Backcountry Femur Breakage: What happened and what we can learn

Written by Lukas Eddy

Cody landed with his head slightly downhill, facing up. It was a comfortable reclining position until his Polaris 850 followed him, upside down. The handlebars landed directly on his thigh, instantly breaking his femur.

It was a Saturday around 2:15 pm. Their group of nine riders had taken some singletrack snowmobile trails, crossed a giant mountain saddle, and played through some trees earlier in the day. It was the first time in seven straight days of riding that they had blue skies, so some sightseeing was on the menu.

After lunch, they found a sort of half-bowl feature to mess around on. Some guys were trying out a snowbike for the first time, some jumps were found and sent. Cody was doing inverted re-entries in the half-bowl, which are regular re-entries but you throw the sled in the air to do them. This time, his sled hooked up really well for some reason. It shot around extremely quick, and instead of going over his shoulder it went straight upside down. When it landed, the bars came down on his right leg about 4 inches above the knee, when he immediately felt all the muscles in his leg tense up. Not good.

Down in the bowl, the guys watched it unfold. Cody heard his good friend Carl on the radio, “are you alright?”

“I’m pretty sure I just broke my leg” he responded. Carl immediately started his sled and rode up towards Cody.

As Carl came up to meet him, Cody sat forward and looked where he expected his feet to be. His right foot wasn’t next to the left, instead the leg was hanging way out to the side. Definitely broken. 

The preparations and actions taken before and after breaking his leg played a tremendous role in the outcome of Cody’s situation. First, he wasn’t riding alone. But just being with a group of any random riders isn’t enough. Their group of nine had an experienced local who was familiar with the Revelstoke area meaning navigation in an emergency would be far easier. And the riders were familiar with each other. In fact, Cody, Carl and another friend Caleb had life flighted another friend out of the mountains two years ago. Among them were four Garmin inReach satellite communication devices.

Carl and Cody knew the drill. The situation was serious, so Carl got on his inReach to send an SOS message and radioed the other guys to come join them. Cody’s chief complaint was his leg, so one of the first things they did when everyone got up to him was check for bleeding and stabilize his leg. Once it was determined he wasn’t in danger of bleeding out and no other issues were found, they focused on getting him comfortable.

Cody put on his extra midlayer, spare warmer gloves, a hat, some extra neck gaiters, and some space blankets down around his body. Now that Search and Rescue (SAR) was notified about the situation, Cody would be sitting on ice and snow for an undefined period of time.

They would later find out that if they had waited just 15 minutes or he had broken his leg 15 minutes later, SAR wouldn’t have been able to fly that day.

The wind began to pick up, so Cody asked the guys to grab some side panels from the sleds to build a small wall for protection from the wind. Fortunately, he didn’t get wet through his Ripsa one-piece suit. If he had been wet, even a small breeze would’ve created a dangerous situation that could ultimately lead to hypothermia and possibly death.

At the same time, Carl directed preparations for the arrival of SAR. A few guys built a path from where Cody lay to the flat area down below so they could drag him to the helicopter later. A few other guys packed down a helipad in the soft snow, then marked it out with shovels and tree branches. Cody’s foot began getting cold, so they started bringing firewood up to build a small fire for his foot. So far, the cold foot was the only thing really bothering him, but they still had no ETA from SAR.

Having injured himself in the past, Cody knew the drill for pre-surgery eating and drinking. He took a low-powered painkiller, but not wanting to risk postponing the upcoming surgery he only drank a bit of water.

After two hours of waiting, all the preparations had been made and Cody spent the time joking around with the guys. Staying in good spirits and maintaining a lighthearted atmosphere was very important to keeping people thinking right. At that point, Cody’s foot was getting extremely cold from the restricted blood flow around his knee, so they asked SAR what the ETA was.

They said there was no known ETA.

Right then, they finally heard a helicopter. Cody had his face covered to retain heat, but he could hear the excitement from the guys. That excitement faded to dismay as they realized it was a heli-skiing chopper, not SAR. It was getting dark. They had survival kits, so plans started to form around spending the night.

Carl carries a SAM splint, so the plan was to splint Cody’s leg to drag him down to the treeline where they’d spend the night. That’s the beauty of the inReach. When they first activated it, Carl was able to send messages to his wife to let her know why he activated it. If they had to spend the night, they could send messages to explain that they’d be out in the morning. Even if they just got stuck, it’s an easy way to keep family from worrying.

A dull thudding came up around the far side of the mountain. Suddenly, a helicopter flew over the hill and touched down on the landing pad. The SAR team was tense, saying, “we don’t have time to dick around. We’ve got 30 minutes and we’re leaving – with or without him.”

They raced up to Cody and got to work splinting his leg and getting him onto a portable stretcher. It was all hands on deck to get him down to the landing pad, roughly 150-200 yards away. The SAR team had to be back in their hangar by a certain time, hence their 30-minute time limit, but fortunately they stayed long enough to get Cody on board. The next evening Cody would be in surgery getting a titanium rod put in his femur.

Total time from breakage to air evac was a little over 2.5 hours. They lucked out that the weather was good enough for SAR to fly, it happened early enough in the day to get the SOS message out in time, and they were close enough to Revelstoke that they didn’t have to fly far.

Now, Cody is expected to recover fully in 3-6 months. He’s been on crutches for 2-4 weeks after surgery. Luckily, he has Aflac accident insurance and will be able to continue working as he heals. For people in powersports activities, accident insurance like Aflac can provide the emergency money that could be needed to avoid bankruptcy from being unable to work due to injury.

Cody’s experience breaking his femur in the backcountry is an example of what to do about a situation like that. It starts with preparation. His riding gear was solid and fully waterproof. He had a spare midlayer for warmth when he needed it. He had spare gloves, neck gaiters, a beanie, a survival kit he put together himself (so he knew exactly what he had), a first aid kit he made himself (so he knew exactly what he had there too), and an inReach. He knew and trusted who he was riding with. His group had a knowledgeable local rider. The group had adequate spare food and water. In fact, he and his friend Carl are planning to build extra survival kits and bring extra midlayers to give to riders who don’t bring their own. They’d make it mandatory for everyone riding with them to bring the extra supplies.

Something went wrong on their trip, and a lot of things went very right. Some of what happened was beyond their control, like the availability of SAR and the weather conditions. But what was within their control was their preparation, their knowledge, and their ability to handle the situation, and if any of those factors had been missing, this story could be very different. As riders facing potentially dangerous backcountry conditions, it is our responsibility to do everything in our power so we can ride again another day.

Cody would like to thank the following people:

  • Dayton
  • Toby Shepherd
  • Caleb Sparks
  • Jentry Painter
  • Seth Wilson
  • Colton Christensen
  • Evan Helle
  • Carl Christianson
  • Revelstoke Search and Rescue