Words by Minna Riihimaki
Photos by Minna Riihimaki and Aaron Rolph
Long story made short. That morning, I was early at the iconic Aiguille du Midi lift in Chamonix, France, and going for one of my home ski runs, Glacier Rond, on the north face. With three other friends, we opened the trail in knee-deep snow and checked the face. We then skied one by one, as the elementary mountain rule implies, until the person preceding, is in a safe place. This rule is evident when skiing on a steep and exposed face that leads to a vertical and deadly icefall.
“Unfortunately, a reckless skier rushed into the face and skied dangerously above me, disturbing my trajectory and leading me to a zone with big hidden ice blocks.”
My skis hit one of those blocks and I was sent to tumble down the face. I knew that I was in a bad situation and every time I hit the snow, I repeated in my head that I had to find a way to stop. I knew that if I didn’t, I would die, and that just wasn’t an option. I stopped, miraculously, after a 300 meter, high-speed tumble. I stopped 75 meters away from the deadly icefall, but my left leg was shattered below the knee. It was holding on by the skin and the muscles, the bone and the ligaments were blown in pieces.
It was not an easy emergency case. An intravenous drip relieved me from pain while several surgeons studied the MRI images, consulting colleagues in different hospitals. By the end of the afternoon, I was finally wheeled to the operating room, with the surgeon trying to reassure me that he will do his best to save and not to amputate my leg. I surrendered to the general anesthesia, uncertain if I would wake up with my left leg or not.
That was the beginning of a long rehab. Little did I know that it would be intense for the next 4 years and ongoing for the rest of my life in certain measures. Within 3 years, I went through 13 surgeries with multiple bone and soft tissue grafts, necrosis, septicaemias, V.A.C. therapy, osteotomy, arthroscopy, three “close-to-amputation” calls, arthrolysis and long months of multiple antibiotics. And in between, I obtained a Master’s diploma for Business Administration from Sorbonne Business School by partaking in long distance studies. I figured that instead of reading hundreds of novels, I should study and learn something new and different from dental surgeon knowledge.
“It is better to have options for the future, to think ahead ; instead of closing doors of opportunities, I prefer opening new ones.”
I have spent thousands of hours training with the physios and on my own, at the gym first and then outside, in nature and gradually in the mountains. With the only objective of getting back to a normal and active life.
The winning recipe that I used could be resumed by repeatedly setting achievable, yet challenging goals, eating healthy, sleeping enough, scaling the ratio of exercise and rest, not giving up, which often means being very stubborn and sometimes even selfish. I had a few break-downs but I never lost hope, the only way was up from the bottom. The way up required self-discipline and self-responsibility, taking the lead, believing in myself and perseverance.
My passion for sports and the mountains, knowing my body well for its’ physical and mental capacities and the help from my close ones were also very determining in the process and without them I would not be telling my story as it is today. The support that I have received from my sponsors has had an enormous effect on my motivation. The biggest fear of an injured athlete is to be let down. Gratefully, this is not my case.
On the physical aspect, a solid sport background contributes to the necessary confidence that enables to return to activities when still feeling crippled in everyday life. At the beginning of the rehab on my bike and cross-country skis, and later, on alpine skis or when climbing, I immediately felt and looked like everyone else and that was something very rewarding and encouraging, no other cure can provide a better alternative. For me, achieving an objective instantly pushed to train more and reach out for the next goal.
Since 2020, I am back to all the crossover mountain activities that I did before the accident, and that is the best source of positive energy. I was told that I would never walk properly again, but as it was over my level of acceptance, I chose to take the lead of my fight and decide what was best for me and my family and friends and go for it. Together with physical training, the dominating factors in a long process of recovery are perseverance, determination, and motivation, which are purely mental. They together activate resilience, the capacity to bounce back and transform adversity into a victory.
“Anyone can be resilient, if it is not innate, it can be taught and learned.”
I am grateful to share again my time between the dental work in Geneva, 2 or 3 days per week, and the rest in the mountains biking, skiing, climbing ice or rock, hiking and paragliding.