4. Andy Wirth: Death Song
Life is precious. And no one knows that more than Andy Wirth. Andy recently retired as the CEO and President of Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows ski resort. He’s also a former backcountry ranger in Rocky Mountain National Park. In 2013, while skydiving over Lodi, California, a perfect storm of events caused Andy to collide with a high-tension wire that severed his right arm at the elbow. What happened next has got to be heard to be believed. It all started with Andy, a trained first-responder himself, following the advice he had given countless victims he had encountered in trauma situations in the past: Just breathe.
David Abend: Hi, I’m David Abend, founder of The Bucket and host of The Bucket Podcast, a series of conversations in which we talk about the thing nobody wants to talk about, that we’re all going to die. We can’t prevent that, but what we can do is use that awareness to quit that job, take that trip, start that business, buy that friggin’ boat, or just live a more fulfilling life. Life is precious and no one knows that more than today’s guest Andy Wirth. Andy recently retired as the CEO and president of Squaw Valley Alpine Meadow Ski Resort, is also a former back country Ranger in the Rocky Mountains National Park, and member of a hotshot fire crew. Hey, Andy, thanks for being here
Andy Wirth: It’s great to be here. Thanks a lot for having me.
David Abend: I’ll bet the words thanks for being here have a greater meaning to you than for most people?
Andy Wirth: It’s interesting, every now and then, you end up giving presentations and, whether it be genuine or frankly not, you oftentimes lead with it’s really great to be here. And sometimes you’ll say that, pause and say, “No, really, it’s very good to be here.”
David Abend: I know you’ve told this story a lot about your experience. But for the people listening, would you mind taking us through what happened to you?
Andy Wirth: Before I do, the prologue is pretty important. I’m really genuinely appreciative of having this opportunity on this podcast. As I share with you and the listeners, I hope that some folks might be able to derive inspiration, or something good from it. I certainly have very little interest in self-aggrandizement. But, if folks find some help, support or inspiration then it is totally worth it.
The gist of the story is that I became a skydiver quite a while ago. I had done a lot of different interesting things in my very fortunate and blessed life and careers, from skiing and climbing, to fighting fire. I’ve had a series of fortunate things I’ve been able to take on and enjoy. Skydiving was very much at the top of that list. Frankly, I’ve never done drugs my entire life, but I certainly became addicted to this interest.
I started jumping as much as I could on weekends with friends. We lined up this one weekend in October of 2013. We jumped on Saturday, which was great. On Sunday, the winds kicked up, and they shut down the drop zone. We had reason to believe that Lodi, which is only about an hour away, was still open. As it turns out on our very first jump, a couple of things went wrong in a cloaked sequence. Many pilots will tell you, that it wasn’t this one thing that brought this plane down, it was these three things in a very precise sequence and a narrow period of time. That’s exactly what happened here, which is why I had a bad landing.
The pilot did not fly what’s called a jump line, we were not ideally positioned to the drop zone, and the winds shifted from the time we took off to the time we jumped. We also jumped late. We jumped the last out of the plane, which actually created a punitive nature to that bad jump line I mentioned earlier, and maybe over confidence as I pulled my canopy really low. The relevance of that is when you pull low, you don’t have a lot of time to remedy anything that’s gone wrong. I pulled low, I looked up and said, “Okay, got a good wind. Right now, I’m at about 1,500 AGL (height above ground), something like that maybe in between 1,000 and 1,500.” I looked down at my altimeter and realized I had a headwind coming into the drop zone right in front of me. I should have a tailwind. Pretty quickly assessed that this was not awesome because I had some transmission lines in front of me and to my right. I remember immediately thinking that there’s always that headline of the next day newspaper that says, “The skydiver tried to make it over or under the transmission lines” in the past tense.
At this point, I’m probably down to 1,000 or 900 AGL, and the ground’s coming up pretty quickly at my feet. I hook turned and lined up in an area in between these two rows of vines. By the time I lined it up I was now at 200 AGL and I’m going “Okay, here we go. I’m going land in between these vines.” I got really close to pulling it off. In fact, as I was starting to flare one of those blustery winds pushed the upper left part of my canopy. I was not more than maybe 30 feet above the ground. Right as it started to flare, I made contact with one of the high-tension wires that they use to hold up the vines and it took off my arm. It shredded my arm basically from just below the shoulder. It is called a degloving, and it’s very distasteful. It tore away all the tissue down by my wrist, and also tore off my arm at the elbow. And, that’s the nature of what happened that day. I’d say that I came really close to pulling off a really cool move.
