Getting Up When You Fall From the Sky

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Mountains can hold a great allure, and for some, the pull is so strong that they build their whole lives around them. This was the case for Erin Tierney, who left her family and friends to pursue a career as a heli-ski guide. It was a job that came with sacrifices and risks, but for Tierney, the feeling of “floating down the mountain through widely spaced trees, smashing through pillows of snow, and dropping into a bottomless white room without another track in sight” was worth it. That is until she fell from the sky. In this personal account for Outside, Tierney details the trip that ended in disaster — when the helicopter she was flying in with her group crashed onto the mountain. 

Time seemed to stop. I was suddenly in a dream state, suspended, watching myself stare open-mouthed at Jim. He allowed his training to take over and skillfully put the machine into an autorotation to prevent a catastrophic nosedive into the mountain. I didn’t speak. I felt like I was floating on a cloud and watching a film strip of green, white, and gray unravel before my eyes. I thought, “This isn’t so bad.”

Then, in an instant, I felt the hardest impact I’ve ever experienced. A jolt of pain and energy spiked through my back, traveling up my spine. My hands flew up like I was on an amusement park ride, momentarily suspended in the air while they fought gravity. The clipboard I’d been holding in my lap bounced up. I tried to catch it with my hands. The metal edge of it grazed my pinky finger, drawing blood. I slammed down in my seat.

Everything was white. Then dark. And silent. Except for the voice inside my head wondering if this was the moment I was going to die.

Tierney had three compression fractures in her thoracic spine from the crash. That explained her pain, but what was not explained were the other symptoms she continued to experience: her exhaustion, her anxiety. Tierney’s accident occurred at the brink of a new awareness of the complicated nature of concussion and PTSD, but it still took a long time for her to obtain this diagnosis, and many more years for her to understand the intricacies of this hidden trauma — and what it would take to ever get back into a helicopter. 

 My body and nervous system were in a constant state of fight or flight, running constantly from the “what-ifs” and “almosts” that consumed my thought patterns. I craved sleep, but it only made me more tired. I wanted silence, but the pressure in my head felt so loud. Quiet walks in the woods should have been healing, but the visual overload of colors and patterns made me dizzy and stumble. There were no casts, no crutches, no evident reason for my state. My injuries were invisible, except for the fading scar on my finger.

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