Still Moving Forward

A dangerous line and steep fall didn't stop this mountain man
snowmobile trail mountains backcountry powder snow winter
Robert Nielsen’s trip to a steep mountain bowl 23 years ago changed his life, but he continues to move ahead.
The only thing Robert Nielsen remembers after his snowmobile accident the week of May 5, 1996, is hearing the whirl of helicopter blades above him. Those blades were welcome but had taken a while to get to him. In the years before widespread cell phone use, and before GPS locators with a one-button call for rescue, Nielsen’s life was in the fate of a fellow rider who not only had to ride a few miles to the parking area, but then had to make his way down the winding canyon for 45 minutes to notify Life Flight. That friend who traveled quickly back into town was Brian Clawson. The others that stayed behind to care for Nielsen were Dave Bennet and his 15-year-old son Cody.

■ Steep mountain bowl
The day started like any other sledding day -- just some buddies that decided to go out and ride in the Tony Grove area of Northern Utah. This area is notoriously steep in spots with cliffs and shoots that tempt experienced riders. There have been many accidents in these mountains, sadly fatalities as well, but it is well known and one of the last areas that holds snow in Spring, allowing riders to continue sledding long after lawn mowing season begins in the valley.

In the 1990s, the practice was to head to the steepest mountain bowl you could find. There you would find other riders to swap stories and prove sled superiority. It was a secret society, complete with its own language. Custom chromoly trailing arms, pipes, rolled chaincases to accommodate extended tracks (from a stock 136 to 155), hoods with custom paint jobs and lightweight home-made seats. It was a religion, many people calling it church in the mountains, but more importantly, it was a testing ground where sled ingenuity and a high mark could give you bragging rights for years. In those days, people might forget your name, but never your sled.
Robert Nielsen snowmobile accident steep mountain bowl
■ Life-changing accident
It was 1996 when a steep line temped Nielsen. He was 29, and that line changed his life. Nielsen was riding a 1996 Ski-Doo Summit 670 that had been bored to 760cc by fellow rider Val Simmons. This was one of the fastest sleds around and was the only machine that day capable of the steep climb. With the motor revved, Nielsen did what many mountain riders do, but usually without such drastic consequences. He simply went somewhere he should not have gone.

In spring conditions, the snow freezes to ice at night and doesn’t loosen until the sun is high in the sky and temperatures warm throughout the day. Nielsen headed up a line between the steep cliffs almost to the top. It wasn’t until he turned around to come down that he knew he was in trouble. The snow was still frozen. It was a north-facing slope, hard and slick without afternoon sun. To make it down the hill safely, he needed to get to the line he had taken on his climb. However, with the slick conditions it was impossible to sidehill back, and the contour of the mountain forced him into a different line above a tall cliff band.

Moving quickly, and with little control, Nielsen remembers seeing a pine tree that was partially fallen and hoped the obstacle would stop him from plummeting off the cliff. As he neared the obstruction, he realized it was at head level. His helmet took the full force of the collision, his eyes rolled to the back of his head and he forgot everything that happened later that week, except for the whooshing rotors of the helicopter that rescued him. 

Nielsen’s companions were horrified. Cody Bennet, just a teenager, remembers the fear of watching his friend hit the tree, and then standing helpless as both sled and body fell from the cliff, hitting a rock at the bottom.

His companions raced to Nielsen’s aid. He was writhing, moaning and incoherent. They knew his injuries were life-threatening, so they sent Clawson down the canyon for help.
Robert Nielsen snowmobile accident steep mountain bowl wheelchair
Robert Nielsen continues to do many of the things he enjoyed before his accident, including farming.
Robert Nielsen snowmobile accident steep mountain bowl

Nielsen was flown to Logan Regional Hospital, only a 5-10-minute flight from the accident scene. But he needed more help than they could provide, so he was rushed 70 miles to Salt Lake City. Nielsen had a broken hip, which required a metal plate and ball. His back was broken in several places, but the most alarming injury was in the middle of his back, a spinal break at T12. Doctors were clear: Nielsen would not walk again.

■ Fierce indepencence
An outdoorsman to the core, Nielsen fought this diagnosis and refused defeat for months. In the end he was forced to come to terms with his condition. Although saddened, he did not grapple with depression like many others with similar injuries. Instead, Nielsen found creative ways to enjoy the things he loved. For years after, and with the designing expertise of his friend Val Simmons, he rode a custom-built sled. Four-wheeling was also a favorite pastime, and while could no longer hunt in the backcountry by walking, he continued to hunt from the road and has shot some massive trophy deer on public land.

Nielsen’s fierce independence and determination to continue to be outdoors have served him well, although it hasn’t been easy. Several years after his accident, he was in a four-wheeler crash that broke his pelvis, causing internal bleeding. The extent of his injuries was unknown until that evening when he was rushed to the hospital, again, where he nearly died.

Despite the injuries, Nielsen continues to prove doctors wrong with his ability to accomplish what he desires: blowing past his 20-year life expectancy three years ago and continuing to take care of his small farm. His wife, Ruby, knew there was no stopping him when there was something that he wanted to do, and his two grown children and three grandkids have learned to never underestimate him.
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