David Abend: What was your reaction when you realized what happened?
Andy Wirth: Well, it’s kind of not funny “ha ha,” but interesting funny, in that the nature of my body position was that my right arm, basically forearm, and hand was on the ground. I was kneeling as the lines of my canopy were caught up in the vines and wires behind me. I was held up in kind of this proud chested position and my immediate reaction as I looked down, I reached down with my left hand and grabbed my arm and tried to put it back together. It may not surprise you to know that it didn’t work.
David Abend: Obviously, you said “Holy shit.”
Andy Wirth: I had a lot of things go through my mind very quickly, immediately and shortly thereafter for the next 15 minutes. Somewhat inexplicably, I never had any sense of panic or cussed. I certainly have that capability today, and throughout my life. But, in this one moment I actually didn’t, and I have no idea why but I didn’t say “Holy shit.” I was just looking around after I tried to put my arm back on, which didn’t work. Then some other interesting things came to my mind.
First and foremost, when I was a backcountry ranger in Rocky Mountain National Park, I had some pretty extensive medical training. When we would rescue people, called high angle rescue, you may not be surprised to know that a lot of people are in a bad place when you’re pulling them off of a cliff. You see all kinds of contortions and bad trauma. Later on when I started my career in Steamboat, Colorado, I served on a volunteer ambulance and rescue crew, to continue to give back to my community. Trauma was not unfamiliar. I was actually comfortable and familiar with it. This was the first-time this kind of this assessment was being levied on me by me. I did that quick assessment. Maybe the closest I got to holy shit was, “Huh, this is not very good.” What it quickly got down to was my brachial artery, which is underneath your bicep muscle is not that much smaller than your femoral artery. I recall thinking, “I’ll do the math here. How many units do I have in my body on a given day. And, what’s the time here?” I was estimating that I was probably going to bleed out in six minutes.
I remember thinking that there was nobody around. It was a D Day landing; everybody was scattered all over the place. Nobody made it to the drop zone because of the winds. I wasn’t alone in that regard. I was very much alone in the field in that moment. My quick medical self-assessment was this isn’t going to go very long. My next thought was I need a tourniquet. If you know what altimeters look like they make the perfect tourniquet. The challenge was, I didn’t have the ability to get it off my hand and I couldn’t apply it necessarily. My body position was such that I couldn’t apply it to my right arm underneath the stub which was my humorous. I balled up my fist, the only thing I could think to do, and very uncomfortably and in a fair amount of pain, stuffed it underneath my right armpit to slow the bleeding. It was really quite uncomfortable to do that. Not only was it uncomfortable, but it was also pretty unsightly. What’s interesting is that kind of stuff doesn’t bother me. It bothered me a little bit that day, because I’m more used to doing it for other people. In this case, that was one element of what went through my mind as self-assessment to treatment. I was trying to calculate what I would need to do to keep from bleeding out and keep from passing out. As soon as I passed out, I was a goner. This is what’s wild, and I have no idea how it came to me, it just came to me literally out of nowhere. It was just beathe. Almost everybody who works in trauma has a statement. If I was to come up on you in Rocky Mountain National Park and find you in a bad way, maybe your femur was snapped, and you were in a tough spot. I’d say hey, “I’m Andy, I’m medically trained, I’m here to help you.” Mine was “I just want you to look at me. All I want you to do is focus on breathing. I just want you to breathe. I have you.”
There’s a reason for that medically, we want to keep shock away. Shock is oftentimes what kills people. It’s the body’s response. It’s psychological, as well as biological. I would use that to give people something to focus on. Also breathing had a role to oxygenate their blood and to help keep shock away. To me, it’s just ironic that that came to me and that was my line. Not too many months before that time I had seen a movie about a very dear friend of mine who’s a kind of a famous horseman, Buck Brannaman. They had done a video about him. At the very, very end of the movie they play this song by Pearl Jam called “Just Breathe.” It’s a really beautiful song. I studied it, listened to it. Things kind of calmed down a little bit in that moment. If I can keep shock away, I have a chance to make it, so the lyrics of that song are what immediately came to me.
David Abend: What are those lyrics?
Andy Wirth: It starts off with “Yes I understand that every life must end.”
David Abend: Wow. Very appropriate at that time.
