By Eric Aakko – Brighton, Colorado…My friend Bob Goodman and I were more than 200 miles into our 350-mile bikepacking trip in southern Colorado when a freak accident snapped my spine in half. Bikepacking is like backpacking, except with a mountain bike. A typical day of bikepacking for us consists of 60 to 75 miles on remote gravel roads.
We woke up that morning to temperatures in the low 20s on July 1, 2020. We were camped at 9,000 feet and set forth in the pre-dawn twilight, heading for the summit of Cochetopa Pass, where the early-morning sun had risen. An hour and a half of rapid pedaling, brought us to the 10,000-foot summit where a brilliant sunshine and 50-degree temperatures greeted us. After eating a light breakfast at the summit, we said a prayer and began our descent on the southern side of the summit. Our goal for the day was to ride a total of 75 miles south to the town of Del Norte. The anticipated reward for a long day of riding was a restaurant dinner of pasta, salad, and garlic rolls.
Minutes into our descent, the accident happened. Despite a wide rubber strap around the front fork of my bike, which was holding my water bottle, the bottle became dislodged and wedged between the front tire and frame. The jammed bottle halted my motion instantly. I was catapulted over the handlebars and landed on my head and back. The helmet cracked and the exterior plastic shell melted from the sliding impact.
I did not know it at the time, but the accident completely snapped my T9 spinal vertebrae. I thought my kidneys and ribs were damaged because of the intense pain in my back. It was extremely difficult to breathe. On my hands and knees for more than an hour, I was finally able to stand with Bob’s help.
Other than the severe pain in my back, I had not broken my neck, arms, pelvis, or legs. I also had not injured my head—miracle number one! I asked Bob if my front wheel was damaged, and he replied that my bike was rideable with no damage to the wheels or spokes—miracle number two. As we had to self-rescue, Bob helped me onto my bike and we rode down the gravel road for about four miles to a paved road—all the while with an unknown serious spinal injury—miracle number three. As we descended, Bob prayed silently for help. Within seconds of reaching the road, two vans approached, and we flagged them down. The vans were driven by two brothers who agreed to help. Although the brothers were heading south, they were gracious enough to go north, taking me to Salida, more than an hour out of their way—miracle number four! As we headed to the hospital and made our introductions, one of the brother’s said his name was Miracle. I couldn’t believe it.
A CT scan was performed to look for internal damage. I was in too much pain to sit for long or lie down. The doctor came in the room and told me that my spine was broken, and I was in immediate danger of paralysis. The doctor said I would be airlifted to Centura St. Anthony’s trauma hospital in Denver. Normally, it takes several hours for a helicopter to arrive. However, on this day, a helicopter was fueled and waiting on the helipad. Within minutes, I was flying towards Denver—miracle number five.
At the hospital, the trauma staff told me I was very fortunate because I was going to have the top neurosurgeon secure my spine. Surgery was scheduled shortly after my arrival. After the surgery, I asked the surgeon if I was lucky to not be paralyzed, or if divine intervention was involved? He replied that it was not luck, saying I should have been paralyzed early in the accident, especially with riding a mountain bike down a bumpy gravel road–miracle number six.
Three weeks after my accident and surgery, I am freely walking about outside with only moderate pain—miracle number seven! The surgeon said I should make a full recovery and be able to ride my bike in six months.
–Eric Aakko is an avid cyclist, certified plant-based chef educator, public health practitioner, and adult Sabbath School teacher at the Brighton church.
***For a short YouTube about the trip, including the daily smoothie Eric created for his recovery, click here.