After the Crash, They Said I Was Fine. I Wasn't.
Ten years ago, heli-ski guide Erin Tierney survived a helicopter crash and began a relentless journey of healing and recovery. Battling injuries invisible to the naked eye, she fought to reframe and regain her hold on the life she loved.
The thin haze of clouds parted as we entered a valley deep in the Monashee Mountains of southeast British Columbia. I was guiding five of my favorite heli-skiing clients in some of the world’s best backcountry tree skiing. Three-thousand-foot vertical runs of widely spaced fir, hemlock, and cedar trees awaited us. This is where dreams became reality; bucket lists are checked off and rebookings are made as soon as the days end. We were warmed up and ready to make our mark.
It was the start of the 2010–2011 winter season. I had been a heli-ski guide for 13 years, logging 18 to 20 weeks of guiding per season for a heli-ski outfit. It was my second year as the company’s operations manager, and I was riding high, or trying to. The previous winter had gained a reputation among guides in the province as one of the worst avalanche cycles in 40 years—it was a tough start to my management career, feeling like we were constantly dodging bullets. Flying into this valley, things were starting to look a little sweeter. Our next run lay in front of us like a brightly wrapped gift.
After a quick scan of the helicopter pickup area, Jim, our pilot, began to climb. Heli pilots often like to ascend mountains like a ski tourer going uphill, weaving their way back and forth across the terrain. Jim is one of the best pilots I know—calm and extremely skilled, with thousands of hours of mountain flying under his belt. The wind could be blowing 30 knots (about 35 mph), and if you asked him how things were going, Jim would give a little shrug and say, “Aw, ya know, a little windy, but it’s workable.” If he didn’t like the conditions, he would let you know in that same composed voice: “Well, now, maybe it’s time we head down.” Either way, you listened to Jim.
The relationship between guide and pilot is crucial to a safe and successful day in the mountains. Jim and I worked together as a team, making decisions based on detailed weather forecasts, avalanche hazard, and human factors, like the experience of the group. Over the years, we’d built a close partnership—we made choices that strived to reduce the other person’s stress while guests laughed and peered excitedly out the windows in the back of the helicopter.
During the slow climb up the mountain, Jim and I chatted about our summers and the winter ahead. I confessed my guilt about missing a family event at the ski lodge that day. My three-year-old son, Sam, would be meeting Santa for the first time. Not being there for moments like these wracked me as I tried to balance advancing my career and being a good mom.
Stunted trees dotted the rocky slope below as we crested the steep runout of an avalanche path and climbed in lazy circles about 300 feet above a narrow bench in the terrain. Undulations in the snow hinted at a boulder field lurking beneath the surface. Luckily, the massive old-growth trees we were about to ski were more protected from the wind, holding deep, light, dry snow that would blow over our heads as we jumped off fallen logs and rock drops. I felt my excitement rise.
I looked across to our landing: a slot perched just above the trees. It seemed as though we were a bit higher than we needed to be, and I turned to say as much to Jim. I never got the chance. As I reached for the radio toggle, Jim said, in his ever-calm voice, “Erin, I think we just lost the engine.”
Time seemed to stop. I was suddenly in a dream state, suspended, watching myself stare open-mouthed at Jim. He allowed his training to take over and skillfully put the machine into an autorotation to prevent a catastrophic nosedive into the mountain. I didn’t speak. I felt like I was floating on a cloud and watching a film strip of green, white, and gray unravel before my eyes. I thought, “This isn’t so bad.”
Then, in an instant, I felt the hardest impact I’ve ever experienced. A jolt of pain and energy spiked through my back, traveling up my spine. My hands flew up like I was on an amusement park ride, momentarily suspended in the air while they fought gravity. The clipboard I’d been holding in my lap bounced up. I tried to catch it with my hands. The metal edge of it grazed my pinky finger, drawing blood. I slammed down in my seat.
Everything was white. Then dark. And silent. Except for the voice inside my head wondering if this was the moment I was going to die.
I knew I wanted to pursue heli-ski guiding as a career my first week on the job, in 1999. It was springtime and rainy. We skied knee-deep wet snow in the trees just to get out of the lodge. It was awful. I loved it.
After a summer of training in the mountains, I returned for my first full season as a tail guide—I skied at the back of the group to help clients who fell and to be there if a rescue was needed. I had left family and friends behind to see if this dream job could become a career. Then, on a snowy day in February, I had my answer. I was tail guiding the last of three groups when we landed in a notch cut out of trees on a ridge. Below us lay 3,000 vertical feet of blower powder. I had spied the terrain from the air and was excited to ski it, even from the back of the group. As we clicked into our skis, a girl quietly asked where she could pee. The lead guide told me to wait with her, then ski down and rejoin the group. She finished quickly. She was a good snowboarder, and I smiled and asked her if she was ready to rip.
