip failed. I spun around until my ribcage made direct impact with the tree. The blow stopped the momentum, and my body dropped down to the base of the tree. I lay there like a rag doll, unable to move. I hoped I wouldn’t slide down the edge of the cliff and plunge to my death.

I am not sure how long I laid there, cold and stunned from shock. I wondered how long it would be before Blaine noticed that I had not come down. I passed out. Some time later, I felt my body move and realized I was being lifted into a rescue toboggan that had finally arrived. Better late than never! I felt air being pushed into my lungs and started to come around. I heard a voice with a thick Australian accent asking if I could understand him. I nodded and lost consciousness again.

I woke up later to find myself in the medic’s room bunk bed. I heard voices and started to move around. Blaine was there. He asked me if I was OK. I was grateful to be alive and thankful for all the help I received that night. Thankfully, I did not suffer any broken bones or a serious concussion. I would spend the next 12 months in rehab for torsion to my right knee, a dislocated right shoulder, and a strained wrist.

Years following, I suffered chronic headaches, severe shoulder pain, knee pain when climbing down stairs, and every few years, I would twist my right ankle due to instability at my knee. It took me 13 years to discover the Pilates method and realign my body. I was fortunate enough to learn from a brilliant mind that broke down every mechanical aspect of movement, teaching me the value of understanding the practice and the appreciation of how one heals.

If you think about it, any form of exercise can be dangerous. Learning the skills and earning experience before advancing is key. I share my accident for two reasons. First, don’t do what I did! Gain experience. Even if you excel at first, take your time and learn as much as you can. I have many students attend their first class who want to skip the learning process and go right to an advanced class. I always suggest they take it one step at a time, learn, and lay a solid foundation. Second, trust your instincts. No matter what you think, your feeling sense is stronger and smarter.


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