Cassandra Grenier’s Story Is The Wilderness School Story
Cassandra Grenier’s Story Is The Wilderness School Story
If ever a person embodied the Wilderness School story, it is Cassandra Grenier, a 26 year-old Meriden resident, whose passion for the adventure lifestyle almost cost her life. But rather than being a story about danger and loss, this is a story about recovery and hope. Cassandra Grenier’s story is the Wilderness School story.
Cassandra grew up in Meriden in a family for whom physical activity was at the center. Her dad was in the Army. But it was her mom, Diane, who instilled a special love of the outdoors. “My mom was always taking us on some kind of hike,” she said during an interview in July from a picnic table at the Wilderness School. Summers were filled with kayaking, hiking and rock climbing at different camps.
After graduating high school, she attended Springfield College on a soccer scholarship and studied recreation therapy. She later would give up soccer so she could concentrate on being president of the Outing Club and then graduated in 2015. Even before graduating, she worked summers in a backpacking program for chronically ill youth offered by the Hole in the Wall Gang, which is sponsored by the Paul Newman Foundation. In the winter before graduating, she flew out to Colorado to intern for the National Sports Center for the Disabled, where she taught skiing to para-athletes ages five to 87. Notably, Cassandra did not ski. “I learned to ski that winter too,” she said laughing. Among those she was teaching were athletes with Down syndrome, spinal- cord injuries, and severe visual impairment.
In the spring of 2016, Cassandra had her first experience at the Wilderness School. She served as an expedition instructor for 20-day and five-day adventures. Then in the winter she returned to the National Sports Center and back again to the Wilderness School in the spring of 2017. She served this time as a lead expedition director and course director, who is responsible for intervention behavioral crisis management and youth support.
As Cassandra pointed out, “Recreational therapy includes clinical work. It involves any activity that leads to processing or that can have more meaning.”
When she left the Wilderness School in August 2017, her life certainly would have “more meaning” – but in a way she never could have anticipated.
Cassandra went to the Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming to visit her brother, Will, a 29-year-old park ranger who had the same passion for the wild as his sister.
On August 25, 2017, Cassandra, Will and a friend of his set off to climb the Middle Teton, which offers 12,809 feet of elevation. They back packed into a camp site and headed off early the next morning – soon finding themselves crossing a “boulder field” filled with rocks “as big as cars and refrigerators,” Cassandra said. Then the inconceivable became very real.
“Rock!” -- Will’s friend yelled. “I looked up and the entire rock face started to tumble down,” Cassandra recalled. “I started running, dodging rocks – I thought ‘wow, I was athletic.’ It seemed like hours, but it was really a minute.”
Time and the rocks would catch her.
“I dove behind a much larger rock, huddled behind it and put my hands over my head as rocks toppled over me,” she recounted. “At first I refused to lose consciousness, and then I totally lost consciousness. But I was awake before my brother got to me.” She asked her brother, “Do I have my teeth?” She also asked “where all the blood came from? And he said ‘you have a small gash.’” The small gash was “at least 8 inches long and exposed my skull,” she recalled.
They were not in a location that would be easy for help to arrive – at least seven miles from a trail head and at about 11,000 feet of elevation. Her brother called 911, and Cassandra said her “wilderness response training kicked in” so that she was able to tell Will what he would need to tell the first responders as “I could feel myself going into shock.”
After the rocks were removed from her body, paramedics lifted her by helicopter to a search and rescue station. From there, she went by ambulance to a local hospital. Then she was taken to a trauma center in Idaho.
She credits the first responders: “I am told I was the fastest rescue ever. It took 30 minutes . . . Five minutes more and I would not have made it.”
Her mom, Diane, who is a nurse, flew out to Idaho to join Cassandra and Will. Then her dad flew out too.
A surgeon at the trauma center told her mom that “we put her face back together like a puzzle.”
The injuries were devastating: a broken neck; damage to all her internal organs, including the pancreas; every bone in her face was broken; and she suffered a frontal lobe injury. She had two emergency surgeries and stayed in the Idaho trauma center for eight days. Perhaps surprisingly, she had no broken bones except those in her face. But she lost all the skin on her hands and arms. “They just put it all back on,” she said matter-of-factly.
“Mom wanted me home and we flew back on a commercial flight,” Cassandra said, adding that because her mother is a nurse, “They released me to her care. She’s a pretty strong woman.”