“Oh yeah,” she said, and we were off, floating down the mountain through widely spaced trees, smashing through pillows of snow, and dropping into a bottomless white room without another track in sight. Three thousand feet later, panting with exhilaration, we hooked into some tracks, and I pulled up beside the lead guide of the helicopter. Under his steely glare, I quickly realized we had passed all three groups—a big no-no. I was really sorry but couldn’t conceal my shit-eating grin.
I began to gush, exhilarated by the run. The lead guide’s demeanor softened. He smiled and said, “That’s what I do all winter long.” I knew then that I wanted to be a lead guide. I would work and train and sacrifice time with family and friends to achieve that goal.
Now, 13 years later, I was operations manager for my heli-ski outfit—the only woman to hold that role in the company’s history and the second female lead guide to work there. It was an intense job, guiding full-time, as well as managing risk, logistics, and a team of 30 guides, but I thrived. I had my systems in place and felt confident. Sometimes it got lonely in the sparsely populated women’s locker room, hearing the laughter and camaraderie from the men’s locker room across the hall. But I was part of an experienced, strong, and professional team who understood their roles, and that made my job somewhat easier.
I was also a mother to a three-year-old boy—he was a highlight in my life, but added an extra layer of intensity to my already busy days. I felt torn as I waved goodbye to my son every morning, leaving him in someone else’s care so I could pursue my goals. But I was also lucky: my husband, Ian, is also an accomplished guide, and I worked with him all winter, a rarity in the industry. We debriefed on our days each night before passing out from exhaustion midsentence.
My first winter as operations manager coincided with an exceptionally problematic avalanche cycle that started mid-January and continued until late spring. Providing fun, safe skiing became a constant challenge as the tricky snowpack forced us to change the way we had historically managed our terrain. There were fatalities and near misses from recreationalists all around us. These accidents were unrelated to our operation, but as the nearest professionals, we were called on to assist as rescuers on a weekly basis.
I absorbed these traumas into my sphere of responsibility. One morning, before heading out to guide, I was called on to fly into a mountain hut and inform a group of ski tourers that their friend had just been killed in a nearby avalanche. Their families wanted them home. They met me at the cabin door with hot coffee and grins, excited to start the day’s adventure. My words stunned them into silence and forever changed their lives. In another instance, I performed CPR on a recreational snowmobiler who had fallen into a tree well and couldn’t get out in time. I tried not to look at the patient’s face as I worked unsuccessfully, but I was unable to avoid his brother’s anguished look as he sat across from me in the helicopter on our flight out.
I could have delegated these tasks, and as the manager, maybe I should have. But I was new to the role and still wanted to be part of the hands-on action with the team. I thought if I could do it all, I would prove I was worthy of the job. I wanted to take care of people as I had seen my mentors do in the past. I wanted to prove I was strong enough to deflect the burden of trauma from others, whether they were staff, guests, or unfortunate souls who met their end in the mountains where we played.
Even though we managed to get through that season without physical injuries or worse to guests and staff, the mountains had shown their dark side, their potential for power and destruction. The joy they had previously brought me was replaced by an unease and wariness that I still hadn’t come to grips with as I entered the next winter.
The 2010–2011 winter season started quietly in December, with only two helicopters running: a big 212 that took three groups of 12 each day, and mine, a nimble and sleek aircraft that held six. Still wary of the mountains, I distracted myself with administrative tasks for the first week of operations, but now my guests had arrived. I could no longer hide in the office; it was time to get to work in the mountains.
I discussed route plans and terrain choices with the lead guides at our morning meeting. I tried to suppress my grin as I claimed a special valley in the Monashee Mountains and its glorious tree skiing as my tenure for the day. My dream from all those years ago was coming true: five guests and I lapping up the powder through our own private paradise. Fully expecting the wily veterans of the team to trump my plans with their loud, cumbersome helicopter and 30 guests, I was strangely dismayed when they chose to head north to a different range, far from me. I waited for them to tell me to come with them, to stay closer for safety, but they didn’t. Maybe this was part of being the boss—they weren’t going to tell me what to do. Or maybe they were testing me.
The conversation soon switched to hockey, and I was left with my own silent battle of right versus wrong. Ideally, we should have the two machines working close together in case something happened. Then Chris, another guide, popped his head in to say he’d been tasked with some work in mountains closer to me. That was all it took to push the angel off my shoulder, link arms with the devil, and head off into nirvana.
I rolled away from the Guide’s Haus down the icy path on my winter bike, dressed in ski gear and boots, backpack on, oxygen kit bouncing off the handlebars as I pedaled toward my guests’ chalet. I laughed to myself that this would probably be the sketchiest part of my day.
“Erin, are you OK?”
The voice broke through the gloom of the cabin, shaking me out of a daze. It was Jim, still calm, beside me.
“My back,” I groaned. “You?”
“Yeah, me too.” He called out over his shoulder: “Hey, how’s everyone doing in the back?”
“Huh? Who?” My guests! I gave my head a slight shake. I had completely forgotten about them.
“Yeah, you guys OK?” I called weakly.
