Saturday, March 26, 2011
One easy way to fully appreciate the dynamic range that mother nature is capable of is to spend one weekend in Tucson and the next at Big White ski resort in BC Canada (eh). Tucson sits at 2389 feet and is dry, usually warm, and fairly barren. Big White sits at 5757 feet, is surprisingly dry as well, and (at least in winter) lives under a thick white blanket of powder. My Tucson sunburn had barely peeled before I was off for another adventure, this time flying north instead of driving East, towards the snow instead of the desert.
So you've never heard of Big White before? Neither had I, playing my role as the ugly American, despite 3 trips to Penticton for Ironman Canada. Penticton is only an hour from Kelowna which is the primary airport serving Big White. From Kelowna, an hour puts you in a mountaintop village that sits nestled into the bottom of an expansive ski resort. My first thought upon arriving (at 2am, in a sleepy haze mind you) was amazement that such a gem could exist without me even hearing about it before. Heaps (my new favorite Aussie word) of thanks to my old man for dragging me along with him for this adventure, one that I wouldn't typically plan by myself.
Ironically, the best day of the week wound up being that first Sunday, and I slept in. Blue skies and light winds with relatively modest temps made for grins across the board, everywhere we looked we saw smiles, hoots, hollers, and lots of fluffy white powder. I'm always skeptical of marketing claims and tag lines, but the snow really was as good as anything I've ever experienced. I often think about my college days of long drives to Killington, VT, with icy, windy, snowblown conditions, so perhaps my standards aren't too high, but I was continuously surprised at how pristine the slopes were. Even the one or two icy patches I hit seemed to be very forgiving, the deep powder was light, soft, fluffy, and plentiful, and the groomed runs were extensive, wide, long, and more fun than I had expected they might be.
I spent the first day and a half following my dad around between the 3 major sections of the mountain, doing more putzing than pushing the pace, and having a pleasant if not wholly enjoyable experience on the mountain. The highlight was being able to eat breakfast and lunch at the condo with a window out onto the slops. Ski-in, ski-out is a concept that was unknown to me before this trip to Big White, but one I will not forget, it's so nice to be able to grab a quick bite at your condo any time you want. The village itself was small, but just perfect for a week of fun, it had everything anyone might want, and the market/grocery store contained a decent assortment of healthy foods and fresh fruits/vegetables. There are a lot of hot tubs, most of the nice condos have a private tub on the deck. I was just starting to get into a groove of breakfast, slopes, lunch, slopes, hot tub, dinner, and wander the village a bit for a drink before falling off into a gentle sleep before starting it all over again.
On Tuesday, my father and I joined up with another pair of women from the Hawaii group and wandered our way through a few runs. I was feeling antsy for some reason, perhaps the day and a half of following my dad's somewhat confused lead had worn down my ability to follow, or perhaps I was just in an unusually unsettled state of mind. Whatever it was, something was off on Tuesday, so after winding up in Gem Lake with the other 3, we split at the top of the lift, with me off to find some of the runs at the edge of the ski boundary and the ladies and my father off to do more in the middle of the mountain. I stumbled through some deep powder to experience Blue Moon, and as I reached the bottom I decided that was too much powder. Back at the top of the Gem lake chair, I ventured off back towards the village, happy to be able to turn off my brain and just go wherever I thought looked good at the moment. As it turns out, sometimes keeping the brain switched on is a good idea because as I was daydreaming I wandered into the ski groomers access run, which was of course clearly marked with "no access to village" sign that I took to read "for a good hike, cruise down this way".
After lugging myself and my board back up from my mistake, I decided I'd head off to the powder chair instead of another trip to the long and somewhat chilly Gem Lake chair. I shared the ride up with a local lady sporting a well bleached mustache (and I suppose it was this thinking where my karma dug me a hole) who gave me a little bit of background on the sister mountain to Big White, Silver Star, specifically how it has lots of "steeps" but yet a front side that is more family friendly. I watched her jet off as I lazily tightened my bindings and headed down, happy to be free to do as I pleased, and determined to avoid any silly "no access to village" mistakes.
