Heed The Close Call Interview Series An Avalanche, A Tree, and Three Broken Bones

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.”

HB: Seriously a close call though. Did you ever ski there again?

JC: Yeah, I went back on the one-year anniversary to do it again. 

HB: Haha what! Can we ask why? How did you feel?

JC: I mean, I guess it was the need to accomplish it. The rush, I wanted to do it right. I was nervous about getting on the horse again. But also nervous cuz I didn’t want to get injured again. Two weeks after I skied there, a well known Vail local died there. He was even further skier’s left. The avalanche ran him into the trees so he died from blunt force trauma. Four of my other friends have died skiing East Vail chutes since then. 

HB: Maybe it’s a dumb question, but what’s the appeal if it’s so dangerous? 

JC: I never got good enough at big wave surfing, but I hear it’s a similar thrill: it feels amazing and is extremely fun. It carries risks, but skiing powder is addictive, particularly in the backcountry of Colorado. 

HB: Dude. So you really got lucky. What sort of advice would you give to people in your situation?

JC: 1. We were being too aggressive skiing big lines too early in the season. So maybe don’t do that. 

2. Definitely pick your back country partners really well. These guys were very dialed in. Everyone had their avalanche certifications. Both were first responders. Who you pick will be the people who save your ass or don’t. 

3. It’s critical to have the right avalanche gear. We had 2-way radios and BCA airbags, a device they invented where you pull a ripcord and it releases a bag that keeps you buoyant in a slide. We also had a beacon, shovel, and probe on us which are mandatory to have. 

4. And if you want to live a long, full life, chasing backcountry runs nonstop—without considering the conditions and risk—isn’t the way to achieve that. 

HB: Solid advice. So—how did you get from a backcountry skiing accident to owning Xflats?

JC: Slowly but surely post-accident, I wanted to be on this earth as long as possible. Chasing backcountry turns at all costs is not a good way to do it. Fly-fishing is a better way haha. Fly-fishing was just as cool, but in a different way. There’s an opportunity for a career there. Powder hunting, not so much. Some of the best backcountry skiers I know have echoed this sentiment to me. Coming from extreme sports is a common thread among fly fishermen. 

Anyways, I was already fly-fishing growing up, but this became the turning point of it being part of my identity. I would have identified prior as a backcountry snowboarder. So I started guiding in a constant pursuit of new, untouched fisheries. Places with amazing fishing but not a lot of people. Traveling with friends and groups, seeking out new areas. 

On a trip to Xcalak I discovered what’s now Xflats—it was an old scuba dive hotel inside of a national park. I knew this was my opportunity to put a stake in the sand I guess. So I got together some funding and investors and repurposed it into a fly-fishing lodge. What’s crazy is down here there are no bars or hotels, it’s just a little dot of a spot. But people here are amazing guides. We do have a bar and restaurant at the lodge though haha. I feel like we’re really a part of the community because we support 31–32 families from this one business. And they’ve really taken my family and me into their lives. 

HB: Hell yeah. That’s incredible. How’s your Spanish?

JC: Pretty good! Izzy, the other Mexican Howler Ambassador, likes to test me and rip pretty hard in Spanish. But I’ve finally gotten good enough where my personality has been able to come out in the language, so that’s been huge. 

HB: Your life sounds freaking incredible to us. 

JC: It’s pretty rad. There are trade offs though. I missed the second half of my 20s just building this place and bringing it up to speed. I didn’t get to be present in my friends’ lives like I wanted. Sometimes it can be really shitty being bashed around by hurricanes. And of course, you miss out on some first world treats—there’s no uber eats or a quick meal, you gotta work for it. But man, I’m just incredibly happy. 

Jesse Colten has been a Howler Brothers ambassador since 2022. On top of running The Xflats, he is a musician, and stars in the documentary “Of The Sea,” a 2023 Fly Film Fest contestant. You can follow along with his adventures on Instagram and find his original music on Spotify