Recovering Aspen mountaineer Dick Jackson heads home
December 10, 2010
Aspen mountaineer Dick Jackson expects to return to his home in Basalt Friday in the next major step toward his recovery from a Oct. 2 paragliding accident on Mount Sopris.
“From my [standpoint], I want to walk out of here and I will walk out of here,” Jackson said Thursday from Craig Hospital, a leading rehabilitation center in Denver for patients with spinal cord injuries.
Jackson suffered a compression fracture in his lower back, a broken right ankle, a broken rib or ribs and a collapsed lung. He said he has recovered well from the injuries, though he has lost feeling in his left heel and part of his left leg from neurological damage. He has been in physical therapy at Craig, walking with the aid of crutches and braces on both lower legs.
He said he is essentially learning to walk again. The brace on his right leg is more for coordination rather than a necessity from the injury, he said, noting his ankle has healed.
His rehabilitation was interrupted by a scary bout of staph infection, which was discovered early and handled before it penetrated the soft tissue near his spinal cord. All told, he has spent five weeks at Craig. He has also undergone two surgeries at St. Anthony Hospital in Denver.
Jackson said he feels fortunate to be able to walk out of Craig, since he has befriended so many other patients who suffered traumatic injuries that will leave them unable to walk. Jackson said his goal is to ski uphill, using skins, before this winter is over. He will not be able to ski downhill this season because the twisting and turning would be too much for his healing back. He said he expects to make a full recovery with time.
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Jackson, 60, is an outdoorsman with a lengthy list of accomplishments. He has owned Aspen Expeditions/Rocky Mountain Climbing School since 1976. The company’s guides take clients mountain climbing, ice climbing and backcountry skiing. He has climbed and skied extensively in North America, Europe, Africa and the Himalayas.
While he is accustomed to tackling physical hardships as part of his endeavors, the rehabilitation has been a challenge for someone so active.
“I’ve developed a lot of patience,” he said.
He had just returned from a trek on Mount Kilimanjaro the week before his paragliding accident. He believes his conditioning and a healthy dose of good fortune helped him survive the crash.
“When you hit the ground hard, there’s so many things that come into it – luck,” Jackson said.
His skill and experience as a paraglider also helped salvage a perilous situation. He launched from the top of Mount Sopris on the first Saturday of October, a day with perfect conditions. He had paraglided off the mountain numerous times. On the day of the accident, in retrospect, he lingered along the ridge-top longer than he should have.
“I made a judgment mistake,” he said.
His destination was the popular dirt parking lot that serves the Thomas Lakes Trailhead, the most popular route up Mount Sopris. Jackson encountered a strong headwind that forced him to land quicker than he had intended. He aimed for a meadow along the trail below Thomas Lakes. He was trying to maneuver around a tall spruce tree that momentarily snagged his left wing tip. Once released, the paraglider accelerated to the ground “like a slingshot,” Jackson said.
Although he suffered a great deal of pain from the violent crash, Jackson counted his blessings: he landed, as intended, within 100 feet of the trail; he was able to use his cell phone to call his wife at about 12:45 p.m. and she contacted authorities; hikers were on the trail and came to his aid, including one with a GPS unit who reported the coordinates to Mountain Rescue Aspen. And probably most important, a Flight for Life helicopter was able to land in the nearby meadow.
“My perception is it happened pretty quick,” Jackson recalled Thursday. He remembers being told that a helicopter was coming, then hearing the rotors in what seemed a short time later.
Now, 69 days later, he’s finally coming home. Jackson looks forward to settling into his home and spending time with his wife, Paulina Vander Noordaa, and their daughter Tashi, an elementary school student. It will be great getting back into a routine and helping run the business again, though he said he won’t be guiding for some time. He will be doing a lot of physical therapy to continue his recovery.
“I’ve really got a lot to go before I get fit again,” Jackson said.