Warning: this story starts out nice and ends a little gruesome. Brace yourself.
Nothing about this trip seemed to be going as planned from the start. Hell, nothing about this year has gone as planned though has it?! Originally we wanted to tackle the Canmore Quad to celebrate Tania’s birthday (run up four mountains in one day) but one of the trails had been shut down the day before so we scrapped that idea. Some Strava creeping and intel gathering led us to Northover Ridge figure eight trail in Kananaskis instead, a place both Tania and I were eager to spend more time exploring. We hit the highway just as the sun cracked orange over the horizon, promising beautiful Mountain View’s on the drive. We parked at Upper Kananaskis Lake and did a quick cruise-y 12k circumnavigation of the lake before turning into the backcountry to head up to Three Isle lake. There we were met with peaceful mountain lake views and a meandering trail through an alpine meadow before we began the grueling ascent up a very steep and sketchy shale slope that took us to the infamous ridge. The forecasted storm had started to blow in earlier than we expected and the wind was gusting pretty fierce up there. But these are the moments that make it worth it. There is something wildly exhilarating about being so high up, taking in such incredible views, in a place your own strong body could get you to and feeling the full force of nature. It leaves you feeling simultaneously incredibly small in a vast and powerful earth, and incredibly powerful and alive. At 2800m we were pretty much on top of the world with snow capped mountains as far as the eye could see in every direction. Even the strong wind couldn’t wipe the smiles off our faces as we carefully made our way across the incredibly long ridge traverse with steep drops and snow fields/glaciers on either side.
By the time we started our descent, I admit I was ready to get down. Mountain top experiences are great, but those are not the places we were meant to stay. It would keep our adrenal systems in overload if we did. Time in the literal and figurative meadow and tree lined trails bring a different aspect of safety and peace we need for balance. By this time the wind had brought with it cold rain that soaked us through as we made our way down the steep shale and snow fields on the other side.
This was where I discovered my first mistake of the day. My shoes. I opted to wear my new favourites, my Nike Wildhorse instead of my typical preference, Altra Lone Peaks. I had set those aside lately after an injury that may have been linked to problems in my chronically weak right ankle, made worse by Altra’s zero drop and minimal design with not a lot of ankle stability. Yet while Wildhorses offer great ankle stability, they have pathetic tread for a trail shoe. As soon as I stepped onto the first snow field I realized those shoes weren’t going to allow me to stay upright and run down like Tania was able to in her Solomon’s with better grip. I quickly adapted a strategy I’ve perfected after a lifetime of skiing, a childhood of figure skating lessons and years winter running… I drop down low to the snow with one foot out front with the heel dug in acting as a brake (think pistol squat or ‘shoot the duck’ in figure skating!) and the other foot tucked under my bum acting as the ski, and both hands out for balance. It works great to get down snowy slippery hills with max control and decent speed without the risk of falling from standing height. Here’s the thing though. It only works on downhill snow, not a snow traverse. But we’re getting to that.
After a rain soaked hour or so of carefully picking our way down the mountain we were happy to be back to the protection of the tree line as we skirted Aster Lake and continued dropping down though easier forest trails.
The trail spit us out onto another steep, rocky mountainside we had to traverse to get down to Hidden Lake and back to Upper Kananaskis Lake where we were parked. Only 9km and 500m descent to go. I was mindful of the time because I had told my husband Kirk to call Search and Rescue if he didn’t hear from us by 6pm and it was almost 4 already. We stopped to admire the view, snapped a gorgeous photo of the lakes in all their turquoise glory with a hint of a rainbow showing in the sun and kept picking out way carefully over the rocks.
I wish this story ended with us cruising out of there, laughing and celebrating another successful mountain run. I wish Tania never had to witness what happened next and I wish I didn’t have this wicked scar to remember my next error. But life doesn’t always work out that way does it? Accidents can happen in the blink of an eye and no matter how many times we go back to question the what if’s and the how’s, it won’t change anything. I simply have to accept what happened and move forward. Just like running. One step at a time.
