Snowboarding to the Edge of Death ~ An Easter Monday Reflection, Part II

This is Part II of the story I began Here, reflecting on the snowboarding accident I had on an Easter Monday like this one, twenty years ago – March 31, 1997.

Let’s pick up the story…


When You Need to Move Fast, And Slow

Imagine the shock for dad and Carl when they finally set eyes on me for the first time since we parted ways at the out-of-bounds line over seven hours before. I had been lifted onto the ambulance stretcher in the parking lot, motionless. “I love you Andy!” dad shouted in my ear. Carl quietly wept at the sight of me. My bare hands had swollen to the size of footballs, and my exposed and bloodied skin was a deep blue colour.

My arms were above my head. The paramedic pulled them down by my side. Frozen, they went back up on their own.

Bill Boyd was there, having dug for me all that time (see Part I). He realised that there was only one paramedic in the back of the ambulance, and decided in that moment that he should go along just in case. This spur of the moment decision was one of many on that day without which I would have died.

As the ambulance pulled away, dad and Carl sat stunned inside our van, with windows fogged from the tears. They heard a knock on the van door. Dad lowered the window to find a young adult, who likely worked one of the ski lifts or kitchens of the mountain, standing there. He had my snowboard in his hands! While everyone else had been clearing up the rescue equipment, he had the courage to crawl through the tunnel to the crevasse and wrenched out my snowboard! “Here’s his board. Tell him to keep going man!” Even within the dread of that hour, that won a smile and a thank you from dad.

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Bill Boyd dug for me throughout the ordeal, and then jumped in the back of the ambulance when he saw there was only one paramedic there. He had to shock my heart back to life 5 times on the way to the hospital.

Meanwhile, the ambulance was snaking its way down the twists and turns of Mount Baker highway. They had cut through my heavy army-grade winter parka to expose my chest. But the paramedic who had originally been in back of the ambulance alone began to vomit in the corner. Between the twists and turns of the ambulance, and the sight of my blue frozen flesh, it was all too much.

So it was Bill Boyd, having made that spur of the moment decision to join the ambulance, who had to use the defibrillator to shock my heart back into rhythm as it stopped beating five times on the way to the hospital.

When we arrived, my temperature shuddered alarm through their emergency team. Our core temperature is to be around 97.7 F (36.5 C). As you know, a change of two or three degrees at our core is a serious concern, with hypothermia being diagnosed at around 95.0 F (35.0 C). But upon arrival at the hospital, my core temperature was taken at 80.8 F (26.6 C). Hence why the story would later be recreated, with many of the original rescuers playing themselves, for the Shiver documentary, which told stories of extreme hypothermia (see below).

At 80 degrees Fahrenheit, an urgent response is demanded by the critical threat to the body at that temperature. But a calm, slow response is just as vital because, if the body is warmed too quickly, the cold blood from the extremities shoots back to the heart and shocks it into failure. So the expert medics at the hospital had to slowly and strategically warm me through the night, wrapping me in warm air cushions and pumping warm saline into my blood, and had to do so as quickly as possible. Fast. But slow.

Dad, I Think I’m Meant to Do Something With My Life

I remember the sensation of going over the cliff. I remember being stuck in the hole and looking up, seeing the light entering it far up above, and taking my gloves off over my head to try and get free. So the bulk of the story is told here not from my own memory (it seems the trauma made me block most of it out), but as it was told to me and reporters in the testimony of the many rescuers involved.

I do remember opening my eyes the next morning, and the first thing I saw was the end of a plastic tube leaving my mouth. It had been pumping my lungs through the night. Then I saw my mom, who had been brought down across the border by my uncles. She had sat by my bedside through the night. I remember some of the rescuers visited me in the hospital the next day, to assure that I was alright. They were overjoyed and amazed.

