Flying Through Big Sky Country

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Not long ago I went out to big sky country in the great state of Montana for a quick trip to visit a good friend and one of the most intelligent, inspiring, accomplished and unbelievably talented outdoor adventurers on the planet. And I truly mean that with all my heart and soul. Just having a conversation with Jeff Shapiro makes you realize, “Woah, this dude is amazing.” Our goal was to hang out, catch up and soak up all of the awesomeness Montana had to offer. We did just that.

I packed up a car load of gear that I was sure we would be able to use in the mountains in Jeff’s backyard. With speedwing, BASE rig, wingsuit and cameras packed up, it was sure to be a good time. The drive along I-90 to Missoula brings you from the lush evergreens of western Washington, through the craggy peaks of the Cascades, then to the high desert of eastern Washington, then back through the mountains of the panhandle of Idaho and into Montana. I finally arrived at Jeff’s house late at night after being stalled by some road construction on I-90, so we kept our salutations short and cut to the chase. Jeff was going to bring me to one of his local sites and share with me a special place that he jumps 3-5 times a week. We went over some previous footage so I could see the exit point, the line to fly and the landing area. Feeling pretty good about things, we said our good nights and retreated to our beds to get a few hours of sleep.

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Wake up came early and we loaded up the truck and headed out. We arrived at the trailhead and my excitement began to grow as we grabbed our rigs and began the hike. The landscape was still scarred from a huge fire that swept through the area 13 years ago. Regardless, the hike was scenic and full of wildlife. Most notably a Peregrine falcon that Jeff says greets him at the same place nearly every time he hikes. After about an hour and gaining 2000 feet in elevation, we arrived at the exit and took in the view. I realized how blessed I was to be in such a special place with such an awesome friend. It's times like these that everything else goes away and I’m able to reflect on life and those that I cherish the most. Moments like this makes you realize how small you really are. After talking about the lines that we would fly and our landing patterns, we laid out our gear and performed gear checks on each other. Sounds kinky doesn’t it!? For me, gearing up is a time of quiet, self reflection. Everyone seems to have their own ritual and sequence when it comes to gearing up and prepping. Some laugh and joke. Some hum tunes or sing catchy songs. For me, it’s quiet time. Every jump is different. Different day, different conditions, different people. Just different.

We finished gearing up, gave each other a handshake, exchanged “Have a good one!” and Jeff stepped to the edge of the cliff, gave an exit count and pushed off. I watched as he had a fantastic flight and an equally awesome opening, canopy flight and landing. Even with the massive distance between us, I could feel the stoke Jeff was emitting and it was energizing! I was fired up for sure! Now my turn. I took a deep breath, walked to the edge, gave my count and exited. Two seconds later my suit pressurized and inflated, I banked left and flew along the wall I had just jumped from. What an amazing view! This is what it is all about. The freedom of flight and the completely immersive experience view that is before you. I felt alive! After what seemed like forever, I turned right, away from the wall and pitched my pilot chute.

