So there I was, flying through the air with no semblance of ease at all.The flight only lasted maybe a second; but, in that fraction of time, I had two very clear thoughts. I’ll get to the first in a minute, but the second was that this was really going to hurt. After telling people that I grew up in northern Michigan, I’m routinely asked about how I survived the extraordinarily harsh winters. Turns out that the yearly average of three-hundred plus inches of snow provided the answer for me. Unlike the occasional blizzard that may temporarily plague most of the country, we had enough of the white powder to do something with it like cross-country skiing, snowmobiling, or even snow-shoeing. For the more adventurous among us, there was always downhill skiing on Mont Ripley. I’m not sure what the name translates into, but I’m guessing it’s akin to “sheer cliff.” According to their snack bar’s place-mat/fact-sheet, it’s the steepest ski hill in all Michigan, and I’m here to tell you I believe it because that’s why I almost wasn’t here to tell you this story.
It was late January, and I was really looking forward to going skiing that day because of a unique fundraiser sponsored by a student group from Michigan Tech University. Participants paid a small fee and in exchange would get the opportunity to ski through two infrared beams at the bottom of the hill’s longest run. Each person got three attempts, and whoever posted the best time would win a modest prize and bragging rights. Along with that, I got the opportunity to play out my Olympic fantasy of winning gold in the Alpine Downhill event. With one try left, I was feeling pretty confident that I could best my top speed of 74.4 mph and end the day as king of the mountain.
I came off the chair lift at the top of the hill and took my place in line with the other racers. Following one of the volunteer’s suggestions, I had already disconnected my restraining straps. Those are the short cables that keep your skis from flying down the hill without you should you wipe out. The logic being that if I did take a fall at those speeds, I wouldn’t want to add two man-high pieces of wood into the mix. As I waited, I looked out across the Portage Canal towards my hometown of Houghton. It was cloudy, which is not unusual since as part of a fourth grade science project my class once recorded a sixty-eight day long stretch without sunshine. Before long, it was time for my final attempt. The starter called down to the bottom to make sure the course was clear, and I was given the thumbs up to go.
Pushing back with my right leg, I set off down the hill. I tried to make myself as small as possible to reduce wind resistance by quickly tucking into the classic downhill skier’s position: back arched, legs bent, hands held out in front of me. Some ruts were starting to develop from the other skiers, but nothing I couldn’t handle. As soon as possible, I straightened my path toward the timing station. With the ever-increasing speed came a weird sort of tunnel vision that caused the landscape to blur as it flew by. I was rapidly approaching the bottom and could feel myself leaning forward more and more. I zipped through the speed trap and was just about to start slowing down when several things happened in rapid succession, none of them good.
First, my skis hit a compression which, for the layman, is a small dip like a pothole. It causes the middle of your skis to flex downward and then bounce back up like a spring. Normally, it sometimes makes you lose balance and fall over in a snowy heap. At the speed I was going; however, it caused me to become airborne like I was just shot out of a catapult. Granted, it was a relatively weak catapult, but it was enough to make bad things happen.
As with any traumatic event, time slowed down to a crawl and my senses became very acute while I was airborne. Looking left, I could see the horrified expressions on the spectators who were watching my forlorn attempt to fly. To the right was a small copse of fir trees that I knew I didn’t want to land amongst. And in my head was the other thought I alluded to earlier. I was thinking that if I was in the bed of a pick-up traveling down a wintery road at seventy plus miles an hour, and I decided, for whatever reason, to just step out of it onto the snowbank; it would feel exactly like what was about to happen to me. And no, I did not stick the landing.
In fact, I basically somersaulted down the hillside in a bumbling, rolling, cursing mass. I managed to avoid any really large rocks, but still ended up with one ski-pole wrapped neatly around my skull. Eventually, I ground to a halt with a mouth-full of snow, a tremendous throbbing in my noggin, and missing both of my skis. At first, I thought I was dead because when I opened my eyes all I could see was completely pure luminous whiteness. Turned out, I was just laying face-down in the snow. I lifted my head to regain my bearing and noticed one of my skis had implanted itself like a makeshift grave marker for a fallen soldier back near my first impact crater. Its twin had sailed out of sight towards the ski-lodge at the bottom of the hill.
Luckily, a ski patrol member was able to return my other ski when he came up to check if I was still alive. Eventually, I was able to put both of them back on and start wobbling my way down to the bottom with one hand firmly grasping the ski patroller’s arm. I made it to his hut for some much needed first-aid, but I had some trouble focusing my vision, which I attributed to the goose-egg sized bump bleeding above my left eye. Just like I had never wiped out going that fast before, he evidently had never seen a skier with a concussion. That’s the only reason to explain why his method of treatment consisted of wrapping my head like the wounded fife player in the painting Spirit of 1776 and immediately allowing me to drive home by myself. Today, I would have been wrapped in cotton balls and med-evacuated by helicopter.
In retrospect, steering wasn’t that hard once I realized that out of every three cars which approached me, only the one in the middle was real. And I probably should have changed out of my ski boots first before turning the key. All in all, I was very lucky that my Olympic dreams were the sole fatality that day.