Andy Wirth: Well, it’s kind of crazy, right? One might think that that is a very depressing lyric that would lead you to a bad place. It turns out that those lyrics go on to say “Yes I understand that every life must end. As we sit alone I know someday we must go.” What’s crazy is that those two lyrics alone came into my mind. As I started singing, I had this overwhelming emotion of being at peace with dying. That’s actually what helped me live throughout the next 10 or so minutes. It brought me this sense of peace, that I frankly never felt in my entire life until that moment.
David Abend: That’s a powerful paradox, that singing about death is what helped you live. I can’t help but see the parallels with the Bucket’s mission, where we hope that by embracing death and mortality people can live better lives.
Andy Wirth: It would have not made sense to me until October 13, 2013. I can tell you it makes perfect sense to me now. It’s interesting, until that accident, I would have never understood that thought of embracing dying and mortality as something that brings one peace. It’s a fear that’s probably on everybody’s top 10 if not number one. In my case, I had never really feared death because I had never contemplated dying or death. I quickly accelerated in this moment from not fearing death only because I’d never thought about it, now I was embracing it. Again, my medical background and knowledge, allows me to be able to make that claim that it was omnipresent and moments away.
The lyrics of that song literally brought me to peace with dying. The irony is to your point, that’s what allowed me to live and make it to the helicopter. I said “I’ve given it everything I can to get to this moment. I’m out. I have nothing left to give. It’s on you now.” I could hear the turbine spinning up. I looked out the window. The sun was so bright, and so glaring in my eyes, and it felt so good. I kind of remember taking off and flying. I stopped singing the song.
David Abend: You are in someone else’s hands now. One of the ways we talk about The Bucket is that we want people to have the perspective of someone who has looked death in the face without actually having to go through the experience of that. Do you think that’s possible? Or do you think the only way to get that appreciation is to have a bad diagnosis or an accident, like the one you had? Has your outlook on life and death changed because of the accident? Or did you already have that mentality?
Andy Wirth: I didn’t have that mentality. The answer to your question is yes, it did change my outlook, maybe not surprisingly, quite profoundly. I didn’t have that outlook, with nearly the sense of gratitude that I have now. It’s a bit cliché to say it this way, but I’m on bonus time. It’s just that simple.
I shouldn’t have made it out of that field into the helicopter. The only way I can say it is I have this very deep gratitude for being here. That’s about the most succinct way I can put it: I have a deep sense of gratitude for being here. I hope the combination of this story coupled with some of these thoughts, for some of your listeners, can maybe bring them peace.
David Abend: In The Bucket, we talk about everyone having a Bucket Age, which is your life expectancy minus your current age. My life expectancy is about 85 and I am 60, so my bucket age is 25. The idea is that by getting people to count their age down instead of up might make them make choices that they otherwise might not have made. When they really say, “This is how many years I had left, I hadn’t really thought about that.” Has your accident made you think that way in terms of your life and choices that you’ve made? For instance, did you retire from Squaw because of things that you wanted to do?
Andy Wirth: That’s fascinating. I hadn’t thought about it like that. Yes, there’s absolutely no doubt that it was a convergence of moments and matters and situations. In many ways, I had accomplished more in my career than I ever thought I would, done it sooner than I ever thought I would. A lot of it was making decisions that I probably wouldn’t have made. Ego and pride kept me going in the past, but now I have a different perspective, not just on what’s important, but quite literally, to me personally what really, truly matters. That fundamentally changed on October 13, 2013. It’s not so much things that I’m doing and activities, it’s more I’m doing things that I think quietly mattered to me and are contributions to my friends, my community and more.
David Abend: What are some of those things?
Andy Wirth: After I got out of the hospital, I was pretty heavily medicated. I was out of the hospital at home, and strung out basically, heavily medicated, and dealing with it. Every couple of months there was a surgery. I started going into some not great places, mentally and emotionally. I’m not sure but I might have been kind of hooked on those things, the Oxy’s. I won’t say I didn’t have a tough time getting off them, but it was sure rational and justifiable to be on them. This was in 2013, so my awareness on the power of opiates was not refined.
I ended up doing a TV interview back at work in Squaw Valley at the base, and this group of guys walks by. There were about 20 of them. I’m looking wondering who they were. I wrap up this TV interview with a Sacramento NBC affiliate, and walk up to this group of guys as they’re leaving at the end of the day. I said, “Excuse me, guys, I’m just curious, who are you?” They stopped, all looked at me, all looked at this one guy, and he came walking up to the front and he said, “well, who are you?” I thought that was like the perfect response. It turns out that it was Troop Two of SEAL Team Four. They were in Squaw Valley to do Winter combat training. They were taking a bunch of Seals that were from Kansas and Texas, teaching them how to ski and introducing them to snow and the basics.
