In one moment on the mountain, a life is forever changed
BY JOY SULLIVAN
I’ve been writing tales of survival in the backcountry for a while now, and this was the first time I had a really difficult time getting the words down. In all of my features, there has been a recurring theme – the happy ending. In this story, the ending has yet to be written.
However, the gravity of the situation is extraordinary. I can only hope that in sharing, you might get a glimpse into the amazing character that is Richard “Chuckie” Smith, and that his story can bring awareness to the entire sled community.
Richard Smith, or Chuckie to his friends and family, was born and raised in Barriere, British Columbia. Although his day job at Winvan Paving paid the bills, his passion was riding. To say Chuckie was a hard worker doesn’t really do him justice. His seasonal work as an asphalt road paver would shut down in the winter, so to support his wife and kids he took on a second job. He would travel to Alberta and work for Valhalla helicopters doing the arduous job of heli-logging. Spending months away from his family, working seven days a week on twelve-hour shifts, Chuckie rarely got a break. Family was his priority. A hands-on father, Chuckie was loving and patient. A kid at heart, he was genuine when it came to his children. Losing his own father recently to lung cancer, he was all too aware just how precious life is.
Chuckie had no trouble making friends and rarely made an enemy. When he wasn’t working, he tried to spend as much time as he could with his family and enjoying his many hobbies. He was the type of guy who could do anything and excel at it.
His favorite hobby was snowmachining, and as soon as the snow would fly nothing could keep him from his passion. One of the things that attracted him to his wife, Drea, was her shared enthusiasm for the sport. He was impressed that she was self sufficient; loading, unloading and hauling her sled. Their mutual love for riding brought them together. Best friends from the start, they built a pretty amazing life together.
As most wives can sympathize when you have children, especially little ones, sometimes our hobbies get put on the backburner. That was the case with Drea, which is why Chuckie had been persistent in trying to get her back out on her sled. She hadn’t rode the previous two seasons and felt rusty. She was concerned she wouldn’t be able to keep up with him. Chuckie seemed undeterred, assuring her they could go slow, just have some fun together trolling the pipeline in the Coquihalla area, a place they used to frequent. Using childcare as an easy out, Drea declined. Chuckie, undaunted, was on the phone within minutes calling up his buddies and planning a trip to the Brandy Wine area by Whistler. By that evening the dirtbike in the back of his truck had been replaced by a sled.
The morning of April 13, 2014, Chuckie slipped out of the house without saying goodbye, not wanting to wake his family. Drea sulked about being left behind, and had hoped that her refusal to go would suspend his plans. But deep down, she knew better and really couldn’t blame him. So she loaded up the kids and they headed to the zoo to meet up with friends. It was their daughter’s first time visiting the zoo, so Drea was frequently texting Chuckie pictures throughout the day. Normally his reply was instant, unless he was riding, then he would respond when he took a break. But that day she didn’t hear from him. She tried not to worry and they went about their day.
By 5 p.m., that evening Drea had returned home. The kids were wound up from the day’s events and ran around the house clutching their Happy Meal dinners when the phone rang. The caller ID was a friend Chuckie was riding with, which wasn’t unusual. Plenty of times before, someone would call to let her know her husband’s phone battery was dead and that they were heading back. Expecting a similar conversation she answered, but this time was different. The voice on the other end of the line was strained, almost hesitant. He told her that Chuck had been in an accident and had been airlifted to Vancouver General Hospital.
The last thing she heard was him saying was, “He was breathing when they left.”
She began to cry asking, “What do you mean he was breathing … is he not breathing now?” Her children rushed all around her, begging her to open their juice boxes and asking if it was Daddy on the phone, pulling at her as her hands released the phone letting it topple to the floor.
That was the very moment their world was shattered.
It was a bluebird day, not a cloud in the sky. Chuckie and three buddies set out for a day of riding. They were all experienced riders and fully equipped with packs, GPS, avy beacons, probes, shovels, and two-way radios. All were riding new and well-maintained sleds and sporting appropriate riding attire, including helmets.
At one point, the crew decided to take a break and eat, but Chuckie, resolved to utilize every second he could riding, picked out a line on a mountain he wanted to conquer. His friends watched as Chuckie made his ascent. It was hard to make him out against the rocks on the hillside, and the blinding sun made it all the more difficult to keep track of him. They watched as he appeared to turn out, then they heard the sound of his sled hitting rocks, and immediately sprung into action to find him. One of the riders trying to locate Chuckie rolled his sled on the steep incline and fell off his sled, landing near Chuckie.
