September 9, 2011
Last April, Ian McIntosh broke his femur while filming with Teton Gravity Research near Juneau, Alaska. Before the accident, McIntosh was skiing at his highest level to date, having a weeklong adrenaline-filled helicopter-skiing session with Daron Rhalves and Sage Cattibriga-Alosa. At the time, each athlete was pushing their riding to new heights, and McIntosh felt unstoppable.
"In the 17 years I've been filming in AK, there's these guys who have these break through days," TGR Founder Todd Jones said." Mac was having not just a day, but a session. He was charging into a higher plane, a higher level. He was sending it through the roof."
Tetongravity.com caught up McIntosh to learn about what happened that day, how he's recovering and what he learned from the accident.
What happened that day?
We had a few good days of weather, which gave us a chance to hit a lot of the stuff that was on our immediate hit list that we had seen from previous airplane and heli flights. And after hitting all that stuff, I started feeling pretty darn confident, and was ready to step it up from what I had been doing.
The morning before, we were out looking in this other area and we saw off in the distance the face and it had already lost light by then, so we were like, “OK, well, that’s on tomorrow morning’s immediate hit list.”
The next morning we went out and went straight to that face. It was a really north facing aspect, so it didn’t hold light long and we found ourselves rushed even for the first line to beat the light.
As we do in Alaska, we all take turns with who gets first pick on what line. It really wasn’t my turn to take first pick, it was Daron Rahlves’ turn, so we let him have first pick. And he took this line that was right on the sun-shadow line. Unfortunately for him, by the time we were all ready to ski, he had lost light and was not able to get a shot out of it.
Meanwhile, I had picked the gnarlier line of the three of us for that first run, and pulled it off. It went really well. Basically, it’s the line that finishes off my segment in this year’s movie. It was one of the better lines of the trip and one of the more fun lines I’ve had in a long time, in recent memory anyway.
That just piqued my confidence even further.
I was like, “Worst case scenario, I’ll just start pointing it. And then everything will be OK. I just proved that on that line.”
I was thinking in the back of my mind “Maybe I should just take it easy. I got a really good one in the can, pick a nice easy one to finish up the morning sesh and then we’ll go into the next set.”
On the next round to pick lines, I didn’t feel like it was my first pick, it was actually Sages’ first pick. But since Rahlves had got shafted, he got first pick again.
And he had picked a line in a zone that I was thinking about heading to. No big deal.
Sage picked the other prominent line that stuck out in my mind as well.
And so again having last pick, I thought there’s not really anything left, maybe I should just sit this one out, just looking at the face and seeing what my options were.
There was a zone where my immediate thought was, “Don’t even go there,” when I first saw the face. But after my confidence built up from my first run, I thought. Maybe I should go there.
So then me and Sage started talking about the line that I ended up breaking my femur on.
I felt confident about it. And Sage was like ‘Mac, you’re on fire, I feel like you can get down there safely.”
And we always look to each other for those things. From where we were looking, it looked super doable.
And then I thought, alright, I might as well step it up even one more notch from what I did this morning, rather than just taking it easy.
Then I hopped in the heli, having that big confidence that I felt like I could get down anything on my feet. I didn’t even take the time necessary to look closer, especially from the heli. As we were flying up, I was like, “I know where I’m going. I know what I need to do.”
Looking back on it, I should have taken extra time in the ship to have a second look.
But from the view that I got from the heli, and from the view that I had below, the line looked super doable. The cliff looked really vertical and it looked like I could kind of just poke in there at the crux, drop off the cliff onto the spine and then find my way out from there.
As soon as I got there, it was a big roll over right until I was at the edge of the cliff. So I couldn’t see anything, couldn’t see anything. And then boom, last second, I see the cliff is super drawn out, low angle and where I thought I could drop out it was just ice — gnarly.
And so I made the split-second decision to just point it. And try and air over everything and then land in the clear and straight-line out.
