Aaron Blunck competes in the Men's Ski Halfpipe Final at the FIS Snowboard World Championships on Feb. 9, 2019 in Park City, Utah.
There was no one watching on this tentative October morning, no gallery of awestruck fans lining the halfpipe, no television analysts rendered agog by some cutting-edge aerial display. There were no flips, no twists, no corkscrews, none of the graceful acrobatics associated with Aaron Blunck, two-time defending world champion freestyle skier. For an athlete-artist whose canvas is mid-air, this one move on this solitary morning was decidedly pedestrian.
But for Blunck, it was glorious.
“I was able to get up and go to the bathroom on my own. I didn’t have to call the nurse,” said Blunck.
It was Blunck’s second day in a hospital in the small Swiss mountain town of Visp. He had been airlifted there on Oct. 13 by Air Zermatt, the legendary helicopter rescue unit with its own reputation for high-stakes high-altitude heroics — “The most badass people who could ever come to the rescue. They do things the average human couldn’t do, not even I would want to do, and I’m an extremist,” said Blunck; apparently, game recognizes game, even in dire circumstances.
Air Zermatt doesn’t get the call just because ski patrol might be busy at the moment or when the injured party happens to be the best halfpipe performer on the planet. They are summoned to extreme locales or legitimate emergencies only, and Blunck’s situation was urgent.
He had come to Switzerland to train at the Stomping Grounds terrain park at Saas Fee, a high-performance facility high in the heart of the Alps, a combination playground and test kitchen for world-class winter athletes looking to work their craft. At the top of Blunck’s checklist was polishing a trick he had been the first freestyler ever to attempt, a combination he’d only landed once — a few months earlier when the U.S. Freeski Pro Halfpipe Team gathered at Timberline in Mt. Hood for its first camp of the new season. The move was a switch double-cork 1440, essentially a combination of four spins (that’s four full 360-degree rotations) and two flips, which would become Blunck’s latest signature move in a career full of convention-flouting inventions. A trick that none of his competitors would have in their repertoires come contest season.
“I knew if I had this trick, I’d be dialed in for the season,” said Blunck, who had distinguished himself at the Land Rover U.S. Grand Prix in February with a series of three runs that Steele Spence, the head judge, called “three of the best pipe runs of all-time.”
Atop Saas Fee, Blunck approached the pipe with a snowboarder friend. The two were discussing the trick, specifically the regret Blunck might feel if he didn’t try what he’d come there to do. That if there were an unfavorable turn in the weather, he’d regret it the rest of his time in Switzerland.
Duly motivated, he did what he’s always done. Aaron Blunck went for it.
“When I dropped in, everything felt really good, but I didn’t have the amplitude” recalled Blunck. “This trick is very blind, and you can’t see until the second flip. I came around the second flip, I could see I was a foot, maybe two feet, above the deck. I knew this was going to be very bad.”
An instant later, Blunck slammed shoulder-first into the unforgiven frozen lip of the pipe. One ski dislodged immediately, and his body ricocheted toward the snow-packed bottom of the run 22 feet below. At the last moment, Blunck covered his head with his arms, protecting his face from the brunt of landing.
Blunck was a crumpled wreck by the time Mike Riddle, his halfpipe coach for the U.S. Freeski Team, reached him from the opposite side of the pipe, where he had captured video of the crash in excruciating slow motion. Riddle helped to calm Blunck, feeling vulnerable and battered and, for the first time in his life, frightened that he might not survive.
Ski patrol arrived first and transported Blunck to the bottom of the run, where the Air Zermatt crew could land its helicopter. Blunck was delivered to the hospital and diagnosed initially with a broken rib and a lacerated kidney (other internal injuries, including a fractured pelvis and a bruised heart, would be added later to a lengthy list of damaged parts). The first day in the hospital, his trauma-ravaged body was still too stiff and sore, his muscles contracted too tightly to move. But the next day, he walked to the bathroom unattended.
“I thought, ‘This is really rad. Yesterday, I could not do this,’” said Blunck. “Immediately, I changed my thought process. Rather than freaking out about how long it was going to take to fully recover, I started appreciating little things like walking, using my arms, using my legs, grabbing my computer charger and pulling it in on my own.”
Suddenly, the man known for doing things with his body that no extreme athlete had ever attempted suddenly found beauty and triumph in everyday movements. Already a dyed-in-the-wool optimist — and, really, how could you continually push the boundaries of your sport and the laws of physics if you weren’t inherently hopeful that things will work out — Blunck has found silver linings in every bruise.
A few weeks ago, he was able to take a 30-minute spin session. Nothing too fast or strenuous, but enough to find inspiration in his perspiration.
“It’s not what I wanted to do, but it was just that stoke level of being able to come back,” said Blunck. “I called my fiancé right after and said, ‘Babe, I’m back.’”
He carried that same positivity with him to Texas, where he spent Thanksgiving. He found himself sitting by a lake, relishing the warm weather, rather than being back in his hometown of Crested Butte, Colorado, celebrating opening day of the ski season — an annual milestone he’d missed only once before in his life.
It isn’t that he didn’t miss being on the slopes. Rather, Blunck basked in the good fortune of being wherever he got to be.
“The injury has taught me some good things,” said Blunck. “It reminds me to try to see one to five positives a day, to find something good about every single day. It’s been a blessing in disguise.”
It has taught him that it’s OK not to rush himself back to competition, even though every day of recuperation brings him one day closer to the pipe. He didn’t get back on skis in two weeks, as he initially proclaimed was his target, but perhaps a white Christmas back on the slopes is a reasonable Plan B. Maybe he’ll return to competition in early February to defend his world cup title at Mammoth Mountain, the first event on the long path to qualifying for the U.S. Olympic Team.
Bluntly put, Blunck will be back … when his body is once again ready to give what he’s going to demand from it. He wants his return to competition to serve as a beacon for anyone who might be struggling — with loss, with their mental health, with injuries. He wants to be a living, breathing, corkscrewing embodiment of the lessons he’s learned since and from his accident: that pain subsides, that things get better, and that we heal.
And when he’s back, there remains that one unfinished item on his checklist: the switch double-cork 1440.
“I definitely want to do it again. Do I want to do it for competition? I don’t know. It’s just a matter of doing it for myself,” said Blunck. “Life is bigger than winning a contest. Now, I know what’s important.”