Given that one night of emergency care at the American hospital came with a price-tag of 20,000 USD (thankfully I was 18, and so just qualified under my dad’s extended medical plan), the priority was now to get me to Canada right away. I then spent a few days at the main hospital in my hometown recovering. But apart from frostbite on my hands, a few stitches on my face and head, large rectangular burns on my chest and side where the defibrillator pads had been, and sore ankles and knees, I was absolutely fine. Not even a broken bone.

By all accounts, it was a miracle that Randy found me conscious after that treacherous fall, a miracle that they got me out of the crevasse alive from such an extreme environment, and a miracle that I had lived through the night, coming back from a rock-bottom core temperature.

Only a week after the accident I was walking around our block with my dad! At some point in the conversation I said to him, “Dad, I think I am meant to do something with my life.” “I think so son,” he replied.

But Did It Change My Life? (Amidst the Matrix of Family Pain)

But what was that ‘something‘? And what about the more important question, the one that haunts anyone concerned for the truth of the meaning life: ‘Why?’

Months later I had chance to return to the mountain to meet with the thirty strong team of people who had played a role in my rescue. We met in one of the dining halls, where my dad and I said a word of thanks to them. The mountain only charged me 1,300 USD for the rescue, itemising basic fuel and supplies involved, when no doubt much more could have been asked (and gladly given!) if the man-hours had been factored in. I paid for it and tried to say thank you as best as I could, though I couldn’t seem to do justice to their heroic efforts.

They were under no formal obligation to find and save me as I had gone out of bounds, leaving the ski area and, in doing so, the sphere of their obligation.

But though I had left the scope of their formal responsibility, thankfully I hadn’t left the sphere of their care. They came to me without complaint that I had transgressed the boundary. The rescue was a sheer act of grace.

Perhaps I could thank them by living a better life than the one I had lived up to that point? The accident had come at a hard time in our family’s history. In those years of my late teens, my mom’s mental illness – which has been called manic depression, bi-polar, and schizophrenia – was very severe. At high seasons, mom would be vacuuming the house at 3 am. At low seasons she would be on the couch for weeks at a time. Our family doctor would tell me after her most severe suicide attempt that, had I come home from school only five minutes later, mom would not have lived. At the time, dad was a high-powered project management executive with one of Vancouver’s most influential construction firms, and was overseeing the construction of what is now called Roger’s Arena, home of the Vancouver Canucks. Needless to say, with mom’s illness and the demands of dad’s work, not to mention the regular drama that comes with raising three teenagers, the pressures upon our family were immense.

I had not been dealing with it in a healthy way. I drank excessively and did ‘recreational’ drugs with friends. I sought shelter in sexual pleasure. I became a people-pleaser at my dish-washing jobs down on the beach, seeking to win the praise of the staff by over-the-top perfectionist performance. But I lacked any sense of direction. The pain in our family was the main factor in my life, and it had me reeling.

Province Front Page

Taken a few days after the accident, with the board that was also ‘rescued’ from the hole. Note its cut bindings, and the scars.

Surprisingly, my near death experience didn’t change any of this or me. There were those strange “15 minutes of fame” as the story was published through the various media included here, and I was sincerely grateful to those who had rescued me that I was alive. But my big question was still ‘Why?

I would think about what I could do with this second chance at life: possibly become successful, make money, have nice things and nurture a lovely family. Be a good person. Help others. But as I considered these futures, a question haunted: “That’s all very nice, but what’s the point of them if I don’t know the point of me?” I would ask.

After the accident I had a searing conviction that there must be some purpose, some answer to the ‘Why?‘ for which I lived. But cast about as I might, tossing and turning on my bed at night, it evaded me.  My grandparents on my dad’s side had given me a small King James Bible on the day I had been christened, only days after my birth. I would page through it and had this inexplicable intuition that there was something there within those leafs. But it was like I was looking at it through a veil that kept me from seeing the answer to my search for purpose, even though I somehow sensed it was there to be found.

So did the accident change my life? No, sadly, it didn’t. I went back to the same manner of living as before, and felt enslaved to the same old destructive habits that I leaned on to try and cope with the same old matrix of family pain.