I tried to orient myself. The radio. I need to call for help. But no one would hear us—we are in an area of poor reception, down low on the hillside. No one knows where we are. Our last call had us in a whole different valley, and normally Jim would have radioed in our new location upon landing. They wouldn’t come looking for at least an hour, thinking our silence was just the fault of a poorly working radio repeater. I need to get out of this machine now! My brain acknowledged these thoughts, but I just couldn’t quite figure out what to do with the information.
There was tingling in my fingers and hands. I remembered my first-aid training, refreshed just the week before. Numbness and tingling? Am I paralyzed? What if I move the wrong way and rupture my spinal cord? Pain seared through my chest. Don’t move!
Gingerly, I reached forward. Hot, burning pain roiled across the middle of my chest again. Am I having a heart attack? Am I dying? Fear coursed through my veins. A horrible metallic taste, worse than bile, rose in my throat. The taste of terror. “Base, this is Erin.”
A crackle. “Erin, go for Base.”
They heard me! Now what do I say? I can’t remember, why is everything so fuzzy? Type 2 means I need help. Type 4 the helicopter is missing. Which one is it? Why is this so confusing?
“Help, we need help. Type 2, I mean 4,” I said. “It’s a helicopter crash.”
“Copy that, Erin. We’re coming. Hold on.”
One of my guests appeared beside me and opened my door. Blurred bodies appeared behind him, crawling away from the helicopter on hands and knees, as if from out of a hole. Miraculously, everyone in the back of the helicopter was OK. As soon as we hit, they had pulled on the latch and threw themselves into the door, wedging it open against the snow. As they crawled out the crack of the door, their heads had come close to the still-turning heli blades until Jim reached up to pull the brake that stopped them. My guests were experienced heli-skiers. They shimmied like seals on the snow, staying low.
“My radio,” I said. Too scared to move, I told a guest, “Take it. I called them. They’re coming.”
He reached in and unzipped my portable radio from my jacket. I relinquished all control and went inside myself to wait. My body was frozen in the seat, and my brain was firing on and off like a shorted wire. One minute I was staring wide-eyed and straight ahead as if in a trance, seeing the crash replay again and again, and the next I was wanting to fire off commands and take over as accident site commander. I watched from the corner of my eye as tasks were being performed around me. I tried to reach the base again, this time on the helicopter’s radio, but no one heard me. My world was spinning, yet I felt invisible. Powerless, I sank back in my seat. Everything moved forward while I sat frozen in a moment of time. I was shaking. I called for Jim.
“How are you, Jim? What happened? Where are we?”
“We had a crash, Erin,” Jim replied, still calm as always. “I’m OK. Back is a bit sore. I think we should hang tight till help comes.”
Like a scratched DVD, the scene before me flickered. White, green, the cold metal of the helicopter.
Everything was white. Then dark. And silent. Except for the voice inside my head wondering if this was the moment I was going to die.
The radio buzzed. “All guides, all guides, this is Base. We have a Type 4 helicopter crash. Erin needs help.” The call reached Chris, the nearest guide, just over the pass. He was unloading gear from his helicopter, preparing for a day of teaching two beginner skiers. “Base, Chris copies. I’m 15 minutes away.” He and his pilot quickly flew the skiers back to the base before heading to the scene.
The call traveled north to Heath, the pilot of the 212 helicopter, and the rest of the guides in the field. As some guides worked to extract their guests from the field so they could attend to the scene, all hands mobilized back at the base. Drivers were recruited to pick up guests at the fuel cache. Ambulances were called in from the nearest town, an hour away. And Sam was meeting Santa for the first time.
Sitting in the copilot seat, I wondered whether I would spontaneously combust and die. Pain pulsed through my chest. My hands and fingers were numb. I couldn’t hear anything on the radio, and I was cold, shaking, and staring straight ahead.
With Jim and I immobilized due to our injured backs, my guests took charge. They knew that a landing pad was needed for an incoming rescue helicopter and that our helicopter would need to be excavated from the pit it had created upon landing so that Jim and I could be extracted. They began to dig with avalanche shovels, working on the snow that covered the helicopter three-quarters of the way up its windshield. I wondered if it was snowing as I watched the world change from white to gray and flakes flew across the glass.
Having returned their clients safely to the base, Chris and his pilot flew through the pass, following the flight path Jim had taken earlier. Chris’s eyes scanned the log cuts, looking for our white helicopter with its green and yellow stripes. He searched the trees, willing himself not to find it there. Then, he spotted people waving in the slide path, standing on the narrow bench in the terrain—Jim had landed in the only open spot for kilometers. Chris allowed himself to breathe. Before they were even fully on the ground, he was out of the helicopter, trudging through the deep powder, taking in the scene. Snow was piled up high around the heli. The front foot bubble had smashed on impact and there were chunks missing out of the helicopter’s frame. The whole thing looked both intact and yet somehow not.
“Shit, Erin, what happened?” Chris suddenly appeared next to me, peering through the door. “Jim, you OK?” he said.
Startled out of my daze, I looked sideways at him, careful not to move. “Chris, I’m cold, and I really have to pee.”