Of course my stupidity soon caught back up with me as I wandered off from a green into some deeper powder in between two runs, through the trees. Know thyself is a key mantra on the slopes, and bouncing in between trees is not something I can do off one week of boarding every 4 years. So, I basically pinballed through this section, getting some powder down my pants and partially enjoying, partially annoying myself.
I popped out on powder gulch which was fairly groomed, so I let go of the brakes and started building speed. Readers will take note of where this is going even if I did not share the news with you previously. I mean, how could I give all this build up without something going horribly wrong, right? That would be immensely annoying of me, and if there's one thing I try to avoid being, it's annoying. Though I'm sure I often fail at that as well :)
So, there I was, finally free, finally on an actual run, one that wasn't a green, wasn't for snow groomers only, wasn't cold, in fact it was beautiful, and no other people to wait for at the bottom or ride the brakes to stay behind. It was time to go, so I went. Never mind that the past day and a half had been training for family ski time, not the Easa winter olympics of stupidity. Towards the bottom of the powder gulch run, the bowl opened up, much like a wave does on a shallow reef. Just past the lip, I saw what I assume was a husband/wife combo below me, smoothly picking their way across and down. Remember that much of the morning I had spent with my brain shut in the off position, and I should also add that my brain doesn't swich on nearly as fast as a Toyota prius engine does when the accelerator is pressed. It takes me a while to make a decision, and a good decision takes even longer. So, as I kept cutting to the right, and the lady below me kept cutting to the right, I was busy pressing the "on" button on my brain with little to no success. In hindsight, the smart move was to cut back to the left, towards the middle of the run, and risk annoying skiers coming down from above me. For some reason, I didn't make that cut. And by the time I reached the right edge of the run, that option was now gone as the lady was maybe 20 or 30 feet ahead and I was still moving faster than I should have to be so close to someone who it seemed was either stopped or slowly picking her way carefully into a turn.
At a certain point, the only two choices left were to cut and either bowl down the woman, and possibly her man, probably hurting one or both of them, or bail out in a path which would ensure no contact was made with either of them. That path was off the right side of the run, into the trees. As I took this second option, perhaps much more out of stupidity than altruism or empathy, I remember being surprised at just how much speed I actually had. When you spend the first day and a half moving slowly, and then all of a sudden you let it all go, this has a tendency to happen. So, if I wasn't out of control at the moment of bailout, I was definitely close enough to the edge of control that I should have known better. Let's count 'em, that's two mistakes now, one for not cutting back to avoid the couple, and two for going too fast for my abilities at a point where the run steepened up.
I took my first contact with the powder as I skidded into the trees, and that was the moment when I fully realized all the speed I had. Unlike a controlled fall where I can keep my eyes ahead of me and at least be prepared for what I'm going to hit or where I'm going to land, this one was a complete bailout with no control of where my body parts wound up. There was a tumble, perhaps a head knocked against the ground, and then I quickly and solidly came to rest wrapped around a small but firmly rooted tree stump. The stump was no thicker than my leg, but it did not give at all. It made impact squarely on the outside of my right knee, with my board and both feet bent around the slope-side and my torso cocked at an angle downhill and into the trees on the non-slope-side. There are probably good names for these directions, but I don't know them because as you can probably tell, I pretty much suck at snowboarding.
So, there I am, as the pain starts to rear its head, and I have difficulty digging myself out of the position I'm in which is causing all this pain. I can't use my strength to pull my feet and the board back in line with my knee because that would require using force in a direction where the most pain would ensue. So, I'm forced to dig into the deeper powder under my torso to unwrap the heavy side of my body and try to leave my feet and lower legs where they are to avoid messing myself up even more. As I manage to fold myself back into a semi seated position, the call from below comes my way, well intentioned insult to injury, "are you ok?". A genuine look of concern from the man who I cannot blame in any way for my stupidity, and as much as I would have liked to hate him or make up some story about how this family friendly ski resort now all of a sudden sucked, I'm forced to swallow all of my ego in one big gulp and reply "yeah". Apparently he wasn't convinced, though, because he felt it appropriate to ask again. You know you really screwed up when some guy you don't even know, who you didn't really come that close to in your wipeout, asks you twice if you are OK. And he's like 40' down the slope from you and could so very easily just head off after the first response. OK, now I really feel like an idiot, buddy, as I respond with a 2nd "yeah, I'm ok" or something along those lines. By that point in time I had managed to reach a full seated position with my back against the tree that had decided to take all of it's fury out on my knee. The sun was shining down on me, beautiful blue skies overhead, and wow I was in pain.