So what happened next?
We came up to a smallish patch of snow, maybe 20 feet wide and 30 feet long that we had to traverse. It was clear that was where the trail went and there were several fresh footprints there already. Above us, to the right, was a small waterfall that went under the snow and I assume rocks beneath it. To our left, below the snow, was a drop of maybe 8 ft into a rocky creek bed fed by the waterfall above us. Tania fearlessly made her way across the snow and I was not far behind, moving cautiously, knowing my shoes were more slippery then hers. But only a few steps in and I lost control. I slid slowly at first and quickly dropped low to hug the snow and tried to dig my feet and hands into the icy crystals to stop myself. But it wasn’t enough. The slope was quite steep and I started to slide faster and faster. I said something to Tania and our eyes locked for a terrifying second. I hope to god she looked away after that. I looked down to assess where I was going to fall and brace for impact. It was clear I was dropping off that 8ft snow ledge into the creek below.
The next several seconds are erased from my memory.
The next thing I remember is staring down at the water I was standing in, looking at the shiny silver trigger pen from my bear banger. I could hear music, sort of like chimes and wondered where it was coming from. I reached down to fish for the trigger pen but lost sight of it when my vision blurred. I tried to wipe what I thought was water from my eyes but quickly realized it was blood. I tried to brush some of the loose hair from my face but it came out in a handful. I pushed back what I thought was hair…
I don’t think it was my hair.
By that time Tania made it down to find me. She told me later she was screaming, yelling f-bombs and feeling panicky but all I remember is her calm face as she assessed the situation. I don’t really remember climbing out of the creek, I just remember her holding my hands and looking at my head while whipping the Buff off her own head. She guided me to steady footing and worked quickly to gently stretch the Buff below my chin and over my head to secure the wound. She then pulled off her arm sleeves and tied them around my head the other direction.
I asked: “Did I scalp myself?” Half joking.
Straight faced she replied. “yes”
So we started walking. She checked to make sure I could still move ok and we both agreed our only focus was to get off the mountain ASAP. We were moving after the incident within minutes. The bleeding slowed considerably and the ringing in my ears stopped and I honestly felt fine to hike out. All these things led me to believe it wasn’t a very serious injury. In fact, I sort of thought Tania was over reacting when she said I would definitely need stitches and immediate medical attention.
She never told me how bad it was. I had no idea until I saw the shock and heard the comments in the trauma unit of the emergency room later that night that I learned a significant chunk of my skull was exposed, my scalp was peeled back, and I had lost a fair bit of blood. And I am eternally thankful for that. I’ve never done well with blood… had I known what was going on I don’t think I could’ve hiked out like I did. She stayed totally calm and kept us both focused on the moment.
“Look at the grass!” “Cute purple flower!” “Ok here’s a step up” “Careful on these rocks” “Oh look at the colour of the lake! So pretty”
It was almost childish… the way you would coax a preschooler to keep moving along. But damn did it ever work. Once or twice I let my worry bubble to the surface and asked questions or got thinking about what had happened or what could have happened. But she immediately brought me back to the next step forward and kept marching me out. 9.2km to be exact. Tania is a ninja level master at being calm in the chaos. Her own life experience, including the sudden and traumatic death of her husband 3.5 years ago has forged her into an absolute rock in times of crisis. Tania, you have no idea how much I appreciated your calm that day…
As we headed towards the last campground and were on the final stretch to the Jeep, we started to see more people on the trail. Some stopped and gasped. Most offered help but there was really nothing they could do. Tania masterfully blocked any kids from seeing me… no one needed to see that. There was a few sections of climbing that at times felt impossibly difficult but for the most part, we got out of there pretty quickly. I kept watching the time, hoping Kirk hadn’t called Search and Rescue. Back at the Jeep, I caught a glimpse of myself in the window reflection. My face was completely caked with blood as was the buff and sleeves tied on my head. My hair was a red mess of tangles but I couldn’t see anything else.