I could see relief wash over his face as he heard me try to make a joke. Chris was like a brother; I could talk to him about anything, and we always had fun guiding together. He once hand-delivered an emergency tampon to me stashed in a bag of pastries as I sat in a running helicopter, ready to guide a day of filming with an all-male crew of professional snowboarders.
“We both have bad backs here, Chris,” Jim replied. “I think you better see to Erin first, though. She needs to get out of here.”
“No, no,” I protested. “Help Jim.” I was trying to be brave, but I did want to get the hell out of there. And then it hit me: how would I get out of the mountains? I didn’t want to fly in another helicopter—ever. Could they ski me down to the road in a rescue toboggan and snowmobile me out? I envisioned them lowering me in the toboggan down the avalanche chute, trudging through unconsolidated snow in log cuts likely still too thick with alder bushes to ski through. Finally reaching the logging road, a snowmobile could tow me to the main highway, 24 miles away. That might take a couple of days, but yes, it could work.
“Barry is on his way in the 212, and he’s going to get you guys outta here,” Chris said.
Just then, I heard the thunderous beat of the big helicopter’s blades as it entered the valley at full speed. Whipping around the corner and looking up the slope, Heath, the pilot, rapidly worked the controls to slow the machine, spotting a landing at the path’s edge. It seemed like only a second later that Barry, one of the senior lead guides, was at my side.
“What’s up, girl? What happened?” he said.
Seeing his concerned face, relief washed over me. Barry would get me out. I could hear guides talking to Jim on the other side, and again he told them, “Don’t worry about me. Get Erin out of here first.”
As hands clamped my body and strong arms carefully slid me out of the helicopter and onto the backboard, I tried to make another joke: “Don’t drop me.”
The cold air hit my skin, and I instantly felt exposed, like a scab had been ripped off and all my nerve endings were left dangling. I wanted to curl up and hide. I felt so ashamed that everyone had to drop everything to rescue me. That somehow I made a mistake, that if I had done something differently, this wouldn’t have happened. I had worked so hard to be a leader—to be fair and listen to everyone’s needs. To be strong and instill confidence. And now here I was, being pulled from a helicopter, powerless. Exposed. Broken. I had fallen out of the sky in more ways than one that day.
As I lay on the board in the snow being packaged, Dr. Simon, our resort physician, appeared. He had been at base when he got the distress call. Now, his bearded face was sad as he checked me over. His normally twinkling eyes held pity, as though he knew what lay ahead.
“My fingers are numb and tingling, Simon. I’m so cold and I really have to pee,” I said.
“Okay, we’re going to get you in the 212 and get you warm.” He leaned close. “And if you really have to pee, just go. I won’t tell anyone.”
“Simon, I can’t fly in the 212,” I said. “I can’t. Is there any other way? I’m scared.” Tears began to roll down my cheeks. Silent tears of fear, sadness, and loss of control. I was being lifted, as if on a platter, to the waiting 212. “No,” I said, quietly. Chris’s face appeared.
“You’ll be OK, Erin. Heath will get you there.”
Still trying to retain some scrap of control, I said to Chris, “Can you call Ian? He’s in Whistler, teaching a course. Let him know I’m OK? And let the nanny know I might be a bit late coming home tonight, to look after Sam for me, please?”
I was hoisted up into the helicopter and slid along the back bench with Dr. Simon beside me. Jim was right behind me and Barry alongside him. We were strapped in with seatbelts and slings.
As the blades began to slowly turn and gain momentum and the helicopter began to vibrate, my tears flowed harder and faster, turning into sobs, thankfully drowned out by the whine of the engine.
Thirty minutes later, Jim and I were placed beside each other in a local hospital’s ER. The nurses buried me under armloads of warm blankets, then stuffed heating pads between my arms and legs. My shivering subsided, and a sleepy haze settled over me.
“The doctors are just finishing up their lunches,” the nurse told me. “They should be back shortly.”
Lunch? I thought, snapping fully awake. Where was the action, the sense of urgency? My back still burned, and my fingers were still numb. Fear of potential paralysis coursed through me.
While we waited, I told the nurses what I could remember. I heard Jim saying that he thought we were about 300 feet up when the engine failed. I told her about my back, the pain across my chest. My numbness and the tingling in my fingers. I had a headache.
“What happened to your finger?” She asked.
“Huh, what?” I said.
“Your finger, looks like you got a cut on it.”
I lifted my hands, and there it was. On my right pinky. A small flap of skin had been peeled back. I’d fallen from the sky and this was the only visible evidence.
After going through some rudimentary questions, the nurse determined that I didn’t have a concussion, despite the impact. A numb nod was all I could muster.
“Let’s see if you can get yourself to the X-ray room,” she said.
I could feel my innate stubbornness coming through as I sat up slowly with the nurses’ help. A wave of nausea hit me hard, and the room began to spin. I took a deep breath. Slowly, they inched me forward till my feet were touching the ground. With both their arms around me, I stood up. My body remained hunched as the room swam and I hung onto the nurses as we shuffled across the hall.
