A positive outlook on life and boundless determination have become Brittany Walker Konsella’s hallmark, leading her on a decades-long quest for adventure in Colorado’s mountains. But those attributes were put to the ultimate test when the local athlete and author was involved in a freak accident this past July that left her body mangled.
The Mt. Crested Butte woman suffered a broken neck, femur, sternum and multiple lacerations, leaving her on what would seem to be a long road to full recuperation. Less than six months later, however, Brittany’s recovery has been nothing short of miraculous.
She’s applied her trademark positivity and lessons learned from past injuries to help her in healing. She took to hiking to help improve her strength, climbed to the top of the tallest point in Colorado for her birthday and two weekends ago stepped back onto skis for the first time since the accident.
While she maintains that the adrenaline-inducing descents that she craves are still months away, and full range of motion will come only through continued hours-a-day physical therapy, Brittany’s outlook is overwhelmingly optimistic — to the point that, while it’s nothing new, she’s inspiring those around her.
“I feel like I’m on track for my own goals, but my goals definitely were not normal,” she said. “I had set a goal of healing faster than they predicted I would heal.”
Perhaps best known in the Gunnison Valley for becoming the first mountain biker to complete 750 miles of unique singletrack in the Tourism and Prosperity Partnershipsponsored TrailQuest competition, such projects in the realm of extreme sports are nothing new to Brittany, who in 2011 became the second woman to ski all of Colorado’s 14,000-foot peaks.
Brittany and her husband Frank — who in 2008 became the fourth person to achieve the “14er” ski feat — have long blogged about their adventures and two years ago released a Colorado backcountry skiing guidebook.
On July 6, the Konsellas were planning to ski 13,905-foot Horseshoe Mountain west of Fairplay. Brittany was driving the couple’s Subaru when they pulled into the trailhead. But snow conditions in the line they had chosen forced them to consider alternatives.
Brittany jumped out of the driver’s seat to grab a map from the back, thinking that she had put the car in park. She didn’t, and with the vehicle on a slight incline, it began to roll over her.
“I remember being stuck and being dragged around,” she recalled. “I remember looking at the tire and thinking it was going to be running over my neck or my head.”
Frank was able to stop the vehicle, but not before the damage was done. Blood gushed from a laceration on her head, and Brittany could tell that her leg was broken. A group of passersby helped load her into the back of the car, while Frank began driving toward help.
It wasn’t until then that Brittany realized she may have a broken neck as well. Frank activated the “SOS” button on a satellite communication device and phoned 911 when they reached service.
Paramedics and a flight-forlife helicopter met the couple, and Brittany was flown to Denver.
She would experience three surgeries — including the insertion of a rod in her femur and plates and screws in her spine — in the days that followed before being released from the hospital a mere 13 days after the accident.
But even in the hospital, Brittany was showing signs of improvement much quicker than her injuries would suggest.
“For a lot of the time she was in the ICU, she was walking,” husband Frank said. “On that floor, that’s definitely not normal.”
Immediately following the accident, Brittany says she viewed recovery from her injuries as a “challenge.”
“And those who know me know how much I like challenges,” she said.
Four prior ACL surgeries told her that healing would require dedication and being proactive. And meditation has helped with the mental part of that process. So too has been simply getting outside. What began as short walks on the recreation path at the end of August soon gave rise to hikes — even if they still required Brittany to wear a neck brace and use a cane for support.
Close friend Natalie Moran, of Dillon, accompanied Brittany and her parents on Brittany’s first hike since the accident — a 2.5-mile jaunt along Peanut Lake Road and the Lower Loop.
“She went way further than I thought she would go,” Natalie said. “I was just honored to be there for that.”
‘A star in my universe’
Natalie and Brittany first connected in 2015 on social media before meeting up to ski together outside Leadville. Natalie was well aware of Brittany’s stature in the backcountry ski community at the time, but nonetheless found her new friend to be quite friendly and supportive.
“People with that sort of accomplishments typically aren’t easy to meet,” Natalie said. “She was absolutely a star in my universe.”
In fact, Natalie herself is on a mission to become the third woman to ski all of the state’s 14ers, with eight peaks left to cross off the list. Frank and Brittany helped get Natalie into mountain biking, and the trio now skis together any chance they get.
So, it wasn’t a major surprise when Brittany invited Natalie along for a hike to the top of Mt. Elbert — Colorado’s tallest peak — on Sept. 29, Brittany’s birthday. Frank was pushing his bike up the mountain with plans to ride down, and Natalie admits that she was in great shape from hiking all summer.
But on the final climb to the summit, Brittany left them both in the dust.
“If I didn’t see it with my own eyes, I wouldn’t have believed it,” Natalie said. “It was the most inspirational thing that I saw all year. Her attitude is extremely positive. She always finds something good about her situation. Not everybody would do that.”
Brittany says she’s tried to view the accident and associated injuries as an opportunity to inspire others and also to improve herself. She touts the importance of education in wilderness medicine and the benefit of a satellite communication device — both of which helped in her case.
Colorado’s highest point wasn’t the crest of Brittany’s hike toward recovery, either. In mid-October, she and Frank joined her dad, stepmom and two longtime family friends on a five-day, 82-mile jaunt of the Camino de Santiago in Spain — a historic pilgrimage leading to the shrine of the apostle Saint James the Great.
“It ended up being a pilgrimage of healing for me,” she said.
Brittany’s first time back on skis two weekends ago was on Nordic gear, but she hopes to be able to ski downhill in February or March. And maybe even ski some backcountry this coming spring.
“Whatever I get to ski will be an added bonus,” she said. “I’m looking at this season as a ski recovery season.”
(Will Shoemaker can be contacted at 970.641.1414 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)