Unfortunately, I didn’t have the speed I needed to pull that off and where I landed was basically just rock and ice. And that took my feet out from under me and I started tumbling.
As soon as I started tumbling, I’m thinking to myself, “This is all good. I’ll be fine. I’ve tomahawked down many a mountain. I can take it.”
And then I started hitting that ice that flowed down that choke that was basically a low-angle frozen waterfall. And so once I started tumbling down that, I thought. This is a little gnarly. But I’ll be OK. I’ll get through this ice and into good snow, and I’ll be fine.”
Then all of a sudden — boom. My femur snapped. And it felt like it snapped like a twig at that moment in time.
At that point there was no pain, just this realization of, “Holy shit, your femur is broken,” as I continued to tumble.
As I’m tumbling, I’m just trying to keep my quad locked up so my leg’s not flopping too bad. Still no pain.
Eventually I come to a stop, and that’s when the pain hit me like a wave.
Everything hits you like a wave: The realization of what happened, the pain, the possibility I could have fucked up my whole career over this one stupid line that I didn’t even need to do.
I started trying to deal with all that crap in my head, as I’m dealing with all this pain.
Fortunately, I have the best crew in the business with TGR. They had my back and were on the radio right away, communicating with me, telling me that they’re working to get to me.
Kent, our lead guide got to me and started talking me down saying, “Mac, everything’s going to be OK, don’t worry about shit. You’re gonna be fine.”
Because I was basically like, “Dude, I screwed up my whole career.”
Amid being in all this pain, I was thinking it was the end for me. At the time, it felt like my leg was badly screwed up. It felt like I had a tib fib, it felt like my knee was fucked, my femur was broken. It was just all the pain in my leg that was making me feel that way.
Kent calmed me down. And then I just got into this rhythm of just breathing through the pain.
It wasn’t long after that that Johnny B, our secondary guide, Sage and Mark Fisher showed up with all the first aid supplies and the skid. By then Kent had the platform dug out to get me onto the skid. It was really smooth and efficient. They got me onto the skid, lowered me down the slope 300 to 400 feet. And by then they had the seats out of the heli, the heli was ready to go. They loaded me into the heli and 20 minutes later I was landing on the rooftop of Juneau hospital. Soon after that they were feeding me full of drugs and I felt way better.
So did you have surgery in Juneau?
I’m Canadian. So I have my own insurance, my own Canadian health insurance. And I’m not really insured in the states, but I’m insured to travel.
Once they got me to the ER, they fed me full of drugs. They got me out of the skid, out of my clothes and onto a bed. They got my ski boots off and pulled traction on my leg. Actually, they fed me so many drugs, but I was still in a lot of pain. But once they got that traction, which is basically pulling on your leg and separating the two broken halves of the bone so they aren’t touching each other anymore. Once that was applied, I felt immediately a million times better. And the pain was really minimal at that point.
Over the worst of it, I had X-rays. By the time I got back from X-rays, the whole crew had showed up and the doctor had told me it was a clean break. Basically, at that point it’s celebration mode. What’s happened, happened. With a clean break, I knew that within six months, I would be better.
They said they would give me surgery at 4:30 that evening.
I was like, “Alright perfect. Here’s my insurance company, you better call them and make sure that everything’s OK before we go ahead with this.”
They took me up to a ward, I got a phone call while I was in the ward from my insurance company saying, “Ian, we just want to let you know that you’re fully covered. Everything’s OK. We’re going to be taking care of this. However, we are going to check to see if it’s OK to fly you home for surgery, just because it’s drastically less expensive in Canada.”
So I was like, “Yeah, OK, whatever. It all works for me.”
That night, they flew up a Leer jet, a medi-jet, from Vancouver. They took me to the airport, flew me back home, and I had surgery the next morning in Vancouver. Basically, they put a metal rod down my femur, screwed it in, set it together and away I go.
What's the process of putting a metal rod in your leg?
