Carbondale man survives bike crash on Flat Tops, despite broken neck
August 14, 2013
CARBONDALE — John Baker, a local architect and occasional community activist, will be the first to admit that he nearly cashed in his chips recently when he took a header over the handlebars of his mountain bike, landed squarely on his head, and broke two vertebrae in his neck.
And it all happened on the way back down from a camping trip with friends to the Heart Lake area in the Flat Tops Wilderness, north of Glenwood Springs, far from immediate help.
But help was there nonetheless, in the form of his camping companions, a couple of passing families on all terrain vehicles, a survival expert known only as "Mystery Mark," and a rescue crew from Vail Mountain Rescue.
On Thursday, following emergency surgery to repair the damage to two cervical discs and fix a broken clavicle, Baker told the Post Independent, "I'm fully operational!"
With clear tones of exuberance and glee in his voice, Baker, 68, recounted the day of the accident, and looked toward a future he might not have had.
"I'm not gonna quit biking," he stated defiantly, though he then added with some chagrin, "but I'm definitely not going to mountain bike any more."
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The day was Aug. 3, he recalled, when he and another camper, attorney Bill Phillips, also of Carbondale, took off from the camp site at about 4 p.m. for a three- or four-hour ride on what Baker said was a four-wheel-drive road.
It was on the way back, he said, when the trouble occurred.
"We were kind of taking it easy, not taking any big chances," he recalled, when they came to a steep downhill section.
"It looked OK," he said, "But what we didn't realize was, it was a kind of powdery dust over loose gravel."
Almost immediately, he said, his bike started careening out of control and speeding up, reaching "maybe 15 or 20 miles an hour" by the time he reached a hard-packed, rocky section at the bottom.
He slammed into a rock, his bike flipped him forward over the bars, and he fell directly onto his head, splitting his helmet into large pieces held together by the thin, plastic covering.
He said Phillips told him afterward that he had rebounded two feet into the air after he hit, and that "he thought I was dead."
"It saved my life," he said of his helmet. "I was never unconscious, so I didn't have a concussion."
But when he tried to raise himself from a supine position, he said, Phillips held him down and told him not to move.
There was considerable traffic on the road at that time, and a couple of touring families came by on ATVs and rendered what assistance they could, wrapping Baker up to keep him warm and helping to keep him immobile.
"My biggest concern was all the mosquitoes," he remembered. "I was being eaten alive. And we were there for a couple of hours trying to figure out what to do."
At that point, he said, he was unaware that he had cracked two vertebrae in his neck.
"If I had moved," he said, "I could have severed my spinal cord."
At one point Bill Phillips, with his wife, Elizabeth, took off in their car to head down to the trailhead and try to find help.
Mystery Mark showed up soon after that, and said he had been in the Special Forces of the U.S. Army and had wilderness survival training under his belt, and he did what he could to help make Baker comfortable. Mystery Mark then took some GPS readings to fix the location of the group, then drove downhill to relay the information to rescue workers.
Within a short time, Baker said, a Flight For Life helicopter landed close by, the EMTs put him on a back board and within another 20 minutes he was at Valley View Hospital in Glenwood Springs.
Aside from the broken neck and the surgery, he said, the only injuries he sustained were some fairly significant road rash and the broken clavicle — the third time his has broken a clavicle while bicycling.
His commitment to keep cycling may seem a bit strange to some, he said, but he explained that biking is what has kept him in good shape.
"That's one of the reasons I do this stuff," he said, noting that besides the aerobic benefits of cycling, "I'm here for the adventure, having fun, getting out there."
He said the surgeon who operated on his neck, Dr. Claudio Feler, had done the same after a previous accident a few years earlier, and that Feler gave him some heartfelt advice following this latest surgery.
"He said, John, mountain biking is not on the approved list" of activities, Baker remembered with a chuckle.
"I'm one lucky guy," Baker admitted. "It's a miracle I survived this. And it was all thanks to all those other people helping out. Everybody did a fabulous job."
In particular, he said, "I can't say enough for Bill Phillips," recalling Phillips telling him of a flat tire they had to deal with on the way back from going for help.
"It was really a hell of a day for them, too," he said.