24.05.2016: Shattered Spring

Crow Minna Riihimaki suffered a serious accident on the Glacier Rond last week. A fall down several hundreds metres which could have killed her and left her with a seriously injured leg. The accident, which involved other skiers, serves to highlight the disregard for basic rules of mountain safety. Here’s the story.

minna riihimaki photo : Cedric Bernardini

minna riihimaki
photo : Cedric Bernardini

The season was coming to an end. The conditions had been pretty tricky all season or inconsistent at least, with super high highs and very low lows.

That morning when my alarm went off I told myself it would surely be the last time for the season that I’d get up for first lifts with my ski gear. It had snowed a lot the day before and it was bluebird. So of course I was going to go.

As usual I’d prepared my backpack the night before. I made my sandwich for lunch and I just needed to wake my son up for school. A friend was going to come by and collect him so I could leave earlier. I kissed Elmo and he said “Mum, you shouldn’t go skiing today”. I told him not to worry. I felt a twang of mother’s guilt leaving him like that, knowing full well that the Aiguille du Midi cable car probably wouldn’t open on time anyway.

I met up with my friends at the cable car. At this time of year there are fewer keen skiers around and it’s nice to catch up with everyone whilst waiting for the lift to open. I had arranged to meet Jim and he arrived shortly after me. As I’d suspected they announced a 10am opening. In the spring the sun warms up quickly, cutting down the options. In any case we’d planned to ski the west and north-west facing slopes which get the sun later. As it was busy, they gave out numbers for the cable car. Used to the fight against tourists and mountaineers we all managed to get the number 01 for the first bin. We felt an atmosphere of angst caused by the wait. People were pushing and shoving so much that the person who was supposed to be collecting the bin numbers lasted all of 45 seconds. He was literally trampled by a pack of savage animals, beholders of the precious number 01.

Once at the top we quickly clipped in to ski down the ridge and head towards the Cosmiques Couloir and the Glacier Rond. Another group was already headed for the Cosmiques so Jim and I decided to go and check out the Glacier Rond. Bird overtook us, quickly joined by Tof Henry. It seemed like the perfect team to open the face. Bird set off first followed by Tof and his powerful style. Having skied the first part of the face they stopped on the ridge which leads to the exit chute. I turned towards Jim, tapped his poles with mine and wished him a good ride. With that I set off down the face.

After four big turns I decided to head right a bit to avoid being bothered by my own, fast-moving slough. Used to always turning my head to check what’s happening around me, I took a quick glance over my shoulder to check that nothing was moving to my right before committing. And that was when, to my big surprise, I saw the silhouette of a skier, higher up, skiing fast, sending an enormous amount of slough in front of him… Right in the direction of where I was headed.

I didn’t have many options or much time. Forced to make a turn to go back on my original line, I kept my speed to be able to make it over my slough which kept flowing. I let out a quick sigh of relief which didn’t last long. I’d ended up too far left, and too fast. The layer underneath the fresh snow was icy and unforgiving. My skis hit the uneven surface and I was sent flying.

I went head over heels. Very fast. Too fast. I knew exactly what was waiting for me at the bottom. An underworld beneath a bergschrund and a monster hanging glacier over which there was no return. I didn’t want to go there. On each flip I fought, protecting my head and trying to brake with my skis. I wanted to stick my nails into the hard-packed ice. After a moment my right ski flew off, the binding had broken. I always lock my bindings to not lose my skis on a run. It’s a personal choice.

On the next three impacts I felt my left knee shatter. I knew straight away that serious damage had been done. But still I didn’t want to cross the final hurdle. Time seemed interminable. I banished any thoughts other than how I was going to stop myself. I didn’t feel the near-vertical blue slide of the bergschrund and to my surprise the snow where I landed seemed softer and deeper. I came to a stop. Miraculously.

My first reaction was to secure myself. I still had my poles and I dug their entire length into the snow and attached a leash to anchor myself. My broken leg was in a good position, I didn’t need to move it. I heard Tof calling me. He couldn’t see me. I replied that I needed the rescue helicopter. I thought about my friends who must have been really scared for me. Especially Jim. I felt anger rising up inside of me. I pushed it away. What’s done was done. There was no going back. I told myself to “concentrate on dealing with the pain”. I had a dislocated finger pointing in the wrong direction, I put it back. Other than that, I felt fine.

I started to look around me. I was OK where I was. In any case it would have been difficult to move…. I strained my ears to try and hear the helicopter. But the rescue team was on another mission further away. There’d be a wait. Looking up towards the top half of the face, to my dismay I could see skiers from the next bins carry on skiing as though nothing had happened. I couldn’t believe it. There was a direct line of view and other people who had seen what happened were warning the new arrivals about the accident and asking them to stop skiing. Most of them couldn’t care less. They must have been thinking that they’d gone there to ski the Glacier Rond and that’s exactly what they were going to do. Where were their manners? Had they no respect for basic mountain rules? No common sense? I spent 45 minutes terrified, sat on the snow, immobile, putting my head on the snow each time I saw slough approaching… I wouldn’t want anyone to ever go through that.

The helicopter finally arrived and a member of the rescue team didn’t waste any time in crouching down gently next to me. I know him well, I was happy to see a friendly face. Jeff asked me how I felt about the evacuation. I was mentally tired from the fear of the skiers above me. I wanted to get out of that place as quickly as possible. Jeff had got a splint to support my leg. I was ready to be attached to the winch. It was sore. I was on the verge of pain. I concentrated on a fixed point to try not to faint as I was winched up. I smiled once inside the helicopter. Jeff tried to reassure me saying that my injury might not be so bad. But I knew that my leg was completely detached from my knee. It was held on by skin alone….

We headed to Sallanches hospital where the medical team were expecting me and ready to take care of me. I’ve had enough accidents to know that the magical drug injections would soon make me forget the pain. When Dr Bernard Fontanille (Her children’s father, Ed.) offered me ketamine, I gave him the biggest smile I could muster to thank him. I went through x-rays, scans and an MRI thinking that I was at a theme park. I enjoyed myself and that did me good. A moment of pleasure before the harsh reality hit home when they read the x-rays.

The surgeon admitted that complete destruction of the tibia plateau was rare. He warned me immediately that the surgery would be long and complicated and that the aim would probably be to reconstruct a solid base for a prosthetic knee… They were difficult words to take in. I was dismayed. But he reassured me, telling me he was confident about the operation and he had all the equipment he needed. There are advantages to being close to a ski resort and having an experienced trauma surgeon…. He took the time to ask me if it would bother me if he exposed the joint more to give him a better view. Not at all. Function over form. He could open it up as much as necessary. I said bye to Bernard who was going to look after the children and I set off for the operating table…

Four hours of painstaking work. My tibia plateau has retaken shape thanks to multiple titanium plates and a series of rods, as well as a bone graft to fill in the blanks. On the other hand the soft joint tissue has gone in the bin. The cartilage, meniscus and ligaments had been pulverised and couldn’t been saved. I lost a lot of blood and they had to do a transfusion.

My return to the sporting world will be long and laborious, but at least I’m still here for the fight. I’m going to put my faith in medicine. I’m paying the price for the recklessness of others, for a failure to respect basic mountain rules. Can’t you wait 30 seconds for someone to finish skiing their line and get in a sheltered spot? You shouldn’t even have to ask yourself that!