Basically, they just drill into the top of our hip, where you femur sticks out a bit. They call it a nail, because they basically just hammer it in. So they drill in there, hammer the rod in, then they throw a camera in so they know they’re lining up the bone right. Once they have the rod all they way from your hip to your knee, and the bone is lined up and tight, they throw a screw in to keep it all together. That means you don’t have to wear a cast, which is amazing, because on Day 1 I was able to move my knee.
Back in the day, you used to have to be in a cast for six months.
These days, with a metal rod, I’m moving my knee, and ankle and hip, on Day 1. By the time I’m ready to bare weight, six weeks later, I have full range of motion in my knee and I’m ready to bare weight. And then, six weeks after that, I’ve dropped my crutches and I’m away and walking.
So, really, now it’s like three months, and you’re walking.
The metal rod, as invasive as it is, it definitely helps with a speedy recovery.
What do you have to do for rehab?
After the first six weeks, you’re the master of your own destiny. At that point, what do you want? Do you want to be a cripple for the next year of your life, or do you want to get back on snow by next winter?
For me, I’m highly motivated to get back on snow. Not just because it’s my job, but because I love what I do more than anything.
For me, it was a no brainer. As soon as I was able to start working on it, I’ve been in the gym almost every day of the week since I’ve been able to bare weight.
I sold my mountain bike because mountain biking is out of the question for me this summer and I bought a road bike. I’ll bike 40 miles every second day, and just crank on that thing.
When I’m not doing that, I’m going to the gym. Sometimes I’ll do a 40-mile ride and then go to the gym and do a bunch more exercises, as well. Basically, I’m just working my ass off as much as humanly possible as much as my legs will allow to get my muscle back, to get strong, to get ready for next winter.
When next winter rolls around, I don’t’ want to be dealing with the physical side of this injury. I just want to be able to tackle the mental aspect of what something like this does to someone.
And if that’s all I have to deal with, the mental side, then the physical is already taken care of, then there’s a huge chance for success in the coming year.
What do you take away from this?
I learned a lot. As much as I like taking the super gnarly line and pulling it off, there’s a point in time where you need to say, “Is this worth it? What am I gaining from this? What am I potentially losing from this?” And you need to weigh those options and just make better judgment calls. And make sure no matter how good I feel on my skis, no matter how invincible I feel when I’m up there, to take the time to go through the motions of double checking your line from the heli, from all angles and making sure it’s super doable.
With that, I realized that it’s always beyond just yourself. There’s a whole group dynamic out there. Getting hurt throws that whole group dynamic off. Not only does it take away from a potentially great day with the crew, it can really through a huge bummer on an amazing session and an amazing trip we’ve had in Alaska.
Fortunately, with the crew I’m with — thank god they did — I’m stoked they were able to power through, and they were able to get right back out and go skiing. And that’s what they needed to do, because something like that can take a heavy toll on a group dynamic.
For me, it’s just making sure I’m just always making the right decision. I can’t promise that I’m always going to do that. I can’t promise that I’m never going to get hurt again. Those things are a possibility. Those things are part of what I do. Injuries are part of pushing yourself. Crashing is part of pushing yourself.
I notch it up to the experience level. Before this, I didn’t have this experience behind me. I didn’t have that many great days in AK in a row. I’ve never felt so good on my skis before. And I hadn’t been to that mental state before in my skiing. To have that experience now. To know when you get in to that mental state, now’s when you have to be more careful than ever. Because when you feel invincible, when you feel like you can ski anything, that’s when you’re going to make a mistake.
You learn a lot from these experiences. More importantly, when you go through a serious injury, you learn who you are as a person and what it takes to come back from something as serious as breaking a femur. If you can power through all that and come back stronger both mentally and physically than when you went into the situation, then that teaches you a lot about yourself as a person.
I’m all for it. Life is a journey. Life is a challenge and I’m all for anything that comes my way. And I’ll always power through it stronger than I came into it. That’s just the mental side of how you’ve got to come through these things. You have to think positive. And always look to the positive aspect in everything. Lesson learned.