But woven into the fabric of the accident were clues pointing to what (or rather who) would later prove to make the decisive difference in my life. Clues like the near impossibility of explaining the events of that day within a purely naturalistic framework, the prayers and testimony of Jim Millson, and the day upon which the accident happened in conjunction with one of the headlines from The Province newspaper’s account of the rescue.

These clues bore a testimony of their own. But I could not hear it on my own.

Clues: “Back from the Dead”

The headline I am referring to is not the one on the front page, but the one that stretched across the inside, where the bulk of the rescue was recounted. It read “Back from the dead.”

Province Middle Page

Here with my lovely sister Jen, a twin with Carl.

Now of course, I did not die. I came about as close to death by hypothermia as one can come and still live, I imagine. But I was never pronounced dead and, as far as we can tell, never stopped breathing. My heart, though needing to be shocked back into rhythm those five times, never stopped beating for any significant period. No Lazarus here. This was not a genuine back from the dead story. Back from the brink of death would have been more accurate.

But, exaggerated as it was, the headline nevertheless made its impact on me. My family had something of a Christian history. During my elementary school years in Regina, my dad volunteered in a United church. As I mentioned, I had been christened as a child. My mom had a Catholic background. But as we moved to the West Coast in search of better doctors for mom, and as the pressure of her mental illness mounted, we gradually drifted away from church. The effect of this was that our family’s faith had little impact on me as I came through those difficult but formative late high-school years when mom was most ill. Yet thanks to my parents, my childhood Sunday school experiences did impact me enough that I knew that Easter was when Christians celebrated Jesus coming back from the dead. And no exaggerated headlines here: they claimed he was really dead. Dead dead. And then was raised back to life.

It was because of our society’s celebration of Jesus’ resurrection that my dad had the Easter Monday off work, and thus was able to take the trip with Carl and me to Mount Baker. And now, post-accident, the headline in The Province about the accident was “Back from the dead.” As a result, I had an inescapable conviction that Jesus was real. Not just a religious idea that people had come up with, or a great teacher in history, but a living person who was somehow at work amidst the uncanny events, the courageous acts of selfless heroism, and the prayers offered up on Mount Baker that Easter Monday. The Province didn’t intend or note the connection between its headline and the weekend upon which the accident had happened. But I saw it and couldn’t escape it. I knew that Jesus was real. All these “clues” of the day seemed to point in that direction.

But even that was not enough to change me. Just knowing intellectually that Jesus was real was not enough. I was searching inside, but not finding an answer to the haunting “Why?”. Someone needed to find me.

Then She Came In

After the accident I went back to life as before. The rugby club I played for and the restaurants I worked in kept the newspaper and Reader’s Digest articles of the story up on the staff bulletin boards for awhile, then they came down. But every once and awhile, as I worked in the sinks, I would notice the scars on my hands which would stir my search for purpose some. But otherwise, life marched on.

Until she marched in. Julie Nightingale was about to graduate from the same high school I had graduated from two years earlier. She was looking for work, and was driving along the beach in our town with her mom when she saw the Boathouse restaurant. “That’s where I am meant to work,” she thought to herself. It was the only place she applied, and she got the job as a busser. I was given the task of training her how to bus the tables (as I did that job in addition to dishwashing). I thought she was strangely distracted throughout her initial training session. Little did I know that she would go home that evening and tell her mom she had met the man she was going to marry! She asked me out and, after holding back a bit from fear of close relationships, I eventually said yes.

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Julie and me, soon after we started dating, on a swing I built for her. Note the sides. I would only come to know Jesus a few months from here. But it seems he already knew me.

Strange, I know. And if I was her parent at the time, I would have thought this was all unhealthy and would have been very concerned. But Julie came from a strong Christian family, and was a Christian herself, and soon after meeting me the family had a sense that God was at work in my life, and so were very patient with me. Julie’s parents and two siblings were extremely accepting of me, even though I still led a very unhealthy lifestyle. They didn’t try and protect Julie by keeping me from her or judge me. Instead they took me in. Often, after hanging out with Julie, I would spend time talking with Debbie, Julie’s mom, about the big questions I was asking. I was intrigued by Julie’s faith, and asked her question after question about it. Julie was very patient and helpful.