Upon coming back to Meriden, Cassandra began eight months of intensive therapy at Gaylord Hospital in Wallingford. “For two months, all I did was sleep,” she said. “I didn’t get out of bed except for doctor appointments.”
Cassandra credits her mom for a strong recovery. “I’m really, really lucky – my mom took really good care of me,” she said.
Looking at Cassandra now leaves the impression that she is a totally normal, healthy young woman. She is articulate and personable and still passionate about wilderness adventures. But looks are somewhat deceiving. She still suffers from double vision and a lack of peripheral vision beyond a narrow range in front of her. She can’t see well in dim light. She said she gets overwhelmed and also tires very easily, which her mother says is due to the traumatic brain injury.
As much loving, quality care as she got from her mother and others, a tremendous amount of resolve on Cassandra’s part contributed to a nearly-miraculous turnaround.
Her mother said the doctors in Idaho were amazed at Cassandra’s strength in the immediate wake of the boulder slide. “The doctors at the hospital said they don’t understand how she is functioning so well,” Diane said, adding that Cassandra suffered mini-strokes as a result of blood being cut off by the cascade of rocks that fell on her. “They couldn’t believe she was awake after the injury or that she could talk after the injury.”
The doctors would have no idea how incredible the comeback has been; six months after the devastating accident, Cassandra returned to Colorado to go skiing. “I am a pretty stubborn person,” she said. “My mom was having a heart attack, and the doctor told me not to do it.”
Discounting the accomplishment, she said, “We only went skiing for two hours.” Her friend, Maddy, skied in front and her mother behind.
In addition to resuming her love of skiing, she also returned to her passion for helping others. In April 2018, Cassandra returned to the Wilderness School on a limited schedule working on the enrollment team. She credits the patience of managers who let her take things a bit slower.
Then this last winter of 2018-19, she returned to the National Sports Center in Colorado – not to work as a staff person but as a visually impaired skiing competitor.
“I became one of the clients I was serving” only two years prior, she said. Now the helper was being helped at the same place she was before. She said the decision to return to skiing at the National Center was motivated by a hope that it would help her vision improve. “I thought the immersive therapy would make everything click,” she said. “My eyesight did not get better, but I learned how to cope and function better because of it. I gained confidence in what I can do, how to use my body to navigate and judge distances” despite the visual impairment.
She certainly did learn to adapt to the limitations: in March, 2019, Cassandra became the U.S. National Champion in the women’s visually-impaired slalom competition.
After winning the championship, Cassandra returned to the Wilderness School working as course director for two five-day courses and in the enrollment office.
The day Cassandra did this interview, she was leaving the School to get ready to travel to Mount Hood, Oregon to participate along with six other para-athletes in an emerging athlete training camp sponsored by the National Sports Center. They will ski in the morning and do weight training in the afternoon, she said.
Will Cassandra get on another boulder field? “I will be near them,” she said. “But I won’t be on them.”
Her mother Diane joined Cassandra at the bench along with the family’s two adorable dogs, Simba and Lucy. One of Cassandra’s greatest believers, Diane said, “One of the amazing things about her is her ability to do things that terrify her – even though she is scared. She wants to get back her life and her sense of adventure.”
Diane said the Wilderness School has been wonderful to her daughter.
“The Wilderness School has been a tremendous support system for her, for me and for my entire family,” Diane said. “They stood by her, gave her emotional support and provided a place for her to come back to.”
Wilderness School Director Aaron Wiebe said Cassandra is “resilient and brilliant – an amazing person.” He predicted Cassandra will be running her own adventure learning program in the future.
Diane said the healing process for Cassandra is now “the emotional side of recreational therapy – to learn more and to figure things out. How to frame things for yourself and put yourself in a different place through activity.”
Cassandra is immersing herself on this path -- buoyed by her spirit.
“I’m really lucky to be here,” Cassandra said. “I was protected – something was protecting me.”
Cassandra said the next step is to find meaning in what happened and to advance from it as a positive force helping others.
“The Wilderness School motto is ‘learn to believe in yourself,’” Cassandra said. “I am on a parallel journey to believe and still am. I don’t want this to be about skiing or me. What happened is a platform for something bigger. I have to figure that out still.
“I’m on my own 20-day experience – something happened – and I am on a journey and now I have to take it forward in a positive manner,” she added.
We all eagerly anticipate Cassandra’s journey in confidence that it will be a great one.