Trying to chop down a tree … with my neck

I went to the Wilderness Education Association annual conference a couple of weeks ago in Asheville, North Carolina. I’ve been involved in the organization for many years, but I hadn’t been to a conference in over a decade. It’s a great organization and the NCCC Wilderness Recreation Leadership program was built around its curriculum.

When folks asked how I liked it, I said, “It was great fun. When you get old enough, people think you’re important. I was treated royally.”

Speaking of old enough, one of the conference highlights was a talk by WEA co-founder, 92-year-old Bob Christie. Bob is originally from Maine but worked in the field of outdoor education throughout North America. I met Bob in Wyoming in 1978 when I took one of the first WEA courses with legendary mountaineer Paul Petzoldt. Bob’s wife and daughter Deb attended the course. Deb was all of 16 and had the challenge of keeping up with college and mostly post-college students which she did admirably.

At the conference when I saw Deb, for the first time in 46 years, she looked at me and said, “I remember you. You’re the guy who hit the tree.”

With that comment I flashed back to 1978. We were wrapping up a portion of the course with Petzoldt and he wanted everyone to try glissading. It was late June but there was plenty of snow on the western slopes of the Tetons. Glissading is the descent of a steep snow-covered slope via a controlled slide on one’s feet. It is generally done in a squatting position with an ice ax to control the descent. If there’s trouble, you flip over onto your toes and elbows and drive the pick into the snow to arrest your descent.

I was eager to do it, perhaps too eager, because I hadn’t done it in eight years. We stashed our packs and headed up a steep slope about 100 yards in length covered with snow with a couple of trees sprinkled about. As we headed up the slope Paul said, “You owe the Forest Serve five bucks if you hit one of the trees.”

“Ha ha,” I thought as I slowly ascended, because the trees were spread out and would be easy to avoid. I took the lead and got to the top of the slope. When I looked down the slope, I was unintimidated by its steepness. I saw a couple of trees to my left and a few boulders down at the bottom. Some of my colleagues were on their way up when I decided to take off. Some might argue I was a hotshot, but I’d say I was enthusiastic, perhaps extremely so.

I started glissading and within 10 feet, lost my balance and started to tumble. I was sliding headfirst, completely out of control and struggled to swing my body around into the arrest position, but to no avail. As I tumbled, rolled, bounced and flopped, I thought of the trees below and knew I’d miss them. But I was wrong. I didn’t realize that because of my effort to get into the arrest position, I’d swerved to the left and was heading directly toward one of the two trees.

The next thing I remember I was looking out across the valley as it slowly came into focus. I heard someone on my right. In a deep fog I turned and said, “What happened?”

“You were glissading down, lost control and hit the tree with the back of your neck. You were tumbling down like a wet dishrag out of control. Jeff, Gary and Mitch stopped you. You might have slid all the way to the rocks if they hadn’t.”

It all started to make sense to me, but not until I learned that I had asked the same question four times. I was semi-conscious, and it wasn’t until 10 or 15 minutes later that I came fully to and remembered where I was and what I was doing. A number of the participants were trained as Wilderness Emergency Medical Technicians. They used the incident as a teachable moment, and they improvised a stretcher and carried me to our campsite. I felt okay — I had no headache and was fortunate to feel no after-effects.

That was then, this is now. If it happened today, I’d immediately be evacuated and put on concussion protocols.

Slightly shaken (but not stirred) I downed a healthy dinner, listened to campfire stories and tolerated bad jokes. So, but what could have ended in tragedy ended in another outdoor adventure.

Best of all Paul never charged me the five dollars.


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