Tania calmly drove me to the nearest campground where she found a landline to call an ambulance and call Kirk to let him know what happened. The ambulance arrived incredibly quickly and that was when I started to unravel. I got cold. Faint feeling. Nauseous and weak. Tania filled them in on details while they tended to me in the parking lot, praising her for her excellent work with wrapping me up on the mountain. Her quick thinking saved me from a lot of blood loss that could have easily prevented me from getting out of there.
We made it to the Foothills hospital in Calgary by 9 or so, 5 hours after the fall. I was ushered straight into the trauma unit where they started to clean me up and talk about next steps. Kirk arrived shortly after and that was when I learned how serious the gash was. They sent me for a CT scan, which thankfully showed everything inside seemed ok. No brain injury. The Emergency room doctor decided it was beyond his scope of practice to fix a wound that severe so he got someone else to staple me back together while I waited for surgery the next day.
Over 30cm of stitches ranging in three directions across the top of my head and down my forehead. I lost 20-30% of my blood and have a few other scrapes and bruises but nothing else serious.
It’s nothing short of a miracle I came out of that as well as I did.
I’ve tried not to let myself go down the road of ‘what if’ but it’s hard not to.
“What if i hit harder and cracked my head worse?”
“What if I lost too much blood and couldn’t walk out?”
“What if I broke a bone on the fall?”
So many possibilities. I’m in awe at how fortunate I am it wasn’t worse then it was and that we got out and got help ok.
This has got me thinking about the risks of trail and ultra running. The truth is the mountains are unforgiving and our bodies, even at their strongest, are devastatingly fragile. My soft tissue was nothing against that rock. We break so, so easily. Is it worth the risk? Will I mountain run again?
You bet I will.
Because yes that mountain could kill me, and yes we are often reminded of that risk when we hear of deaths in the backcountry, but when you start to focus on all those risks you can do easily drown in the fear of what’s out there, and life can grind to a halt.
I could have easily left that run unscathed as I have on countless other mountain adventures, only to get in a car accident on the way home. Or get home and start coughing and learn it’s lung cancer as we saw with Amy (In Memory of Amy Alain) and now are seeing again with ultra runner Tommy Rivs fighting for his life #Rage4Rivs Heart disease and infections and immune disorders and natural disasters and now add Covid-19 to the list and it’s absolutely crazy-making. I’m not saying we shouldn’t take precautions. By all means, we need to wear seatbelts and masks and eat healthy and exercise and get regular check ups and wear the right shoes for the terrain you are on. But we also need those mountain top experiences to remind us that instead of being afraid of dying, it is more important to be excited about living.
As I lay in the Emergency room, getting stapled together, there was a man in the bed next to me who came in citing depression. I couldn’t help but overhear his conversation with the social worker. He was unemployed, alcoholic, no family, no social supports, watched tv all day and struggled with suicidal ideation. He came to the hospital that night because his roommates kicked him out and he had no one, and no where to go. My heart hurt for him. I wondered about the choices he had made, the people he loved and lost, the opportunities he missed out on or gave up on because he felt inadequate. I wonder how his life would have been different if he could unlock the secrets of a life well lived; to find nature, to move your body, to surround yourself with people you love, to find those mountain top moments that make you feel alive, and those alpine meadows that bring you peace.
Sure there are lots of things I would change about that day if I could. I wish Tania didn’t have to do what she did. I wish I didn’t burden the health care system with my mistake, I wish I didn’t worry my family and friends like I did and I wish my kids didn’t have to see my scar and shaved parts of my head and have to think about their mom being hurt or worry for one second that it could have been worse.
Mostly though, I’m thankful it wasn’t worse. I’m thankful I walked off that mountain and for the people who are helping me recover.
And of course I’m thankful I can live another day and have another chance to get back out there to run again.