Mountain Passages: How I Ruined My Ski Season


By Alan Stark


The wind and snow whip around the parking lot at the East Portal of Moffat Tunnel. I’m here with three other patrollers from Bryan Mountain Nordic Ski Patrol (BMNSP). We’re pulling gear and packs out of our cars and shaking our heads at how cold it is for March.

We have been talking to the National Forest Service (NFS) about patrolling in the Front Range (Frange) and are up to survey the Forest Lakes Trail. They skin up and I put the snow shoes on the wrong feet. I’ve got to wide track anyhow so there is no real danger of the straps snagging each other and it is just too damn cold to take them off and re-buckle them.

It’s not that I haven’t looked like I didn’t know what I was doing ever before.

    Just about everyone reading this has broken some bones. It just happens when you spend your time outdoors.

    In four separate cases of bad judgment I’ve broken a wrist, arm, shoulder blade and two ribs. In a matter of weeks or a month or so I was back out there almost as good as new.

    As my teeth have gotten longer I’ve noticed that the broken parts might ache a bit at odd moments, but that’s normal. All of us have got random aches and pains that come from an assortment of causes, many self-inflicted.

    Brian Ballard, the patrol leader, Jan Ingebrightsen, and Alan Apt ski out and I clomp along behind them on snowshoes. I’m being extraordinarily careful. As always, once in the trees, the wind stops bashing us around as we work uphill at a slow pace.

    The ranger we are working with in the Boulder Ranger District, would like us to “establish a presence” at three high-traffic trailheads: the East Portal, Hessie and Brainard.

    BMNSP has about 65 members and is primarily responsible for patrolling Devil’s Thumb Ranch in Fraser. Adding these three trailheads and their associated trails to our patrol responsibilities could be a stretch.


    I’ve never been seriously injured where I simply could not do anything that approaches normal activity. That is, until just about dusk on New Year’s Eve when I ruptured my right quad running downhill on ice.

    You are absolutely right. I should have been home thinking of strategies for staying awake until just after midnight. Or excuses for not going to a party. Or just sitting there with Blue Eyes and Willy reading a good book until we all nod off at the normal 9:30 or so.

    But no, I was going to end the year with five miles of trail running on my house route.

    Not smart.

    The other patrollers are out of sight. I’m moving slowly with my right track in the fluff and my left track just on the side of the trail so that I don’t mess up the hardpack for the skiers with my snowshoes.

    I need to admit that I’ve always had a prejudice against snowshoers. I think it’s just arrogance on my part. I’m a backcountry skier with all this gear and here are these goofy-looking people just clumping along the trail, many without packs of extra gear; they’re just having a grand old time obliviously obliterating the cross country tracks.

    And now, due to an injury I’m one of those goofy-looking people. And although I’m in 3-ply Gore Tex, with a 2800cc pack, heavy mittens and wool hat, I just got a frowny face from a couple on hardmen who skied by.

    “Hey Dude, I’m one of you,” I wanted to shout but I didn’t. Three months after the accident, I’m extremely lucky to be on snowshoes.

    A ruptured quad isn’t messy like an open fracture but it is a tad bit gruesome. In my case I hyperflexed my knee and the substantial tendon that holds the quad to the kneecap simply ripped away. The repair is equally gruesome. The surgeon drills holes in the kneecap; threads through sutures that are then sort of whip-stitched into the quad, tying everything back together.

    There’s only one problem with the operation. It takes a minimum of five to six months to get back 95% of the use of the knee, 12 months for 100% or so I am told. They sent me home from the hospital with this brace that goes from mid-thigh to my ankle; it has been my constant companion for three months now.


    I go around a bend and see the other patrollers waiting for me. I catch up and all three of them do an once-over with their eyes as if they were checking out a patient. “You doing okay?” Alan asks.


    “No pain?”

    “Nope. I’m fine. And I’m turning around at a mile.”

    “Good, see you on email.”

    They head off and leave me.

    I’m pleased to be part of this patrol. They are good at what they do and they care.

    There is no way we can cover all three of these trail systems on every weekend with two patrollers at each. That would be something like 240 duty days a winter on top of our Devil’s Thumb responsibility. But we can probably have a couple patrollers working out of one of these trailheads every weekend. And given that NFS doesn’t have the staff to do any winter patrolling at all, that “presence” is a good deal better than nothing.


    I knew I’d go crazy if I didn’t get some exercise. I signed up at the Y for circuit training and started physical therapy six weeks ago. The circuit training is all waist- up exercises. The physical therapy is all about stretching the quad and rebuilding the muscles around the knee. The PTs are adamant about me not doing any resistance training with the knee yet.

    I ask them about my progress and they say, “Great, we know you are working hard on this.”

    “So when do you think I can get on a road bike?”

    “Maybe June?”

    “And run trails?”

    “Maybe July, but you’ll have to ask your surgeon. Oh, and don’t ask about skiing again. Your ski season is over.”

    Sigh. But no one said anything about snowshoeing.


Alan Stark is a freelance writer and recovering book publisher. He can be reached at