Back from the Dead for Real

Then, a few months after we had been dating, Debbie suggested that I go with Julie to a Young Life summer camp called Camp Malibu, on a beautiful Island off the coast of British Columbia. Julie got special permission for me to come, as I was two years out of high school and the camp was intended for secondary students.

It was there that the message about Jesus clicked. We would spend the days in water sports and hikes and time with our cabin mates, but then in the evening there was a chapel time. After we sang, a speaker would talk about Jesus.

He told us the essential message of the Bible: That God made all things, and created human beings for a unique relationship with him. But we, as a race and as individuals, have turned away from God, choosing to trust in and worship created things instead of our Creator, and to do whatever we pleased without concern for his ways. He explained that because of our sin the communion with God that we were created to enjoy has suffered a rupture and, as a result of our being estranged from God, who is our source of spiritual life, we are in a situation of spiritual death – unable to attain on our own to our life’s true purpose of enjoying and glorifying God.

Province Middle Page

The speaker invited us to share aloud, if we wanted to, the sins we thought most troubled our relationship with God. With a giant black marker he wrote them on a large piece of plywood stood vertically in the middle of the chapel’s stage. “Lust”, I thought to myself. On one side of the divide, he placed a student representing God. On the other, a student stood representing us as human beings who have sinned against God. He made clear that there was nothing we could do to break down this wall of separation that our sin created between God and us. There is nothing we can do to save ourselves. It was all quite grim news.

But the next night, with the ink-stained plywood barrier still erected, still dividing, he spoke about Jesus. Jesus was God’s Son become human, while remaining fully divine. Jesus lived the life of obedience and unbroken fellowship with God that every human being was meant to enjoy, yet was crucified by the people of his day. But unbeknownst to them, through his unjust punishment by death on the cross, Jesus was actually bearing the death that their sin and ours deserved. By being completely innocent of any sin, he could then bear our guilt and suffer the death we earned for ourselves in our place. As a result, when we trust in him – when we rely on him and his work for our rescue – we are forgiven by God and our broken relationship with him is renewed. And not only are we forgiven, but God’s Spirit then takes up residence within us and empowers us to live a new life increasingly like the life of grace and truth that Jesus himself lived, within a family of his people who are seeking to do the same.

As this message about Jesus was sinking in, the speaker ripped out a chainsaw in the chapel. As he spoke about the effect of Jesus’ death on the cross on our behalf, he cut the plywood barrier in two and kicked it apart. By renouncing our own attempts to live apart from God, and by trusting not in ourselves but in Jesus and his work to rescue us, the barrier is taken away and we can live the life with God we were created to live, and grow in living in increasing obedience to God.

Wrung by the truth of this news, I asked to pray with my cabin leader and a few other men. They took me to a bench by the sea. There I asked God to forgive me for the ways I had sought to lead my own life and be my own god. Then I expressed my trust in Jesus and what he had done for me through his life, death, and resurrection. I confessed that he is the rightful Lord of my life, and asked that he would help me live for him. Though there were no fireworks, in the days that followed there was an undeniable change that Julie and her family and others immediately noticed. I found a new inward power with which to fight off the enslaving habits that had once mastered me. Now, rather than slave-masters, though I still felt tempted by them and occasionally gave into them, I had both a new inner conviction that they were harmful, and a fresh strength that enabled me to turn away from them and toward God and life.

Though I didn’t know Ephesians 2:1-9 in the Bible yet, I was certainly experiencing its truths. It describes our life separated from God as one of spiritual death, and speaks of trusting in Jesus as a passage from death to life. It dares to claim that apart from life with him, we are spiritually dead. But it promises that in life with him, we know a rebirth into fresh spiritual life.

