Grizzly Peak Incident


“I” is – gary hehn

The experience I am about to relate is one I have affectionately dubbed the Grizzly Peak Incident. It took place at the Red Lodge Ski Area which is located on Grizzly Peak and in the nearby town of Red Lodge, Montana during the winter of 1979. While the Grizzly Peak Incident suggests a measure of irresponsibility, it also exemplifies the free spirited sense of life that I possessed at that time; a sense of being that I find myself missing at times. Living life in this way gives it zest although, of course, it is often wise to apply appropriate tempering. As the famous Alaska/Denali bush pilot, Don Sheldon, once told me, my dad, and my cousin as he was flying us into a remote lake because the weather on Denali wasn’t cooperating, “If you’re careful, you’ll live longer.”

The whole episode started with the birth of my daughter, Heather. The intense emotion surrounding the birth of one’s child is indescribable and I was overwhelmed by it. I called my parents and my best friend, “BuBu” Roy, and cried. Upon leaving the hospital I decided to go out and share the good news.

I don’t smoke. In fact, I can’t stand cigarette smoke not to mention cigar smoke. But, smoking a cigar being tradition at the birth of a child and the fact that a bubble gum substitute just didn’t seem to commit to the occasion an appropriate amount of seriousness, swayed my decision to opt for following tradition and doing it in a big way! I don’t know what they put in those cigars but, whatever it is, in my case it apparently enhanced an already volatile situation. I don’t remember how many I smoked but, I know it was more than one and it could have been as many as a half dozen. I was smoking them non-stop from the moment of purchase. I drove up to the ski area where I had been working the past two seasons. I remember it as a beautiful day and I was on top of the world!

When I got to the ski area I headed straight for the lifts, sharing the news of my new found fatherhood and my cigars as I went. At the top of Grizzly Peak I caught up with the ski team, all of them kids from junior high up through high school. When I told them the news they were elated. I gave each one a cigar and lit it. They started sputtering and coughing and we were all sputtering and coughing together. It was all in good fun and the mood was festive.

We barreled down the mountain leaving trails of smoke in our wake. I can’t be certain that the effects of smoking all those cigars didn’t have some influence in what happened next. Maybe my reactions would have been quicker and better. I remember feeling a bit dizzy or was it all the excitement, probably some of both. It’s possible that what occurred would have either way. As we approached mid-point on the mountain many of the skiers in our group and from elsewhere started cutting across the slope in the direction of the lodge located at this point on the mountain. A lot of skiers were suddenly cutting across in front of me and I was hurtling down at a pretty good clip. In order to avoid colliding with anyone, I have always been proud of my record of avoiding collisions, I aimed straight down hill through them. It was all happening very fast. In doing so I scored a direct hit on a service road. And the score wasn’t in my favor. Hitting the road straight on and at the angle I did was like running into a wall! I instantly blew out of my equipment and plunged head long across the road and over a pile of rocks.

Because of the proximity of me and my accident to the lodge, the ski patrol was on the scene in an instant. I knew and had worked with all of them and they were great people. I told them that I really was celebrating and not trying to kill myself. Fortunately, although I was battered up I didn’t feel seriously damaged. My shoulder was in pain and my ear was bleeding but, I felt good enough to ski down. My ear bleeding; I’m sure that’s what scared them, could mean concussion. So, for the first and only time “so far” in my nearly forty years of skiing, and a good many of them ski racing, I was taken off the mountain in a toboggan. They kept me in the patrol room and monitored me for a while. In the mean time a cousin I hadn’t seen in years showed up, finding out that I was a patient and not a worker in the patrol room. After a time they convinced themselves that I was all right and I drove myself down to the hospital in town.

On the way to the hospital all that had transpired was setting in; my wife was a brand new mother, I was a brand new father, and the both of us had a brand new baby girl. And here I was, not even a day into father-dom, or should that be “dumb”, driving myself down from a celebration induced ski accident to pay a visit to the emergency room. When I arrived at the hospital I entered from a doorway at the end of a long hallway.

At the other end far down that hall stood the admittance desk. A nurse and the doctor I had seen just a few hours earlier were standing at the desk. The doctor was the traditional conservative fatherly doctor type. I was dreading the lecture that I knew I deserved and was certain to get as soon as I reached him at the admittance counter at the end of that long sterile hospital hallway. He and the nurse watched as I approached from down the hall. My head was wrapped in a bandage, my arm in a sling. I had just left the hospital no more than a few hours earlier, a new father, and was expected to return soon to see my wife and baby daughter. I was however expected to do so in one piece; instead, here I was beat up and battered and with the stench of cigar smoke on my breath. When I reached the doctor he looked down at me and said, “Damn, it’s a good thing you didn’t have twins!” He couldn’t have broken the tension any better and I was off to the emergency room for a few X-rays and to get my ear stitched back together.

About this time my wife was asking a nurse if anyone had seen me as she was expecting a visit. The nurse replied, “Oh yes, he’s in the emergency room!” Luckily my wife could tell by her expression that it wasn’t serious. Sure enough, there we were, all three of us in the hospital. My wife, Coni, was in recovery (her delivery was difficult and really another story); my new born daughter, Heather, was in the nursery; and I was being treated in the emergency room!”

Although all of this was a grand adventure; when my son, Nathan, was born seven years later I made sure that I stayed away from ski areas. I don’t remember smoking a cigar. It almost seems like I must have. But, if so, I’m sure I only smoked one!

© 1996 Gary E. Hehn