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I was swung to the left a bit as my canopy was a little off heading to the left (towards the wall) and I quickly grabbed my steering toggles and turned the canopy around. A little discombobulated I searched for the landing area and was unsure I was going to be able to make it. I looked for an alternate landing area (which there really aren’t any) closer to me and decided to land on the single track foot path that follows the creek on the valley floor. Once committed, I set up for my final approach and landed right on my mark. Almost. My left foot landed on the trail while my right foot landed on a large rock. My right foot slipped off the side of the rock sending my foot one way and the leg another. I heard and felt the snap, fell to my butt and looked down at my leg. Even through the wingsuit I could see that my leg was not exactly right. I quickly removed my helmet, rig and wingsuit at which time I saw that my right foot was on the outside of my leg. I reached down with both hands and pulled the foot back where it was suppose to go and began to sit up and call for Jeff to let him know where I was and that I was ok (for the most part). Sitting on the large rock, I began to shove my gear into my stash bag. Once Jeff arrived, we talked about what had happened and agreed that he would take both of our stash bags to the truck and I would start hopping down the trail and meet him when he was on his way back. Jeff took off and I got myself together, broke the top of a burned down tree off, used it as a walking stick and began to hop on my good leg for the two and a half mile trek back to the truck. The trail was a narrow single track with both large and small rocks scattered throughout, steep inclines and very uneven. Not exactly what I was looking forward to in my current condition. It was a long, tiring and tedious trek, with several stops to rest and put my foot back into place (it kept flopping out of place and back off to the side my leg). I met back up with a now limping Jeff at about the halfway mark. Perplexed as to why HE was now limping, Jeff explained that in his hurry to get our gear to the truck, he stepped incorrectly on a small rock on the trail and sprained his ankle pretty good. As he told the story I noticed that his able was easily the size of a baseball. We couldn’t help but laugh at the situation! After our quick story break, I realized that I had yet another obstacle in front of me. I noticed that I had a narrow log crossing over the river. I got down on my hands and knees, and gingerly made my way across the narrow log trying not to think about falling into the freezing cold creek charging below me. Back on my feet (eh, foot) the trail seemed as if it would never end. My rest stops increased in both duration and frequency and I was getting gassed. Finally, over two hours later, we made it to the truck. We drove about 30 minutes back into town to one of the nearby hospitals where they took x-rays, reduced the fracture (doctor talk for putting the bones back in place) and splinted me up (big thanks to Jeff for holding my stinky, swollen toes while did this!!!!).

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After a little bit of goofing off and some story telling to the hospital staff, I learned that I had a trimalleolar fracture of my right tibia and fibula which would most certainly require surgery. I explained to the doctors that I actually lived in Washington state and would opt to have the surgery back home where I had a support system. I'm sure they thought I was crazy, but no crazier than flying squirrel suits off of cliffs.

That night, under the fog of pain killers, I went out to dinner with Jeff and his amazing wife. We talked about our day, future plans and had a few laughs. I thanked them both so much for their hospitality and apologized for cutting my stay short and ruining the rest of the fun that we were supposed to have. They were more than understanding. We all agreed that I would come back to their amazing home and make new memories. I got a bit of sleep that night before getting up bright and early, giving Jeff a big hug and my most heart felt thanks. I shimmied into my car and began making my way west, back to Washington.

***Now, I’m sure a lot of you are thinking that I am completely bat shit crazy for driving in this condition. Maybe you are right. I decided to drive myself against the insistency of several friends who offered to drive me back home to Washington. I even had friends insist on flying to Missoula, then driving me back to Washington in my car then flying back to where they lived. I decided against all of this as I didn’t want to inconvenience anyone and I was sure that I would be ok. I also decided it would be in my best interest to go pain killer free for the drive.***

Thank goodness for cruise control. Driving a standard transmission for 7 hours regardless whether it's almost all highway or not is quite the chore. Not being able to feel the gas pedal through the splint/cast makes for quite an interesting (and painful) experience when it comes to stop and go. I arrived home safe and sound, explained the story to my wife a few more times and scheduled my surgery for the following week.

After surgery, I spent a good 10-12 days straight in the horizontal position only getting up to use the restroom and take the occasional shower in the seated position. Staying positive and optimistic at times like this is difficult. You feel as if you’ll never get better and actually forget what it was like to be “normal.” You also become very appreciative of all of the little things. The love of your family and friends, good health, standing on your own two feet. We take so many things for granted on a daily basis. Slowing down is a good thing. I would just rather not do it like this if I I can help it. Three weeks after surgery, the doctors gave me a removable splint/boot and I began my rehab and physical therapy. A steady diet of lean meats, nuts, fresh greens, fruits and vegetables and I was ready to get back after it.

I have been injured before and know the trials and tribulations of recovery. A strong, positive mindset along with a good diet and rock solid support system are all key to getting healthy again and getting back out there. I have a long road ahead of me, and I realize that it will certainly test my determination, resiliency and perseverance. However, I know that it will be worth every bit of pain, sweat and tears that I will endure. Stay strong, stay positive and I’ll see you out there, Living the High Life!!

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