Amid a global pandemic, endurance athlete Brittany Konsella leverages her mental resilience to heal from a horrendous backcountry accident and become a better person.
Mountain endurance athlete Brittany Konsella nearly died at Fourmile Creek trailhead when her 3,500-pound Subaru Forester rolled backwards and crushed her on the morning of July 6th, 2019. She was covered in deep lacerations and broken bones including her femur, sternum, finger, cervical vertebrae, and ruptured discs. She also suffered a vertebral artery occlusion, meaning the blood supply to her cerebellum was impaired, which can cause a stroke. Frank Konsella, her husband, and two bystanders quickly lifted Brittany—who was conscious and not yet in shock—into the hatchback. Frank pulled the SOS button on their inReach, a satellite-communicating device, to notify Park County emergency services. He drove east on the 12-mile bumpy dirt road toward U.S. Highway 285, where Brittany was helicopter transferred to St. Anthony Hospital. She landed at the medical center 20 minutes later and survived.
Backcountry Rescues: On the Rise
Brittany is not alone when it comes to grappling with an unplanned emergency rescue. In recent years, a surge of folx have relocated to the Centennial State, including 67,000 new residents in 2019. Nearly 92 percent of Coloradans recreate outdoors, as well as the majority of the state’s 85.7 million annual visitors, according to State of Colorado data. It’s no surprise that Colorado’s 50 volunteer-led backcountry search and rescue teams are feeling a squeeze. According to the Colorado Search and Rescue Association, those 2,800 volunteers responded to 2,875 incidents statewide from Cortez to Trinidad and Estes Park, in 2019. Teams located near the most popular recreation sites are responding to double the number of calls compared to five years ago, reports The Colorado Sun. With the growing population, the types of crises are diversifying, too. Disoriented mental health patients, suicidal individuals, paddlers, and snowmobilers are included among rock climbers, hikers, hunters, and avalanche victims, to name a few. Even the most experienced backcountry explorers face unexpected misfortune. Regardless of the group’s skill level or objective, it’s essential to have an emergency plan in place, as the Konsellas did.
Mental Resilience Goes Far
After Brittany’s near fatal disaster, the 42-year-old wasn’t sure what her daily life and physical abilities would look like in the future. “When I was admitted to the hospital and learned all the things that were wrong with me, I thought, ‘Am I ever going to ski again? Am I ever going to ride my bike again?” says Brittany, who was the 9th person to ski all 54 of Colorado’s 14,000-foot peaks, in 2011. Last year, she became the first mountain biker to complete all 750 miles of singletrack in Gunnison Valley, where she lives in Crested Butte. But one week and three surgeries later, she felt a tinge of physical progress. She decided to focus on her body’s ability to heal rather than it’s severe damage.
Fourteen days after her Flight for Life, she was discharged and sent home ahead of schedule. Rehabilitation became a part-time job. “Overcoming these injuries required very similar mental tools to climbing a mountain: It’s about approaching the objective one step at a time. You can’t climb a mountain all at once, and it’s the same with healing,” says Brittany. She did physical therapy four hours daily for ten months. A masseuse worked with her to break up scar tissue and a therapist treated her PTSD. She also used meditation to train her mind. “When I got stuck in a negative hole in my brain, I used meditation to refocus my energy on positivity. I focused on making my brain believe that I was regenerating my body, so that it would happen. Then, the pandemic introduced another wrench into the mix—it’s been mentally challenging for so many people including me, especially as I’ve been trying to heal. Meditation helped,” she says. She progressed from 2.5-mile walks to 5-mile hikes, steadily increasing her mileage and vertical gain. By September, she hiked three days per week, alternated with recovery days. Her consistent holistic training and self-love paid off.
A Phenomenal Comeback
Three months after she relearned to walk, Brittany flew overseas with her family to hike a 62-mile, 5-day segment of the Camino de Santiago route in Spain (a trip they’d booked prior to her mishap). She was weeks ahead of the recovery timeline outlined by her doctors. That winter, she cross-country skied to build a foundation for downhill skiing. Before the lifts of Crested Butte Mountain Resort shuttered due to COVID-19, Brittany carved the mountain’s steepest black-diamond runs—something she dreamed of doing when she was hospital-ridden. Then, she carefully ventured to the backcountry to ski mountaineer various lines including descents on Jasper and Clark Peaks. This summer, she’s revisiting remote, steep, and rocky trails on her mountain bike. “Seeing how far I’ve come since my accident helps me maintain positivity. I’m not always able to do my outdoor activities at the level I want to, but I know I’m improving. And simply being outside is a remedy,” she says.
Overall, surviving this traumatic experience helped Brittany distill her values and become a more empathetic person, which is especially important at this time—as people nationwide grapple with a pandemic, economic crash, civil rights movement, voter suppression, and the most contentious POTUS in history. Brittany says, “I reach out one-on-one to other trauma victims to provide an ear, offer advice, and help them through physical and mental struggles. In daily life, it’s important to be available to listen when people need that. A lot of people are willing to open up to strangers when the time is right, if it’s given.” As for her athletic ambition, she aims to ski Wyoming’s Grand Teton as early as next winter: “I’ve realized, our time on this earth is too short. I want to make my dreams become a reality sooner rather than later. Instead of pushing adventure goals to the wayside, they’re a priority now.”