I took maybe 5 minutes just sitting there. It was the first time since I had arrived at Big White that I wasn't remotely concerned about getting maximum value out of my lift ticket. I was content to sit there all day, but the delusion quickly kicked in, "I'm fine, nothing's hurt, I'm superman anyway, all that yoga really paid off, my increased flexibility ensured that this is just some small bruise, time to get rolling, it's not really that bad." I'm sure every guy knows this moment, after you've made a complete fool of yourself and all of the observers have left the scene, when its time to pretend that nothing actually happened.
So, off I go, down the slope for the last 400m or so, and off towards the lift. It actually doesn't hurt much at all to ride down and make turns because there isn't any inward force on the knee while boarding. And at the bottom, this particular bottom, with the powder chair, the bowl comes to a flat spot and you naturally run out of all your speed before needing to unbuckle. So, the delusion continues and I unbuckle and get back on the chair.
At the top, I decide it's getting close to lunch and it's probably appropriate to head on back towards the village. Getting off the powder chair isn't bad either, it's a nice gentle, not-too-fast landing from the chair, although I experience my first real sharp pain while trying to leg drag to stop myself near the top of the edge of the exit from the chair where the lip to the first run starts. This is going maybe 2-3 mph, so it's not too bad, at worst it is manageable, at best it's just leftover neuron transmissions from the impact. So, off I go, down some sort of something, don't ask me where I went, but I make it to the bottom of the main lifts in the center of the mountain. Ridge rocket express and plaza chair, or something like that. I could look it up if I weren't throttled down to like 1 byte per minute at Kelowna airport while writing this.
At the bottom I have to brake again because the entrance to both lifts is semi-downhill, and while dragging the injured leg I really start to understand the magnitude of the pain I'm dealing with. It is stronger than me, and no amount of mental willpower is going to convince my leg to do what I want it to anymore. So, I straighten out and plow into the embankment, fortunately without anyone really noticing my rookie idiot move. I unbuckle both feet and walk to the lodge to take a quick break and see how it feels walking. Again, delusion and denial are in full swing here, any normal idiot would have made arrangements to get back to the village and call it a day, but not this idiot. After a pee break, I wander back to the bottom of the plaza chair with my board, ready to try to make it back to the village on the chair, I mean, it's lunchtime after all, right?
I drop my board behind a bunch of munchkin kiddies in their ski school lesson with a couple of cool-as-hell aussie instructors. Did I mention that all Aussies are cool? Maybe once or twice? I even asked one last night at the bar if there were any wimpy Aussies, because I've never met any and she said if there are, they all stay in Australia to keep the international perception as high as it is. So, yeah, anyway, this cool as hell Aussie chick instructor looks at me as I lunge sideways to grab my board as it starts sliding toward the backs of one of the kids ski's. Not that a 1 mph thump from an unweighted snowboard would do much to an 8 year old kid, but the idiot in me is still refusing to have any sort of negative impact on anyone else's day, so sideways lunge at full throttle. Now, it isn't the lunge itself which causes any trouble because that's an outward force on the right knee, or an inward force on the left knee which is 100% uninjured. But, I think once I am able to grab the board while hunched over, the pain comes from braking, again with the right leg, to try to stop the lunge, lest I plow into the kid in front of me, board in my hands, or probably under my belly, and look like an even bigger idiot than I already do, as if there were even possible. So, yeah, I collapse to the ground in pain, maybe 3 feet behind this group of kids as the Aussie turns around to look at me like the freak show that I am. What do you say in that type of a situation? "Hi, I'm an idiot, you're pretty cool, sorry to bug ya, just having an off day, carry on?"
