Battered in the backcountry

by • January 16, 2014 • HighlightsComments (4)4486

After harrowing crash, this survivor learns the meaning of tough

The idea of turning a dirt bike into a snow assassin that rips harder, climbs higher, and goes farther than any sled known to man – well, that is pure seduction.

Joel Smith courtesy of Joy Sullivan

Joel Smith courtesy of Joy Sullivan

Joel Smith was enticed by such a notion, when in 2010 he decided it was time to pimp his 03′ KTM 525sx. A store-bought kit that every Tom, Dick and Harry had wasn’t going to cut it – Joel was a genius at fabrication and with a little reverse engineering and sheer awesomeness it was no time all until he had created a masterpiece.

Joel was a natural the second his butt hit the seat. He made riding a snow bike look easy. There are few things more exciting than hitting the mountains with friends, searching for the ever elusive untouched snow…and when finding it making sure there is not a spot left without tracks.

In January 2013, that was exactly what Joel and his six friends were after. It was overcast, but these guys weren’t going to let a little cloud cover dampen their spirits. One by one they convoyed the beaten trail into Lost Lake. They rode in about 15 miles and found a sweet spot, with lots of slopes and cornices that needed to be dominated.

One spot in particular called Joel’s name. He climbed it twice, both times turning out to the right around a shrub, but in the process it got washed out. He went up again, banking to the left this time, and realizing almost immediately that the flat light was a con artist. The slope that had appeared to make a gradual descent actually was a menacing 50-foot vertical drop.

A wreck was inevitable, but Joel had enough time to lessen the carnage. With a swift thrust, he used his foot pegs and launched himself backward off the bike. Both man and machine became gravity’s wench as she yanked them down to the hard-pack bottom of the drop. The bike landed first, nose-diving.

Joel, looking like a ragdoll, came down on top of the bike, and on impact ricocheted some 20 feet into a snowbank.

A modified snow bike can be a great backcountry machine. C. Wright Photography

A modified snow bike can be a great backcountry machine. C. Wright Photography

His friends were glued to the scene unfolding as if it was a Victoria’s Secret runway show. They watched Joel, waiting for any signs of life – after what they had just witnessed they weren’t sure. Just as they started imagining eulogies, Joel’s hand shot up, waving them over. He looked like he had been run over by a truck. His breathing was ragged and the pain excruciating. The cloud cover had begun to transform into a snowstorm, and Alaska’s ridiculously short duration of daylight was closing in on them. Joel was all too aware that there would be no easy way out of this mess.

Joel dug deep, collecting as much macho as he could muster, and with help from his buddies slowly got up. He knew right off there was no way he was going to be able to maneuver his bike back to the parking lot so he did a ride swap settling on a sled for the trip out. Slow and steady the men backtracked the 15 miles to the trucks, standing on the running boards shifting his weight as much as possible to buffer the percussion from the bumps and ruts. By the time they were out it was dark, and Joel was spent.

He was still in full riding attire when he slumped into the backseat of the truck, unmotivated and in too much pain to attempt to strip down.

It was another 45-mile stretch to civilization and the nearest hospital, and Joel was starting to run a fever while drifting in and out of consciousness. When he was lucid he was weighing his options: Without health insurance, a hospital bill could really wreak havoc on the wallet. He began to struggle with the thought that although his injuries could be life threatening what if they weren’t? By the time they reached the hospital, Joel had talked himself out of treatment, rationalizing that he was just being a wuss.

His friends were not so convinced so they checked out his back and side, looking for obvious signs of trauma. To all their surprise there was only minor bruising and swelling. Not completely convinced himself that he was OK, Joel decided to stay the night at his brother’s just to be on the safe side.

Joel Smith’s injuries included broken ribs, a lacerated kidney and severe bruising after a snow bike accident in the backcountry.

Joel Smith’s injuries included broken ribs, a lacerated kidney and severe bruising after a snow bike accident in the backcountry.

If he thought his pain was bad initially it quickly became intolerable, and what used to be minor bruising had graduated with honors to major. He finally gave in and surrendered, setting his monetary concerns aside, and went to the emergency room. His ego was restored when they confirmed he was not in fact a wuss, but rather lucky to be alive.

His injuries included but were not limited to, broken ribs, lacerated kidney and severe bruising. He was appreciative in that moment for well-made protective gear, knowing had he not been wearing it, he most likely would have made the trip off the mountain in a body bag.

Although the only thing doctors could do for Joel’s injuries was to prescribe pain medication, having peace of mind was priceless. They released him with his man card and a hefty bill to recover at home. After a week of bed rest, Joel was back at work, and a month later back to normal.

Today nothing physically remains to remind anyone of that day, just the memories of seven men who observed firsthand just how unforgiving Alaska’s backcountry can be. Joel has since upgraded his bike and continues to push the boundaries and excel as a rider.

When you ride, you take risks – it comes with the territory. Disaster and mayhem does not discriminate, anyone can fall prey to their misfortune. Taking the proper steps in preparedness can mean the difference between life and death. Your adversary ranges from inclement weather to avalanche to injury. Knowing how to react, for yourself and others is key to survival in the untamed backcountry of Alaska.

Joel Smith explores the backcountry on his modified dirt bike, converted to run in deep powder. C. Wright Photography

Joel Smith explores the backcountry on his modified dirt bike, converted to run in deep powder. C. Wright Photography

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4 Responses to Battered in the backcountry

  1. Lost Lake Local says:

    There is no shame in making sure you’re safe and ride another day. Local responders in that area are equipped with the training and tools necessary to help people in need. Lost lake can be very nasty and accidents happen like this all the time where someone with possible life threatening injuries try and be macho about it but in the meanwhile are gambling with their life or with permanent injury. Getting hurt is part of the risks we take out in the back country and up in the mountains. Just don’t let your man card get in the way of common sense.

  2. Bonnie Welsh says:

    Awesome article!! Looking forward to the next.

  3. Ken says:

    Great article. You’re the man Joel. Be safe

  4. Leif says:

    Crazy story! Way to jump right back on the snow pony! Nice article joy :)

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