Though I didn’t have these categories to describe it in this way at the time, this is what I was experiencing at Camp Malibu and in the weeks to follow: Back from the dead for real. One of the most palpable signs of the change was joy. People tell me my laugh changed and became freer.

Do you know joy? Not just fleeting emotions of happiness that run with the ebb and flow of circumstance, but the deep affection of joy that shoots through the highs and lows?

So How Do You See It?

I didn’t know the Lord that Easter Monday 20 years ago, but it seems he knew me. It was a miracle that I was found, a miracle that a team of heroes got me out alive five hours later and, having arrived at the hospital with a core temperature of 80.8 F, a miracle I awoke the next morning. I received my life back as an undeserved gift from God that came to me through the selfless and heroic efforts of Randy, Martha, Bill, Jim and so many others.

But, as you can see, the great significance of that rescue on Mount Baker was only fully appreciated for me in the light of an even greater rescue. We all have gone ‘out-of-bounds’ in life with God, disobeying him, and thus have fallen into a fatal spiritual situation with no way to rescue ourselves. But just when there was nothing we could do to rescue ourselves, God freely sent his Son to live the life we should have lived, and to die for our sins, and then raised Jesus back to life so that if we trust in him we are brought from death to life. Anyone who trusts in him has a rescue story unfathomably greater than the one I knew on the mountain, as astounding as the events of that Easter Monday were.

To return to the question I posed at the beginning of this reflection: How do you see it?

When push comes to shove, is it ultimately up to you, with your actions and failures making the decisive difference in your life?

Or. without denying the importance of your efforts, do you nonetheless see that every good gift we enjoy, even ability to do good, comes from the hand of a gracious Creator?

Left to yourself, would you get on just fine? Or do you see, as I have come to, that if we look honestly at our lives and the world around us we have to admit that we have landed ourselves in a situation that requires not just a little more independent effort, but a rescue?

If you have come to feel that your efforts at addressing the real problems in your life are about as effective as the clawing about I did in that ice hole, and if you would like to receive the rescue that God gives through Jesus as I did at Camp Malibu, then perhaps the below prayer would be a good way to start.

This prayer is written by Jim Millson, the search and rescue volunteer who pulled me out of the hole (after hitting me with the shovel ;). He shares this prayer right after he recounts my rescue on Mount Baker, and my subsequent trust in Jesus Christ, in his book Curing Burabura:

Oh, Father God Almighty

have mercy on me,

For I know I’m not all

you would have me to be,

My weaknesses are plenty

and I often do wrong,

And without your help

I will never be spiritually strong,

I’ve tried on my own

to do what is good,

But on my own strength

I never do what I should,

So please help me dear God

and forgive all my sin,

And grant me your Spirit

to dwell deep within,

Then help me stand firm

in the power of your might,

So that I can be free

to do what is right. Amen!*

Please do contact me if you have any questions about the story I have shared here, or if there is any way I can support you in your relationship with God. You can find contact info on the main page.

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Julie and Judah drew this picture of Mount Baker for me on March 31, 2017 – the 20th anniversary of the snowboarding accident.

* James C. Millson, Curing Burabura: Exploring the Why? Behind Our Woes, and God’s Cure for Them (Xulon Press, Maitland, FL, 2011), 91. (‘Burabura’ means spiritual shock and disorientation)



Other Media

The Shiver hypothermia documentary, by Great North Productions. Features a few of the key rescuers:

See also, Snowboarding to the Edge of DeathReader’s Digest (Canadian Edition), December 1997.

Heroes

As I shared in the story above, there were many more rescuers who were indispensable to my rescue than those I have been able to thank here. I of course don’t mean to exclude any one of them. Please do contact me if you are aware of others I could thank here.

Part of the reason I wanted to share the story publicly in light of our journey to Oxford was because I think that many courageous rescuers like these, who play such a decisive role at definitive points in the life of others, don’t often get to see where those lives go after. I have been in touch with those I have contact info for, to try and thank them again in person, and to share how life has developed for me since that Easter Monday twenty years ago.


This is Part II of a two-part post. You can find Part I here.

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