For this edition of Heed the Close Call, we caught up With Jesse Colten, owner of Xflats Lodge, professional fly angler and Howler Ambassador from the porch of his ocean-front fly-fishing lodge in Xcalak, Mexico.
The sunny beaches and warm waters of Xcalak come as a stark contrast to the mountains of Vail—the scene of today’s Heed the Close Call story—featuring a then 23-year-old Jesse. Perhaps it was a blessing in disguise: the road to Xcalak draws a line directly back to this very close call in the Vail backcountry.
HB: Tell us, how did you heed the close call?
JC: So back in December of 2013, I was still living in Vail. I was fly-fishing then too, but I was very involved in backcountry snowboarding and snowmobiling. The winter season had started early—there was quite a bit of snow so the snowpack was uneven and unsafe. We were skiing the East Vail Chutes, which is notoriously the most dangerous place to ski in Colorado. But as a 23 year old, I wasn’t really worried about it.
That day, myself and two backcountry partners, Chad and Dave, were skiing a risky line we were very familiar with. It starts above the tree line and two cliff shelves. You skin up to get there which takes about 2 hours, and then you ski all the way down. It is the biggest lifeline to have other people watching your back when you’re out doing this stuff. I was the last to drop. Dave dropped and stayed skiers right close to the tree line, then Chad a little left into the first shoot.
So I drop, farthest left of everyone else across the face and into the middle of the shoot. At the first toeside turn I felt a push under my feet. I had popped off a surface slide—or a small avalanche—almost immediately. I thought I could outrun it and turned to take a straight line out. I outrun the first cliff band, but by the second cliff band the absolute force of the avalanche was uncontrollable and started to catch up to me. These things are the speed of class 5 rapids. You don’t have the control to manipulate it—it's gonna manipulate you.
Suddenly, I couldn’t steer anymore and I couldn't land. The force of the snow catapulted me downwards about 30 feet and I landed hard onto a tree immediately breaking my tibia, fibula and medial malleolus bone from the impact. The size of the avalanche was not enough to bury me, but threw me into an uncontrollable wash out in the trees.
HB: Hold up—what is the medial malleolus and how did you know you broke your bones?
JC: That’s the circular bone that is inside of your ankle, and that played a particularly spicy role in this story. And I just felt it break instantly haha.
HB: Yikes. Ok what happened next?
JC: Well, the deck of my snowboard had ripped off at the base of the bindings. I saw it below me a bit. I immediately radioed to the guys: “Dudes, for sure my ankle is broken.”
HB: So were you…on top of a tree?
JC: I landed at the base of a patch of young growth trees which probably kept me from getting knocked out. The guys were like “look dude, we’re not gonna be able to get up to you, you’re gonna have to get down here somehow.” So I had to climb out of the snow and rig up my board as a toboggan and essentially surf down to them. What normally takes 45 minutes to ski out took over 3 hours to climb out.
HB: That sounds super difficult considering the break. Were y’all scared about getting out?
JC: OOh yeah, it sucked. It was scary and steep as hell doing it that way with a broken ankle. We were absolutely scared about remote triggering another slide at any moment, but I remember once I got down to them, Chad and Dave were telling jokes the whole time, keeping it light. That kept us from totally freaking out about the situation. They were basically ski patrol for me, tightening my boot down very tightly to not let it swell up uncontrollably and securing my board to their skis before we took off. At a certain point down the mountain, it was going to be too hard to maneuver me further, so Chad went back down the mountain solo, grabbed a snowmobile, navigated back up through the trees and grabbed me. I got on and we headed straight to the ER.
HB: Holy shit. What did the doctor’s say?
JC: By the time we got there we were acting pretty nonchalant about what happened. I think we were all dehydrated and perhaps in silly mode? I kept telling the ER Nurse to cut my boot off because my ankle was definitely broken, but I think they thought I was full of it because of how I was acting. They were like, “We’ll just pull it off, I’m sure it’s not broken.” I continued to tell them I didn’t care about the boot and to please just cut it off, but eventually I fell asleep. Unfortunately, I woke up screaming in white light pain as they were pulling my boot off which rotated my medium malaylus—turning an already broken bone sideways.
HB: That gave us chills—we felt that pain.
JC: Yeah, a couple rips of morphine later I was fine haha. But the nurse brought me extra jell-o and was extra apologetic because I was right—it was super broken now. Two surgeries and ten years later, I still have the hardware in my ankle. It straight up looks like screws you’d get from Home Depot, but it did the job.
HB: What was your mental state like after all of this?
JC: Well, I was certainly glad my legs took all of this. At the end of it, I just remember feeling grateful that it was over, and that I was conscious, awake, and was gonna be ok as long as I got out of there. Like, “we’re broken, but we’re good.”