By Tony Marquis, Standard Staff
KILLINGTON — When Max Elles came to, he was stuck — half-buried in the snow. He could feel his hands, but not his legs. His mind was fuzzy.
It wasn’t an avalanche, but he had read somewhere that when people get stuck in an avalanche — when they’ve gone tumbling down the slopes — they get so disoriented they can’t tell which way is up. So to reorient themselves, he read, a person can drool to find out. So Max drooled. He knew he was upside down.
For the next 30 minutes, Elles lay there, tangled up. The first thoughts entered his mind.
I will never be able to snowboard again. Then: I can still use my hands. I can still make stickers.
The 20-year-old Killington native started a hobby prior to his snowboarding accident in December, making extra money by selling die cut stickers. A future of sticker-making was enough motivation for him. He dug a space around his face so he could breathe short breaths, staying calm until one of his friends or someone from Killington Resort’s Ski Patrol could dig him out of the snow and carry him away on a backboard.
“I never thought about not getting better,” Elles said.
‘Back Into The Nightmare’
Elles, a Woodstock Union High School graduate, remembers most of the crash which busted one of the lower vertebrae in his back. He was on one of Killington Resort’s steepest runs, Ovation, when he landed on a water bar on a flat portion of the run and tumbled several times in the snow. What’s a blur is the month that followed in the hospital.
In between surgeries, not knowing whether he’d walk again, Elles was woken up every hour, to have his IV changed or to have five nurses stabilize his back as they moved him. His legs felt numb.
“It’s not like a regular sensation,” Elles said. “You kind of feel the energy there and it’s just like tingling. But if you grabbed my toe with vise grips, I wouldn’t have felt it.”
He barely slept and when he did, he was haunted by a recurring nightmare, triggered by his compression boots, which sent jets of air every 15 seconds from his toe to his calf to encourage blood flow.
“They were really hot, as that cycle would go through, that would kind of like, set off the seizure in my dream,” Elles said. “I would actually wake up and be able to look around the hospital room and see who was there, my girlfriend, my brother or mom and dad, and it would click back on and I would instantly fall asleep.”
Eventually Elles trained himself to deal with the dreams.
“It got to the point where I could say, ‘OK, I know I’m going to go back into this thing’ and I could kind of prepare myself to go back into the nightmare,” Elles said.
Eventually, the boots came off and Elles got some sleep. The surgeries to rebuild his vertebrae were successful and slowly he regained feeling in his toes.
‘He’s Already Progressing Really Fast’
At Wayne’s World Elite Fitness Training, a gym in the Upper Valley, Elles describes the lack of feeling in his right leg, but he’s just finished an hour-long strength-training session with the gym’s owner, Wayne Burwell.
Though it happened just three months ago, Elles has made a remarkable recovery. He has no trouble walking. He is doing assisted deep lunges and squats, trying to strengthen his muscles enough to get back to his sport before the season ends.
“I’d like to go snowboarding in May — my mom isn’t too thrilled about that,” Elles said.
His trainer has set some stipulations. Burwell wants Elles to be able to jump and land without help. Elles isn’t there yet.
“He’s already progressing really fast,” Burwell said. “I know how hard he wants to work, I’m just trying to get him back into his sport. Max lost what he loves and he wants to get it back so bad.”
Elles works out almost every day. When he’s not at the Pico Sports Center, he’s at a physical therapist at Mt. Ascutney Hospital or at Wayne’s World, where he started working with Burwell three weeks ago.
But he just started driving himself to the gym two weeks ago.
Elles’ parents, Bill and Coral Elles, own the First Stop Ski Shop and The Board Barn in Killington. It’s a family of skiers and snowboarders.
“I’m not apprehensive about him snowboarding — it’s just how soon he snowboards,” Coral said.
Coral said she wasn’t surprised how committed her son has been to get back to his sport.
“He’s always pushed himself,” Coral said. “When his focus has been on a certain project or goal, he generally accomplishes it.”
Coral also credits the surgeons, nurses and physical therapists with helping her son recover. Elles also had support from High Fives, a nonprofit organization which helps injured winter sports athletes. High Fives is paying for Elles’ sessions with Burwell along with acupuncture and massage therapy.
On Sunday April 7, a benefit for Elles will be held from 4 to 8 p.m. at The Foundry at Summit Pond. There will be hors d’oeurves, music, a silent auction and prizes, all to help raise money for Elles’ medical bills.
“It’s been helpful to have the support,” Elles said. “At Dartmouth, you could see that a lot of the other patients didn’t have that — they didn’t have as much support, as many people looking after them, so they weren’t getting that positive energy from so many people.”