They all became very good friends and helped me crawl out of some pretty dark places. Those guys basically, without really knowing it and without great purpose, kicked me in the ass said, “get off your ass, go run, go swim, go ride your bike like you used to. You used to be able to do everything and a million things. And, now there’s a few things you can’t do. What are you going to focus on? The few you can’t do, or the million other things you can do?” That put me on a really positive trajectory getting out of the hospital, and really helped me out quite a bit. I’ll be eternally grateful because I made it to the helicopter. Actually, one of the bigger challenges was being with myself, months and months after the hospital. I knew what to do in trauma, but I didn’t know what to do then. These guys were miraculously put right in front of me very much by accident. They turned out to really help me. Now I spend much of my retirement time trying to serve their community. I have helped and work with the Navy SEAL Foundation. I’m on the board of Seal Kids. I’m the Chairman of the Board of Special Ops Survivors. It’s just nothing more than a quiet way of me acknowledging and demonstrating true gratitude for what they did for me.
It sounds a little bit corny, but they welcomed me into their community formally or semi formally with a special wooden sword. It goes back to the Spartans, and they named me an honorary SEAL because I demonstrated in action, not words, that the one key part of their ethos is “I am never out of the fight.” Of course, I didn’t realize it at the time, but I guess that’s what happened in October of 2013. I was never out of the fight. That had a great deal of meaning to me then. It has a great deal of meaning to me now. I also work hard to recognize and support the nonprofits that are underneath them within the ski world. I’m on the board of the US Ski Team and love working with that entity. I also work with another group called Share Winter, which is a group that helps a lot of kids that are underprivileged get into skiing, because mountains help heal people. This helps kids that would not normally ever have the chance to get onto snow and learn how to ski. I love that group; it’s called Share Winter. It’s a great organization.
I also am proud to be a member of High Fives, a nonprofit founded by another very dear friend of mine, Roy Tuscany, that helps big mountain athletes that have had life altering injuries like a broken back or neck. It is a very powerful group and we even created another group called Military to the Mountains, whereby we welcome 22 warriors that are kind of blown to hell, missing arms and legs, to Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows (I’ll come back to why there’s 22 of them), as the tail end of an eight week training that they do in Texas. We spend a week in Squaw Valley skiing, and the stories are absolutely heart wrenching and heartwarming about how these guys were very suicidal. They were in bad places, like on oxycontin and drinking.
I can remember one marine who was blown to hell in 2007 in Iraq. He just said “Mr. Wirth this program is the only reason I’m alive.” I looked him and said, “you’re kidding right?” He looked at me and said “No, I’m going to be really clear. I was very suicidal. I was on Oxycontin, a bottle of Jack Daniels by my side at all times. And, I always had a 45. I can’t tell you the number of times I considered swallowing that thing. This program is all that kept me going.” 22 veterans a day on average take their lives. Our country owes these people substantially more than we’re giving them and in this one small program like many others, trying to serve people like this fella to make sure that we keep them way ahead of those demons.
David Abend: Well, Andy, I thank you so much for talking with us. I appreciate you sharing your story. I’m sure it’s going to be inspirational to a lot of people.
Andy Wirth: Glad to share it with you. And like I started off, I think I called it a prologue. I’ll call it an epilogue now. I hope sharing the story is something that helps at least one person. It’d be fair to say I have been in those places, and I hope this story helps inspire or just helps folks make it through.
David Abend: Well, it’s certainly inspired me so I’m sure it will help inspire others.
Andy Wirth: I just realized one thing. I have a request of you to add to this podcast. A little over a year after I got out of the hospital and started finding even more peace. I was outrunning a couple of the demons that were still chasing me. I found this writing by an Indian chief, ironically, from the early 1800s. It spoke to me on a lot of different levels. It may or may not mean something to folks that are listening. It’s become a mantra or an ethos for me. It says, “Live your life, that the fear of death can never enter your heart. Trouble no one about their religion, respect others in their view, and demand that they respect yours. Love your life, perfect your life, and beautify all things in your life. Seek to make your life long and its purpose in the service of your people. Prepare a noble death song for the day when you go over the great divide. When it comes your time to die, be not like those whose hearts are filled with a fear of death, so that when their time comes, they weep and pray for a little more time to live their lives over again in a different way. Sing your death song like a warrior going home.” Tecumseh, who’s a Shawnee Nation Chief. I think there’s real power to that, real meaning to me. In this case, I had a song I just didn’t know it.