The metal table in the X-ray room was cold. I felt so drained. I wanted those warm blankets back. After a few moments, the nurse hoisted me off the table and supported me the few steps back to bed. The curtains had been left open enough that I could see Jim. Our eyes met, and a sad but thankful energy passed between us. We were sore, beat up, and had had the scare of our lives, but we were alive.
“Thank you,” I said quietly as I reached out toward him. He had saved our lives. Without his calmness and amazing skill, the call could have gone out, not for EMTs and backboards, but for body recoveries.
It was snowing hard in Whistler, and the wind was blowing. Ian hung on a rope over a cornice on the Harmony ridgeline with his hood pulled tight over his helmet, goggles down, swinging his arms to stay warm. It was rope rescue training day on the multiday guides course he was teaching, and they had found a doozy of a cornice to practice on: a lip with a vertical hang down to a steep slope where they would meet their victim to “rescue.”
Ian loved teaching and watching students challenge themselves. However, with spindrift blowing down from the ridge, he was looking forward to switching places with Vlad, the other instructor, who was up top. He was thinking that a warm drink of tea would hit the spot. Just then, Vlad belayed himself to the lip and looked over.
“Hey, Ian,” he called, shouting over the wind. “Come on up here.”
Perfect timing, Ian thought, as he attached his foot prussic and began climbing up the rope. He pulled himself over the lip of the cornice and, smiling, began to fill Vlad in on the struggles of the students at the bottom. But Vlad’s face made him stop.
“What’s up?” he asked.
Vlad handed him his cellphone. “Erin’s OK, but she was in a helicopter crash. They just called.”
Ian’s heart stopped, and his stomach rose up into his throat. Tears sprang to his eyes behind his goggles, and his hands shook as he took the phone from Vlad.
I may not have always known where I was going in life, but it was always one step further and one step higher than the one before. A life full of action, adventure, independence, and confidence began when I was five or six, packing my knapsack and venturing solo into the woods behind my house. It continued as I grew older, traveling around the world to ski and race mountain bikes, and then working as a ski patroller and commercial fisherman before settling into guiding. I was never a natural at anything, but I believed that with hard work and determination, I could accomplish my goals. If somebody said different, I would set out to prove them wrong.
Now, in the aftermath of the crash, I didn’t know who I was. I was sent home from the hospital with a diagnosis of soft tissue injuries—sore muscles—and was told I’d be fine in a couple days. The pain meds kicked in, and the sharp, burning pain settled into a dull ache. All I wanted to do was see my little boy and sleep. Chris and Bob, another guide, had picked me up from the hospital—I had implored Ian to stay and finish his course; it was the beginning of the work season and we needed the money. As Chris parked in front of my house, I wondered if Sam would still be awake. It was just past 7 P.M., nine hours since the crash. Part of me hoped my son would be asleep so I could just roll into bed and try to process what had happened.
Thump, thump, thump. A jammie-clad three-year-old sprinted down the hall, blond ringlets bouncing. “MAMAAA!”
This was the beginning of my acting career as a parent. I mustered all my strength, took a deep breath, and, braced discreetly from behind by Chris and Bob, I put on a smile and opened my arms.
“Hi, sweetie!” I croaked as I held back a wave of emotion. “Gentle, sweetie, gentle. Mama’s had a long day.”
“We’ll come back and check on you after dinner, OK?” Bob said.
“That would be really great,” I said, suddenly feeling very alone. I took Sam’s little hand, and we walked toward his bedroom as I cautiously used the hallway wall to hold myself up. He crawled into his bed, made a spot for me, and handed me a book.
Slowly, awkwardly, I lowered down and tried to find a comfortable position. I began to read one of his favorites: Dr. Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham. He had it memorized. But as I turned the pages, the words would not stay still. They moved up and down like ocean waves. Sam corrected my mistakes.
“Mama, you’re being silly. That’s not the right word!”
“Sorry, buddy,” I said, giving my head a little shake and trying to focus.
Sam drifted into a peaceful sleep after telling me about his visit with Santa. I wanted to stay snuggled next to him forever, but the pain wouldn’t let me.
I had worked so hard to be a leader—to be fair and listen to everyone’s needs. To be strong and instill confidence. And now here I was, being pulled from a helicopter, powerless. Exposed. Broken. I had fallen out of the sky in more ways than one that day.
Chris stopped by later to check on me and left looking concerned. I put myself to bed feeling nauseous and dizzy. My head still hurt. I only felt relief when I lay flat. Sleep came eventually, fitful and full of vivid images.
When I awoke the next day, everything ached. I crawled out of bed, dragging a thousand-pound weight behind me, and walked hunched over and dizzy to the living room, where I got to the couch before Sam could tackle me. He was so happy I was home. A scalding sensation rippled through my back until I lay down again. It made me want to scream.
I realized the only way to have some quiet that day was to go to the library and get Sam some DVDs and books. The last thing I wanted to do was stick my son in front of a screen all day, but I was just trying to survive. Ian had the car, but the library was only down the street and a block away. Still, I could barely make it down the hall. Calling someone to help didn’t even register.
