About a year ago, backcountry skier Tony Nitti told me he’d been getting these awful headaches. They hurt was so bad he saw a doctor. The old sawbones told Tony that the headaches were just something like altitude induced migraines, and to keep on charging. So he did 24 Hours of Sunlight, and later joined us for a big day on Hayden Peak.
Thing was, Tony’s headaches were devastating — way beyond what even a migraine should be. So he’d gotten a brain scan a few days before we skied Hayden last year. As it turned out, while Tony was up there getting 6,000 vert on a big Colorado mountain, the scan interpreter noticed a blood vessel in his brain was ballooned out in a large and potentially deadly aneurysm. It the thing had ruptured, even in civilization his chances of surviving would have been rare. Up on a mountain? Zero percent. In a word, it is miraculous Tony didn’t stroke out (as in permanently) during our Hayden ski, what with the dehydration and raised blood pressure of hard endurance athletics.
After our ski last year, Tony of course found out what was going on. His alternatives were bleak: Let the ticking time bomb in your head remain as is, gobble meds like a 90-year-old, and probably die sooner than later anyway. Or get major brain surgery with a good chance of checking out or waking up a vegetable. Tony put his affairs in order and opted for surgery. His family and friends prayed. The neurosurgeon removed the side of his skull, dug through his cortex to the defect, clipped the budging vein off with a permanent device, and closed him up. “You think you need to worry about the skill of your orthopeadic surgeon?” says Tony, “think again, those guys are day labor compared to what brain surgeons do for a living.”
Yes, tony lived. In fact, he is thriving as a married man with a baby on the way, a good job, fit body, and positive outlook. Side effects from the ordeal? None except a small dent in the side of his head. A reminder that things can get bad when you least expect it, and turn out fine in the end.
As proof, just a few days ago Tony and I headed up to Independence Pass where we climbed and skied Blue Peak. The weather was terrible; total whiteout that had me sitting down with vertigo. The slushy unconsolidated snow was difficult to ski. My jacket got wet. We skipped a second lap. As I watched Tony climb and ski, I thought “you know?, this day is one of the best ever.” Check out Tony’s story here.
This from Tony after we skied Blue:
“Lou, if you decide to blog about today, please mention that I am a brain aneurysm survivor. The scariest part of what I went through last spring was the unknown. I was sure my life as I knew it was over, and try as I might, I couldn’t find a story on the internet that gave me confidence that I would be back skiing again. My hope is that if someday, some stranger who shares our love for the mountains gets diagnosed with an aneurysm, he’ll google “aneurysm and skiing” and find your blogpost. And he’ll see that I was out there doing it again even after the brain surgery. If I can save even one person from the overwhelming fear I had last spring, it would be a wonderful thing.”
(Note: Blue Peak is officially named Twining Peak, and is a short distance NW from Independence Pass. See map below.)
WildSnow.com publisher emeritus and founder Lou (Louis Dawson) has a 50+ years career in climbing, backcountry skiing and ski mountaineering. He was the first person in history to ski down all 54 Colorado 14,000-foot peaks, has authored numerous books about about backcountry skiing, and has skied from the summit of Denali in Alaska, North America’s highest mountain.