Updated: September 29, 2009, 10:56 AM ET

Better than a hole in your head

A snowboard excursion in Chile takes an unexpected turn -- to the Emergency Room in El Colorado

Habenicht By Blair Habenicht
Archive

BurkiBlair and Matt in the thermals to Nevados de Chillan
After a month in Chile, going home seemed like traveling to a foreign destination. I had developed affection for the land, the people, and the pace of life so much so that if not for a week-long booze-cruise disguised as a river rafting trip that I had committed to in Idaho, I would have flown my girlfriend to Santiago (and have her bring all the ingredients necessary for the Asian and Mexican dishes I craved) and stayed until November. To my surprise, there is very little spice in Chile.

BurkiBlair, Nevados de Chillan
The beef is as good as it gets though, as was the hospitality extended to my crew during our slide-about. To the south, Ariel Cifuentes, the owner of the Beta Boardshop in the Las Trancas Valley (one of the only core shops in Chile), made my crew feel so comfortable in his home that I considered asking if I could pay rent and ride out the rest of the Southern Hemi winter among the steam vents and hot springs that litter the backcountry of Nevados de Chillan (formerly Termas de Chillan). When the third storm to hit and began to rip gropple at 90mph over the center volcano above unmoving lifts my mind wandered away from comfort. We waited for three days. Went to the market in Chillan and maxed out on Alpaca wool and mate cups. We skated the covered mini-ramp at the M.I. Lodge and drank bottles of Pisco, but the wind wouldn't die. Snow forecasts were predicting heavy precipitation to the north with less wind, followed by the key ingredient to riding the treeless high alpine of the Andes; the sun.

Chilean Volcom representative Nico Soric invited us to a barbeque the night before we left Las Trancas. At four in the morning, two hours before our bus was scheduled to depart, we were still filling ourselves with Pisco, steak, and Chillan Longaniza (a local sausage the region is famous for)--a combination that mixed with an hour and a half of blackout sleep made for the second worst bus ride of my life. Unlike the worst, I did not have to cut my underwear and t-shirt into toilet-paper sized pieces, but I did ruin my sleeping bag stuff sack with bile (three times), lost my new llama wool socks, and any respect from the girl next to me.

Receiving a meter of new snow in the time it took us to make our way north, the sky appeared blue the morning after we arrived back at El Colorado. Having spent the first week of our trip here, we began to seek out lines we had cataloged and/or ridden two weeks previous that didn't require hitch-hiking. The snow was light and waist deep, but with a wind layer in spots thick enough to warrant suspicion.

BurkiBlair and Lucas-follow cam-Nevados de Chillan
Around noon we met up with local ripper, Sebastian Camus, who offered to show us a few different perspectives of his home mountain. After exhausting all the lines that require only a traverse and short hike back to the lowest possible t-bar, we decided to take a road-run. The side-country terrain that spills down to the road that runs between El Colorado and the connecting resort of Valle Nevado is some of the steepest and most aggressive lift-accessible terrain in Chile. Sebastian led us to a massive bottleneck gully with waves to either side and a tiered drop-in to the right. I spotted a well-lit toeside turn with a protected ridge below it, another 100 meters down and to the right; a safe spot to post up and take pictures of Lucas, Matt, Forrest and Sebastian after blasting the turn. I dropped the tiers and cut side-hill on my heels, pumping a few angulations to build speed. As I laid into the wave with all the momentum I could generate, my board stopped.

Lucas said if I hadn't dropped the line he would have, but he had also noticed something different than the wind ripple that day. Something not visible. I remember the first front flip and the start of another before the screen went black. Matt, Lucas, and Forrest told me the silence; the anticipation of my next impact between air-born rotations was worst then the sound of my board and body crashing into the field of freshly covered rocks, six full cycles before I stopped.

BurkiFun with blood
The 45 minutes between the first cartwheel and sitting in Sebastian's truck on the way to the emergency room at the base El Colorado is time that I have connected through picture documentation, the scene played back by my friends, my P.O.V. cam, and brief moments of clarity that came in and out of the static. I remember one heelside turn I made on the way to the road on a wave of opposing angle, the warmth of blood dripping down my neck and cheeks, and how light I felt. Powder turns in August.

The assistant nurse asked Matt to stop yelling and go outside the E.R. room with Lucas. It is nice to have concerned friends, and is the first memory I have after the fall that plays without skipping. Forrest, our default group translator and suffer of over ten concussions stood next to me and reminded me to breath; to just relax. I tried to focus on the Spanish firing off over-head between the student doctor and her assistant, the only distraction to the feeling of string pulling my scalp back together as the assistant had not numbed the area sufficiently.

BurkiMatt edgers-el colorado
Ten stitches and one premature bald-spot later the student doctor told me I couldn't get the stitches wet for at least seven days, which did not mesh with my plans to go surfing in four. I paid the 55 thousand Chilean Pesos, equivalent to $110, and signed myself out of the E.R. With my friends to either-side and a head that felt like half the weight of my body, we rode to our hostel, a few slashes left uncut next to the t-bar track. Another meter fell over the next two days, a complete whiteout on the mountain, giving me time to rest. When the sun came back out I made twice the turns I normally would have and breathed noticeably deeper every time I had to ollie or negotiate a line through the rocks, an unavoidable feature of the off-piste in Chile. If you leave the main runs, you are almost guaranteed a core shot. Bring P-tex.

In Pichilemu, Forrest agreed that a shower cap under the hood of my wetsuit would be watertight enough. When he took out my stitches with nail clippers after three days of firing point-break surf at Punta de Lobos, the wound split apart in the middle wide enough that I could fit the tip of a finger into the hole. Due to heredity and ill-thought genetic mixing it is most probable that I will be bald in less than a decade, so, trying to avoid a serious pock-mark on my head, Forrest and I walked to a 24 hour clinic where the on-call doctor told me I had a mild infection that if I continued not to care for could spread into the surrounding area, i.e., my brain. If I just chilled out though, I would not have to take antibiotics. He put in three more stitches, and I slept-in my last full day in Chile while Forrest squeezed in another session before our bus departed for Santiago. Somewhat anti-climatic, but the surf had died substantially, and I had lost my shower cap anyway.

MORE ACTION SPORTS HEADLINES

MOST SENT STORIES ON ESPN.COM