The two of us left for the library, and I took shuffling half-steps down the road, setting my sights on the stop sign at the corner. Reaching it, I grabbed on like a life raft, hugging the pole. I felt like I was going to puke, but I could see our goal at the end of the block. I took a deep breath and willed myself onward. Somehow we got to the library, and I collapsed in a chair while Sam raided the DVD shelf. As the librarian checked out Sam’s armload of entertainment, she looked me over with concern.
I hugged the books and DVDs to my chest, bracing myself. We walked down the street, putting one foot in front of the other as I tried my best to acknowledge Sam’s unbridled energy and constant questions. I had to get home. By the time I reached the stop sign again, I was ready to explode. Pain rippled across my back and my head throbbed, eyes straining in the light. A heaviness threatened to grind me into the ground. Steps before we reached the house, a van stopped next to us and Dr. Simon poked his head out. Before I could say hello, I was sobbing uncontrollably. I lowered myself to the ground, a heap in the snow.
“Shh, it’s OK,” Simon said, putting an arm around me. “You’re OK.”
Sam, armed with an arsenal of DVDs, made his way inside as I unloaded to Simon. “They say I’m fine, just some sore muscles, but I don’t feel fine. I feel like I just ran a marathon. I feel dizzy and sick. What’s wrong with me?”
He suggested that I get my back looked at again.
“Listen,” he said, “it’s normal to feel like this after a big event. You’ll be OK. It’s just going to take some time.”
Weeks went by, during which I expected to get better, then months. Nine days after the accident, after paying $1,000 for an MRI, I discovered that the wrong part of my back had been X-rayed and I had three compression fractures in my thoracic spine. That explained the pain. But I was still left wondering about all the other symptoms I was experiencing.
Every minute, the ache reminded me that something was wrong. Anytime I was vertical, my back would start to burn at an intensity that caused me to breathe faster and more sharply. My eyes would squint and my body would tense rigidly until relief came in the form of lying on a couch or the floor. This would make my left arm ache and fall asleep, which made me worry that something else was wrong. My hands constantly tingled and went numb, and the nightmares, anxiety, confusion, disorientation, dizziness, and nausea wouldn’t go away. I couldn’t absorb information that wasn’t delivered in short, direct sentences, leaving me lost and confused. Sympathy from other people was nice, but what I really needed was someone to tell me point-blank: “You have a concussion. You have PTSD. You have a broken back.” And then tell me how to fix these things. Maybe someone did, but I wasn’t absorbing the message.
I was diagnosed with PTSD almost immediately. I could vaguely comprehend what that meant from my years as a ski patroller and a guide, explaining it to other people after their accidents. But now that I was the patient, I couldn’t see the benefit of the therapeutic techniques that I’d so enthusiastically preached in the past. Therapy sessions left me feeling exhausted and defeated that I wasn’t immediately back at work. Since I wasn’t able to ski, I tried to offer organizational support during this time, but visits to the lodge resulted in panic attacks when I saw the helicopters, and during phone meetings, I’d forget what I was saying mid-sentence.
I felt safest at home. But even that was tenuous. Sam would surprise me from behind and I would irrationally scream out in fright, or Ian would be late coming in from the mountain and tears would well up in fear.
It was harder to get a concussion diagnosis. To doctors and friends who knew me, it was obvious. To specialists I saw for the insurance company, there was no way my symptoms were concussion-related, despite the mechanism of injury. It was like the diagnosis scared them. And so when, at eight weeks post-accident, a particularly gruff back specialist told me I could either dwell on the pain and use it as an excuse for the rest of my life or just get on with things, I did what I had always done—I got on with it.
Disregarding the PTSD and concussion symptoms, I began physical rehab soon after the specialist visit. Thinking I was just weak from inactivity, I trained hard for two months and ignored the constant and intensifying headaches, fatigue, and irritability, not realizing that these were classic symptoms of post-concussion syndrome. Then, one day at the gym, I could no longer spin the cranks on the bike. Confused, I stumbled home and slept through the day and into the night. I was in rough shape before I started training, but now it was as if my plug had been yanked from the wall. I had officially drained my battery and it wasn’t recharging.
It was scary and confusing for my family to watch what was happening to me. Over the next few months, it was all I could do to spend a few short hours out of my bed with Sam and Ian, which sometimes led to me yelling or breaking down in tears if their animated conversation generated more energy than I could absorb. I couldn’t read, watch TV, or even stand up to make myself some toast without feeling sick and dizzy. And I didn’t want to. Someone asked me if I got bored from all that lying around. I didn’t have the capacity to be bored. All I wanted was to lie in the dark room and make the pressure in my head subside. Poor Sam was shushed constantly, only allowed to let loose when Ian would take him out of the house on daylong excursions so I could rest.
