Last Ski Trip of the Season 6
By Jon Hsieh, Guest Columnist
Guest Author Jon Hsieh at Whitetail Resort earlier this season. Photo provided by M. Scott Smith.

February 20, 2005. My friend and I woke up at 5 am to catch a cab to BWI airport. We both had packed our skis and boards and were eager to get to Vail, Colorado for a week of skiing and riding. I had bought a new helmet (a first time for me) the day before and was all ready for the terrain park and massive skiing trip. The weather report looked ideal -; snow for the first 3 days and high 20’s, low 30’s for temps -; and it wouldn’t start until after our plane landed in Denver.

On the plane they showed “Friday Night Lights,” a prophetic movie about a football team where the star player injures himself in the first game of the season. After a short layover in Houston, we arrived in Denver. Even at Denver’s 5,000 ft, I could feel the altitude and refrained from having a beer at lunch. I filled my Camelback and we found the Colorado Mountain Express shuttle bus (~$120 round trip door-to-door), and by noon were off to Vail.

As we crossed through the Eisenhower Tunnel the weather changed from bright and sunny to windy with snow. I-70 had slowed but I was getting more excited -; this meant fresh powder for the first tracks the next morning!

We arrived and checked into our lodge (Vail Trail Lodges, a 2 bedroom condo with 6 people at around $600/week), and then hopped onto the free local shuttle bus to the transportation center. We then hopped the free Vail Valley bus and made it to the grocery store to stock up on vittles. Fully stocked, I returned to ready my snowboard for the next day. I figured that I would take the first day easy on the snowboard, rest the second day because of altitude, and then tear the place apart once my body adjusted.

4 am. I awoke with cottonmouth -; even after drinking a liter from the Camelback before crashing that night. I turned on the TV and there was Warren Miller style programming on the “Plum” network, a local Vail Valley TV channel. It was broken up with ski reports -; for this day there was going to be 6-10” of new powder throughout the valley. First lift was at 8:30 am, so I prepped my snowboard, had breakfast and waited for everyone else to awaken.

Of the five of us on the trip (one guy actually bailed out), we had 2 skiers, 1 rider, and two who did both. The rider and one of the skiers decided to get a lesson on the first day. The other guy, who did both, decided to go with skis. I was told once that “there are no friends on powder days,” so seeing that I was going to end up being the only boarder in the day’s crew, I decided to ski instead.

We were second in line for the Riva Bahn lift that took us up half way up from the Golden Peak base. We skied briefly to get to the Northwoods lift, and then reached the 11,000-foot peak of the top of the bowls of Vail. The group then split up and it was decided that we would try to get to early tracks over at the relatively new Blue Sky Basin.

Down the China Bowl. I fell a few times -; not used to skiing in the fluffy 9” of powder. After regathering my things, I was nearly exhausted -; the combination of altitude and improperly attacking the snow and mogul runs had burnt my quads up in about a minute. After one fall I remember cursing the looseness of my bindings and thought about tightening them up. We made it to the base of the Teacup Express and then took the lift to the Blue Sky Basin.

The first run down Blue Sky, we went straight through the light tree cover and scoped out jumps and little ramps. I had to stop every 100 feet or so -; the altitude was really getting to me. When we made it to the bottom, we went back up but I told the guys, huff puff, that I was going to try to take an easier way down, and that I think I was close to done for the day. This was only at 11:30 in the morning, and I was somewhat disappointed with myself.

As we started down the slope again, I was slowing to take a rest and then took a seemingly inconsequential fall. This time was different -; my ski didn’t pop off and I felt a pop in my left knee. Something was not right -; I felt like an injured player in the movie I had seen the prior day. The fall didn’t look like much and the guys kept going until they saw me clutching my knee. After lying down for a while, the guys climbed back up and I found that I was able to stand. Being about as far as we could be from the lodge and the resort, and feeling confident, I gingerly skied down and planned on heading back to the lodge for some R+R.

We took a lunch break at Bertha’s lodge, where they served $10 turkey sandwiches. Luckily I had packed my own. After lunch we headed back taking as many groomers and greens as possible. I was kind of sick of the greens so on the way we hit a couple blues. My leg seemed okay as long as I didn’t bend it too far. At one point we found a little tunnel and skied through it. Finally with the Golden Peak Lodge in sight I felt confident with my legs and took a little jump.

Bad idea.

I remember thinking this was a bad idea as I was in the air, but it was the landing that really made me realize it. My knee buckled and I collapsed. This time after cooling it on the snow, it still ached when I tried to stand. I decided that this time I needed the ski patrol. My buddy took my gear back to the lodge, and I got a little toboggan ride to the base of the resort. When the patrollers asked my what level of skier I considered myself, I responded, “east coast advanced.” They got a chuckle out of that and wrote it in their report.

In the van/ambulance, there were many cartoons making fun of skiing injuries. When I asked the driver how many injured skiers he hauled off the slopes each day, he nonchalantly said 5-10 a day, 15-30 on a powder day.

Shortly thereafter we arrived at Vail Valley Medical Center. After a few x-rays and a little pulling and prodding, the doctor diagnosed me with a level 3 torn ACL injury (complete or near complete tear). I figured after that, that skiing would be out for the rest of the trip.

“Of all the places to tear your ACL, this is probably the best. Many professional athletes come here for treatment,” said the doctor.

“I don’t think there’s anywhere good for it to happen … I guess skiing is out. Can I still snowboard?” I asked.