She asks me, "are you ok"? That's the 3rd time in about an hour. Even worse than being asked that question twice by the same dude, is being asked by someone who didn't even see the events of the last hour. So, I lamely respond with "Yeah, sorry, just having a bit of a knee thing right now." What I really was thinking was "maybe a sandwich will fix me right up". Or "I might have to have a beer soon". Not "I just tore my MCL and I'm f'd for 3 weeks and here I am lying on the ground behind a bunch of kids and I'm going to pretend that I'm fine." After I lie there for another minute or two while she waits for the rest of her flock to arrive, practicing my ujai yoga breathing comes the expected and fully deserving "do you want me to call the ski patrol?"
Ugh, take away the shred of manhood I thought I might still posses, I no longer deserve it. Some badass Aussie, who probably uses tree sap to close off any wound smaller than 10cm, just asked if I needed the ski patrol. And I'm at the bottom of the friggin hill too. In total safety. And I just took two runs and a chair to get to this point. But, I'm now realizing, I felt something pop or tear in that last lunge. Probably because it was an impulsive type of lunge, non premeditated, completely instinctual, and therefore not wired into the most recent events which dictate more caution than normal. She just asked me if I'd like to throw my nads in the trash can, and sit on the bench to wait for a bloke in a snowmobile, or worse yet a pair of ski's and a body carrier, to take my pathetic butt back to the village. Oh the horror. I think I'd rather die. I'm sure I'd rather die. Who wouldn't?
So, it's time to distance myself from this most recent display of pathetic spasticity. I pick up my board, bring myself to my feet, and calmly thank her for her concern and walk off. No way am I going to chance taking out a kid at the top of the plaza chair. I know I can't drag my foot at all, and I don't trust my ability to cut that much either, so it's time to be safe rather than sorry. So, I hike it home, upwards along the run, and then along walking paths. At first I'm thinking I can make it up and over and then follow the line down to the gondola which will transport me to the top without requiring a leg drag. But as I reach the gondola line, I decide to delude myself even further, if I can walk home, I'm not really injured. I take my time, and arrive at the condo towards the end of the lunch period. I leave my board in the locker, no way am I touching it again today, and as I take off my boots I notice that I cracked the plastic pullcord which tightens the laces somehow, so I start laughing.
I'd like to pretend the rest of the story is somehow worth telling, but it's not. I rest and ice the rest of that afternoon, falling asleep on the couch, not in much pain, but with plenty of self loathing to incude a nice REM sleep. The next day the local doc confirms the suspected diagnosis of a Grade II MCL tear after an exam. I actually enjoyed the last few days of the week even though I wasn't able to do much of anything, I think you have a greater appreciation for what is out there when you can't experience it than when you are in the middle of all of it. The swelling seems to be somewhat confused as some of the fluid that was hanging out in my knee has dripped down into my shin to make it seem like I'm even more disfigured than I actually am.
So, the next few weeks may not be entirely as planned as far as yoga and running are concerned. Western States is not exactly on track, but it's not completely off the table either. AR50 is definitely a big question mark and PCT 50 isn't for sure anymore either. It's a bit of a bugger since I felt so extremely fit during the weekend of training in Tucson. But I wasn't about to skip out on the ski trip for the 3rd or 4th consecutive year. My dad is the coolest dad I could ever hope him to be and to share the days I got to share with him was a real blessing. I'll do it all again next year, though I think it's time for the skinny ski's and some XC work. I think as I get older I am just less interested in riskier sports like cycling, surfing, snowboarding, etc. At the same time, I'm even more interested in sports that have a solid conditioning side benefit, it just doesn't feel like a workout unless I'm trashed at the end of it, and with all the yoga, the downhill snowboarding at my dad's pace felt like I wasn't putting enough effort in.
Who knows what the next 3 weeks will be like. The knee itself doesn't feel that bad, just painful and unstable if I push inward on it, which isn't a force often encountered in the sports I like to do. And once the swelling reduces, I should have decent range of motion in the knee joint itself, as long as I keep the mcl from hyperextending again so it can repair itself. The doc and reading say that the mcl is highly vascular and repairs itself well, in fact surgery isn't indicated for an mcl tear regardless of how bad it is. So, it's one of those wait and see situations, and of course publish your story so everyone else can laugh at me. That is the Aussie way, right?