It took a long time to realize that chronic pain, an undiagnosed head injury, and post-traumatic stress disorder were all conspiring to constantly drain my energy. My body and nervous system were in a constant state of fight or flight, running constantly from the “what-ifs” and “almosts” that consumed my thought patterns. I craved sleep, but it only made me more tired. I wanted silence, but the pressure in my head felt so loud. Quiet walks in the woods should have been healing, but the visual overload of colors and patterns made me dizzy and stumble. There were no casts, no crutches, no evident reason for my state. My injuries were invisible, except for the fading scar on my finger.
The fall of 2011 was approaching, and I was not improving, mentally or physically. I had to make the heart-wrenching decision to resign as operations manager. The owner had been willing to wait and give me time to recover, but I wasn’t ready to return to the office, let alone the front seat of a helicopter. In fact, at that time I had no intention of ever getting back into a helicopter again. Just seeing one fly past caused my chest to tighten as I visualized the pilot and hoped he would survive his flight.
When we weren’t guiding and living in the town where the heli-ski lodge was located, our family lived in a tiny cabin deep in the mountains of southern British Columbia, accessible only by a rough logging road. This paradise was both a blessing of peace and quiet and a gigantic logistical hurdle as I negotiated multiple weekly counseling and physiotherapy sessions. For many months, I couldn’t safely drive; it was hard to process how to get through an intersection, whose turn it was to go. I found myself losing long sections of highway and wondering how I had gotten to where I was. For every treatment, Ian, Sam, the dog, and I would pack into the car, rattle over the logging road, spend a couple nights on friends’ couches, then rattle back home again, only for me disappear into my bedroom for a week to recover from the trip. Then we’d do it all over again.
As it became clear I wasn’t going back to guiding anytime soon, Ian and I made the difficult decision to leave our house and move closer to a big city for my treatments. I had lost my home, my job, my identity, my self-worth, and my connection to friends who couldn’t understand why I had retreated. Why couldn’t I just suck it up, get over it, and move on? I felt deeply the loss of control. I was trying desperately to regain my health, to rejoin my group of mountain enthusiasts. But all I could do was wonder: What’s wrong with me? Am I just making this up? Am I ever going to get better?
My life was barely a life—it was a balancing act of trying to get enough sleep and quiet time to have the energy to enjoy a couple hours on the deck with my family. On the rare occasion when we had friends over for dinner, I would often have to leave the table, crying in my room because my head was so overloaded by the noise. While Ian and Sam spent their days away from the house to avoid disturbing me, I often thought how much easier life would be for them if I didn’t exist. But I also knew that if I was gone, that would create more damage and sorrow for them. It strengthened my resolve to heal myself.
Around this time, in 2011, both concussions and PTSD were making headlines, as well-known athletes made their injuries—and more importantly, their recoveries—more public. War veterans and frontline first responders were starting to speak out about the devastating effects of the trauma they experienced on a regular basis. If anything was good about the situation, I suppose it was my timing.
Studies began to show the link between PTSD and concussions and how complicated they are to treat, as many of the symptoms are intertwined. I had an excellent family doctor whose main job was to encourage me to be kind and patient with myself. She let me know that what I was going through—the mental anguish, the chronic pain, the anxiety—was normal.
Over the next ten years, I’d see three doctors for PTSD. Each treatment philosophy would serve me well at the time, and they ultimately complemented each other. The first doctor I saw immediately following the accident specialized in eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy and neurofeedback therapy. I found these sessions to be calming and eventually saw some improvement with my mental clarity and ability to deal with stressors. After that, I transitioned to a cognitive behavioral therapist. I began to understand the power I held to sway my thoughts toward positivity. After three years of steady sessions, I needed a break and left professional therapy for three or four years. I was plateauing and needed to focus on what I could manage instead of dwelling constantly on what I had lost.
As I worked on my mental health, I was also trying to find my way back physically. I wasn’t making progress, and so, eight months post-injury, on a friend’s recommendation, I visited Dr. Grant, a chiropractor who practiced in a nondescript office. He charged reasonable rates and had an intense interest in concussions. On his office walls hung signed jerseys and photos from NHL players and other professional athletes thanking him.
Dr. Grant laid me down and systematically went over my body, tsking and shaking his head as he went. He likened me to a computer that had crashed and set about to “reboot” me, gently working my head, neck, organs, and back. He explained that the accident had put me in a constant state of fight or flight, sending messages to my brain letting me know I was in danger. I couldn’t get out of that train of thought, and my body was still pumping cortisol, the stress hormone, to keep me on high alert. When I couldn’t produce any more cortisol, exhaustion set in. I learned that during the winter following the accident and into the spring, when I started attempting to train and recover, I was so depleted that my body could no longer produce the hormones it needed to fully function.
Dr. Grant’s therapy worked for me. After one treatment, for the first time in months, I could walk down the street without feeling like I was going to throw up. Gradually, I started walking regularly. It was only a few hundred meters to begin with, but the distance increased until I could walk to the trailhead at the end of the street. From there, I ventured onto the trail. I felt so alive to finally be out and yet still so bleak. I was walking, but I wanted to run. I would look at the trees and see their beauty, majesties covered in an electric-green lichen. Yet I would feel and smell the dark energy of grinding metal, broken bits, dark snow, and fear.