Being stubborn I prodded a little more. It was the first day of the trip.

“As a doctor, I officially suggest you just rest and see the orthopedic surgeon for ACL reconstruction when you get back. I realize you’ve spent a lot of money to come out here, so if you have to do one I would snowboard. Skiing is likely to damage more of the cartilage in your knee. If you snowboard you probably won’t do more damage to you knee but you could break your tibia,” he replied.

He gave me a prescription for Vicoden and sent me off to the physical therapist. There I was fitted with a brace and given similar advice when I asked if I could snowboard. By the time I was leaving, I was able to walk (with a slight limp) without pain and had about 90 degrees of knee bend motion without pain.

That night I limped around and we went and explored the village. Thankfully the bus system at Vail is really good and very frequent. For the next two days I resorted to comfort food for recovery: ice cream, brownies, and Vicoden. The altitude sickness prevented me from doing much so I ended up watching lots of the plum network and way too many episodes of Magnum PI. I decided that trying to snowboard would be silly (combination of drugs and altitude didn’t make me realize this earlier), and despite Vail’s official “no refunds” policy, I was easily able to get a refund on the remaining days of my 5-day lift ticket. I also changed my flight ($100 fee) and made appointments to see a doctor back at home. I got copies of my x-rays to take back. We found free internet access at the public library. The night before I left the rest of the guys, I wolfed down a buffalo steak for dinner and then was off the next morning to get back to Maryland.

After visiting the first doctor I received an MRI scan, and then based on suggestions met several surgeons in order to find one that specialized in arthroscopic ACL repair. I scheduled surgery to reconstruct the ACL at the earliest time I could get - March 29, or about one month after the accident. Most of my activities had to stop but I was able to get in a couple of long bike rides in an attempt to stave off muscle atrophy. The general diagnosis is a six months recovery before I can get back to the slopes.

About the Author

Jon Hsieh is an avid twenty-something skier and snowboard rider. He loves glades, bumps, and the après ski. In his spare time he enjoys cycling, rock climbing, and running.

Reader Comments

May 9, 2005
Hey Jon, Sorry to hear about your injury. Are you rehabbing yet? Good that you listened to your Doc's advice. "East Coast Advanced", lol i like that. Did anyone else in your group feel the altitude sickness?
John Sherwood
May 10, 2005
I did not read this article when it first came out because I did not want to get too depressed, so I held off for a couple of days. Injuries are every skier's worst nightmare--especially if they occur during a big trip. Jon, I admire your courage in handling this accident and re-living it through writing the story. Well done! I hope to see you on the slopes next season.

On the altitude sickness issue, acclimitization is very important. Some people need to take it easy and not ski the first day to adjust. Others need to take Diamox, a prescription altitude sickness medication. However, from what I've read about Diamox, the cure can be worse than the disease. Talk to your doctor before taking it.

I've never suffered from altitude sickness and have skied extensively above 3,300 meters (10,800) feet, but I've heard it's not so much where you ski but where you sleep. If you sleep above 2,100 meters (7,000 feet), you become more suseptable to it. I therefore try to sleep below this magic number when possible. Vail's base is 2,500 meters and that's why people feel the altitude there.
May 11, 2005
Being able to ski and ride again next season and to get back to my activities is great motivation to do the rehab. I've been going since a week after the surgery. I'm actually walking around now, and have most range of motion back. I'm supposed to be good to go in 6 months. I've been keeping a log of what I've been able to do so if there is interest I'll write an recovery article about the different options and the recovery timeline..

As for altitude sickness.. everytime I've gone to colorado for skiing I suffer the first couple of days. (a cruel fate for someone who loves skiing!). This is my third time in colorado -- after the first I nixed all caffiene and alcohol, after the second trip all sports drinks. This time drank an extra liter of plain water a day on top of what I normally would consume and I still got sick. It really felt like the altitude put me down more than the injury. I'm not a fan of taking drugs but its bad enough that I'm really considering looking into it.
John Sherwood
May 11, 2005

If you ever decide to give Diamox a try, let us know how it goes. Apparently, you must start taking the medication before a trip and you can't drink beer with it. :(

I'm thinking about Diamox for a trip to Cuzco, Peru (10659 ft / 3249 m), but since I have never suffered from altitude sickness, I will probably refrain from seeking the prescription from my doc.

In Cuzco, hotels serve tea made from coca leaves to guests, which apparently eliminates some symptoms of AS. As a federal employee subject to random drug testing, however, I won't be able to experiment with that particular cure. :(
John Sherwood
May 11, 2005

Another idea on altitude is to try the Alps next year. There are many resorts with good skiing below 2,000 meters and most base areas are between 1,000 and 1,500 meters of altitude.

At St. Anton, you'll find nothing above 2,800 meters.
May 11, 2005
I agree that this report on the "downside" of a ski outing is a worthy, novel effort and also agree with John's suggestion to try the Alps for an enjoyable low elevation ski alternative to the US west. I noticed very few altitude issues in my 2003 visit to 5 ski areas in the Austrian province of Salzburg. The highest spot I reached on that trip was about 7500 feet, yet experienced amazing terrain variety. If my intent was to stay low the place I'd most like to try in Europe would probably be legendary Kitzbuhel (in a good snow year). Tons of variety, renowned town, 3-4k foot verticals, all below about 7000 feet. Many 7000 foot mtns in the Alps look very impressive because they rise 4 or 5k feet from the valley floors below. Also as young mtns they often have rocky, jagged features.

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