The conditions where they found him were post avalanche and closely resembled concrete rather than snow. He was unresponsive, but breathing and had no obvious breaks or bleeding. His helmet was intact, with only a few scratches and a broken visor. There was no cell reception, but one of his friends recalled a spot they had rode earlier where he was able to get a signal. Retracing his steps he returned there to call 911, and from there they used the two-way radios and GPS coordinates to relay back to search and rescue, who had dispatched a helicopter to Chuck’s location.
It took two hours from the time of the crash for rescue personnel to reach Chuckie. He was taken via helicopter to Vancouver City to be treated at Vancouver General Hospital.
At Vancouver General, Chuckie was immediately rushed into surgery. He needed an ICP stent and monitor implanted into his skull to relieve the pressure on his brain. He had a laundry list of injuries that were non-life-threatening. Fractures to his skull, rib and leg. He also had a lacerated kidney and a partially collapsed lung, all of which would heal on their own without requiring treatment. The devastation was in the traumatic brain injury, in medical terms: Diffuse Axonal.
Diffuse Axonal isn’t the result of a blow to the head, rather from the brain moving back and forth inside the skull as a result of acceleration or deceleration. When this occurs, it causes the brain to move within the skull, where axons, the parts of the nerve cell that allows the neurons to send messages between them, are disrupted. As tissue slides over tissue, it causes a shearing injury. This produces the lesions that are responsible for unconsciousness, as well as the vegetative state that takes place after a traumatic brain injury.
When Drea arrived at the hospital Chuck’s prognosis was grim. She was told his family needed to come as soon as possible as they did not expect him to survive. But Chuckie kept fighting and the family held out hope. Even after several days of beating the odds, they were still told that as he stabilized and came out of his coma, his brain injury was so severe he would remain in a vegetative state with little to no quality of life.
Drea stayed vigilant at his side for months, watching him face death several times and miraculously pulling through. They spent two months at Vancouver General, then Chuckie was transferred closer to home at Surrey Memorial Hospital. There he was placed in the critical care tower for four months until he was deemed “medically stable.”
Although Chuckie has no spinal cord injury he remains “neuro- paralyzed.” He can move his hands and limbs slightly, and just recently he began holding up his head. He is unable to communicate and requires complete care. Cognitively doctors are uncertain if Chuck has understanding, but his family has observed signs that he recognizes pictures of his children. He is classed as minimally conscious now, which surpasses their initial diagnosis of being locked in a vegetative state.
Drea remains hopeful and active in his recovery. She has great faith in his strength and determination, noting he himself was never a quitter. She believes his athleticism and healthy lifestyle will give him an edge with this type of injury.
Drea is now in the process of modifying their home to accommodate Chuckie. Purchasing equipment like a patient lift, hospital bed, feed pump, and seeking out training to be able to care for her husband. Her goal was to have him home with his family on Christmas morning. The couple’s 4-year-old son Ryder has become withdrawn and distant since his father’s accident. To him, Dad was his world, his hero. A man once so vibrant and so full of energy, it is hard for Ryder to grasp why Dad doesn’t walk or talk anymore.
Their 1-year-old, Brooklyn, is growing up so fast. Seven months have passed since the accident and Daddy is missing those precious milestones. There is a huge void in their community and friends/families lives.
The Smiths had no living will, no power of attorney and no insurance. That is one of the lessons Drea so desperately hopes people can learn from their ordeal – that young families take care of those things presently so that if the unthinkable occurs there is some legitimate preparedness to depend on.
Chuckie snowmachined his entire life and was extremely experienced. He had taken avalanche and first aide courses. He was adamant about carrying the proper gear and being aware of weather conditions. He made it a point to keep his sled running in top condition.
Nobody knows for sure what went wrong on the mountain that day. It is just another powerful reminder that life can change in a heartbeat.
You can never predict or fully prepare for the fickle and often precarious nature of the backcountry. But you can do your best to educate yourself on advanced first aide, and outfit yourself with pertinent safety gear/equipment. It is also essential that you and the people riding with you go over an emergency-response scenario so that in the event of an actual crisis you are ready in body and mind to react.
Today Chuckie is in a short-term rehab facility in an Acquired Brain Injury program, with emphasis on physiotherapy. Fortunately being there, they have more freedom on treatment options. His family has opted for an unconventional therapy that is called Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy. It is the medical use of oxygen at a level that is higher than atmospheric pressure. Chuckie’s family has high hopes in this therapy and believe they see improvement.
The family asks for prayers and positive energy for Chuckie. You can follow their story on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/supportforchuckie. If you want to donate financially to the Smith family you can go to https://www.youcaring.com/SupportForRichardChuckieSmith.