A couple years after the accident, while I was still struggling daily with symptoms, a friend told me about an athlete who was giving up his sport because he suffered a head injury and could no longer compete. I listened, agreed that it was sad, then said, cautiously, “I can relate.” I didn’t want to make it about me—I was actually sick of talking about what was wrong with me to people—but I could relate. I still wasn’t working, and the only skiing or biking I was doing was at my five-year-old’s pace. I’d been fighting to regain my hold on life every day. My friend’s response crushed me: “Yeah, but you haven’t had to deal with anything like this guy has.”
Still, I never stopped believing that I could heal. Having to get out of bed every day to care for Sam was one of the greatest gifts. I grew and healed alongside him. As his skills, strength, and stamina progressed, mine did too. My family never gave up on me, and as I began to embrace life again, at whatever level was available, they hung on for the ride. I slowly regained strength over the years, though I learned there are no quick fixes. The combination of PTSD, concussion, and chronic pain is a never-ending merry-go-round of hell on the nervous system.
In January 2016, I made myself get back in a helicopter. I had put myself on the part-time list to guide that season, serving as a backup for when they needed extra help. But I wasn’t ready yet; my heart wanted so desperately to muscle through, while my brain sent out muffled cries of protest. Every time the phone rang, it filled me with dread. The night before a guiding day, I would become grumpy and didn’t sleep. When sleep did come, it was full of stressful “workmares.” After a couple seasons fighting that internal battle, I called my boss and officially retired from heli-skiing.
I chose to live as well as I could, to show my child what opportunities life holds, and to share adventures with my husband and friends for as long as I could. To say yes to life.
At my next visit to Dr. Grant, I told him about my decision. He nodded sagely and said that the memories of the crash were still embedded in my tissues. He referred me to a kind and insightful psychologist who never put a time limit on our sessions. In one of our three visits, he told me that you can’t change a negative memory into a positive one, but you can change it into a neutral one. I left the sessions with peace in my heart. The memories were still there, but they no longer twisted my gut and took over my brain. I had gained the power to choose if I wanted to fly again. I accepted a teaching position in an upcoming guide training course. I was feeling more empowered.
A week before the course was set to begin, my friend died in an avalanche that was triggered remotely. She was a mother, wife, highly skilled guide, and adventurous spirit whose passions, like mine, were rooted in the mountains. My heart crumbled, and once again, so did my belief system. Again the negative consequences of our chosen profession had reared their ugly heads. What was I thinking going back to guiding? Where were my goals and motivations coming from, and how would my decisions affect my family?
I thought about canceling my teaching opportunity. Retreating. But I didn’t. I had regained the power to choose, and that was a valuable blessing. Thanks to Jim’s amazing piloting skills, we had lived through our event. My friend wasn’t as lucky, and in her honor, I did not want to squander my life, to sit at home and safely hide away. I chose to live as well as I could, to show my child what opportunities life holds, and to share adventures with my husband and friends for as long as I could. To say yes to life. I went on to teach my course, and the following year, in 2019, I returned to guiding full-time.
The handle of the front door gives a familiar pop as it releases, and I pull myself as gracefully as possible into the front seat of a lumbering 212 that’s waiting to take me into the mountains. I’ve loaded my guests, double-checked the windows and latches, and strapped myself in, tugging on the seatbelt to ensure it is snug.
It’s been ten years since the crash, and I still feel and see everything as if it were yesterday. I still hurt. I still tire myself out. But every year, I get stronger both mentally and physically. I can live.
Chronic pain, PTSD, and a concussion can all stand like insurmountable walls across the road to recovery. There are a lot of days when both the inflicted person and their family may feel hopeless, lost, and confused. I learned to find my motivation and keep pushing against that wall. Eventually it fell; I walked out of the rubble with the power to choose my own road.
I look over to the pilot and give him a nod. He nods back, his orange-tinted aviator sunglasses failing to conceal the years of experience and confidence in his eyes.
“OK, Erin, all set?”
I muster an upbeat “Yup” and breathe while the helicopter powers up and we rise from the ground and into the mountains. For nearly a decade, I never believed that I would be back in this beautiful, scary, awe-inspiring place. I take great comfort flying with experienced pilots, yet some nights I still don’t sleep in anticipation of the flight, and some landings I don’t breathe until we’re on the ground. But I am alive, and I have learned that it is possible to heal from such an incomprehensible despair. Though I now know that danger lurks, always, I ask myself what good am I doing if I bow to that fear. I’ll take my second chance and be grateful. I’m as much in control as any of us are, in a way that’s both real and the total fiction we tell ourselves.
There are mountains awaiting us with fresh, untracked snow. The pilot transfers from a hover into forward airspeed—a brief, weightless pause that always makes me hold my breath for an instant. Then the machine surges forward, and we’re off.
Due to the personal nature of this essay, only first names have been used and some identifying details have been omitted.