Any Last Words?

By Anders Hagman

Illustration www.mothi.biz

I went off the edge of the cliff in a small but unexpected slide of powdery snowy. There was only a minor degree of control involved from my side in what happened. Grasping for a deep breath of crisp, cold Italian mountain air, I could spot where I was going to land as soon as the cloud of snow around me cleared. It was some fifteen to twenty metres below – in a huge solid-rock surface…

“Well, it was truly nice to be here”, I remember thinking to myself almost out loud. Then – having quickly determined I was going to do my best to survive the crash – I braced myself for the landing. Board first. Knees bent. Slightly curling my back forward to avoid hitting the back of my head.
These were the things I reflected about when descending weightlessly towards my near and certain destiny. No strange memories flashing back from a happy childhood or anything like that. Neither did I think of any famous last words, perhaps because I was too far away for anyone to be able to hear them. Yet it was definitely one of the few times in my life that I will classify as a close call.

I’ve never been able to remember anything from the impact in the rocks. Not the sound of the sidewalls of my board being smashed. Not the sound of my spine cracking. Nothing at all, just a big blank. My next memory is that of almost being drowned in snow sliding down on me from the slope above and thinking I had to get out of the situation. After this it is blank again. Although I’ve heard from eyewitnesses that I did get up and ride a few metres out of the slide.

After an unknown length of time I find myself squinting up into the worried faces of a couple of riders and filmers. I’m coughing hard and find it terrifyingly hard to breath. What little air I manage to get into my lungs is too thin on oxygen – possibly due to the altitude – to support all of my bodily functions. I pass into unconsciousness again, but I’m not afraid. “It all seems to have worked out for me this time” is my last thought. The process of awakening and passing out again repeats itself for a while. Gradually I’m awake for longer periods of time, and according to what I’ve been told in about fifteen minutes, I’m able to sit up on my own and am able to catch my breath. Strangely the only place where it hurts seriously is deep inside my back, about a hands length below my neck. I can hardly bend my back at all and twisting it sideways is entirely out of the question.
There aren’t many snow patrollers in the remote resort of Alagna, Italy, but luckily I’m close to a chairlift and am able to slowly walk over there with some support. The lift takes me to a gondola and I descend in it towards the valley.

My back is stiff like a but it doesn’t hurt too badly. I make the idiotic but ‘manly’ decision not to contact any doctor. “It will probably go away by tomorrow or at the latest in a few days”, I say to myself. In any case we’re at least an hour’s drive away from a place worth calling a hospital and once there it would likely take a few hours to explain what has happened to me due to the language barriers. (My Italian consists solely of cursing, flirting and terms related to the local cuisine – and the odds I’d find a doctor who speaks English are slightly bigger than striking a Yatzy in one throw.) The next day my back doesn’t hurt as much but there’s sort of a lump on it. I look like the hunchback of Notre Dame. I stubbornly resist all advice to go see a doctor today as well.

About a week later I’m in Oberstdorf, Germany, for a halfpipe competition, having lugged my bags most of the way their on my own. My back is still in about the same condition, so competing in the Oberstdorf contest soon becomes out of the question. I do try some figure skating though! I’m about to fly to Japan for a set of contests and have noticed that Oberstdorf seems to have a decent hospital. One late afternoon I impulsively decide to give it a try and am greeted with open arms. It seems to be a slow evening and a soft-spoken doctor is soon treating me. He immediately x-rays me. The metal bed I’m lying on is cold but I’ve been told to stay on it until further notice so this is what I’m doing even though it’s uncomfortable.

After a long time the doctor returns and he starts speaking even before he’s entered the room completely.“We have results from the x-rays and ze back is broken”, he says loudly with a heavy German accent. He both looks and sounds like a character from a British comedy. “So this man has a sense of humour after all”, I think to myself and start to get up. I’m laughing a little towards the man while doing it.“NO!”, the doctor pushes me down onto the cold and hard bed again with all his weight. “YOU STAY!” he almost screams at me. “Ouch! If he keeps doing that, my back’s not going to improve much”, I once again think to myself. But then it dawns on me that the man who is holding me down had not been joking and there may be some serious implications related to the injury.

And finally I was right on something… I spend the following month horizontally in various hospitals. The months after that I’m in a bed at my parents’ house, making the days pass with a modem-connected laptop on my belly. My beard grows long and my mood goes from bad to sour and then even worse. Finally I one day can’t even stand myself and decide to do something about it. I gradually recover mentally just as my body is in decent enough enough to start riding easily again. It’s late May and most of the season is gone. I spend a few days cruising in Riksgränsen and get to watch Ingemar Backman’s monumental classic method air.

The following season I’m able to score a few podium placings on the pro tour, proving to myself that I’ve made it back on track. I then quit competing entirely. Still don’t know if this was due to injury or everything else that took place in my life and the snowboarding world at the time – but quit I did.

Over the past years there have been quiet a few tragic occasions where famous snowboarders have moved on to powdery slopes were the rest of us aren’t allowed yet. I was lucky to stay around on the current ones after that episode, but did I learn anything from it worth sharing? Well, there are a few things that have grown with me over time:
One: The mountains are a dangerous place to play in. If you’re a decent rider it’s easy to push the limits in them and even easier to push the possible consequences of doing so far far away.
Two: Have you noted how cool most people who’ve had a near-death experience seem about it? Humans can freak out about a lot of things in life, but once we get in contact with our own mortality we calmly seem to accept it. This was the case with me too. Thinking or talking about a time when I almost died almost brings a state of tranquility with it. After all, once the episode is over, there is nothing we can do about it.
Three: As with any near death experience, the images captured by our eyes become forever etched in our brain and slide in front of our closed eyelids periodically. If there are details that were not observed or later lost in memory, our brain makes them up. So our memory slowly evolves over time, making it less and less correct. So the story I’ve told you here is most likely only fairly close to what actually happened. Many of the details are unintentionally made up. However, the thought “Well, it was truly nice to be here” were surely my last words, at least at that time. I wonder what they will be the next time?

Anders Hagman is a Swedish former pro rider who wishes he’ll say something really cool like “it’s better to burn out than to fade away” – like Kurt Cobain did – when it’s really his time to go.

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