UCH nurse knuckles down in Neuro, sails on the slopes

Zach Taylor earns kudos for snowboarding skills
March 30th, 2016

The chances are pretty good that at some point in our lives we will have an encounter with a nurse. The chances of meeting one who regularly descends 14,000-foot mountain peaks on a snowboard? Not as good, safe to say.

The combo makes perfect sense to Zach Taylor, RN, a nurse in the Neuro ICU at University of Colorado Hospital. Taylor is nearly nine months into his one-year stint with UCH’s Graduate Nurse Residency Program. He works three 12-hour shifts each week, soaking up the experience and knowledge he needs to care for people with a variety of brain injuries.

“There is so much to learn, and I love the complexity of ICU patients,” Taylor says. “I get to delve into the pathophysiology of their conditions and learn everything I can about them.”

Zach Taylor in his element on Red Mountain Pass in Colorado. Photo by Teal Potter.

When he’s off the unit, Taylor heads outdoors, often to slip skins on his splitboard, shoulder climbing equipment and tote his snowboard to the top of a Colorado 14er. When the conditions are right, he casts off, jumping and turning his way downward through the snow, ice and mountain air. He’s successfully made the descent on 36 of the state’s 54 tallest peaks – and plans to add the remaining 18 to his list.

He’s bad – and that’s good

The state’s community of committed outdoorsmen has taken notice. In February, an “Elevation Outdoors” readers’ poll selected Taylor as Colorado’s “Resident Badass” on snow. Taylor beat out, among other big names, Chris Davenport, who once skied all the 14ers in a one-year period. Rather than basking in the notoriety, Taylor tips his snowboard to Davenport.

“Winding up number-one was surprising,” Taylor says. “Chris Davenport is more badass than I am.”

Zac Taylor at Dazbog
Taylor in a more sedate environment – a campus Dazbog – after a nursing class. Photo by Tyler Smith.

The two share, however, a love of the mountains mixed with a healthy respect for them. It’s here that the slopes and nursing shifts intersect in Taylor’s world.

The same spirit of intellectual curiosity that draws Taylor to the ICU also informs his outdoor explorations. He has rigorously prepared for each 14er descent – indeed, every snowboarding and climbing challenge, including what he believes is the only documented snowboarding trip from the top of Mexico’s El Pico de Orizaba (elevation 18,405 feet), the third-highest peak in North America. He’s studied books, taken safety classes and always uses the Colorado Avalanche Information Center website to gauge slope conditions before taking the plunge.

The preparations include reviewing wind and storm conditions, the depth of the snowpack and the composition of the snow. For example, faceted snow – created by wide variations of temperature within the snowpack – is highly unstable and a major avalanche risk. Once on the mountain, Taylor does his own evaluation of the conditions before heading down. He’s frequently with companions; they take the slope one at a time, “all eyes on the person snowboarding until he finds a safe place to stop.”

Avoiding the rush and the crush

Into thin air: Taylor, riding his snowboard jumps off a cliff in the “East Vail” back country in 2008. Photo by Mike Bannister.

It took Taylor one episode to learn the importance of absorbing everything he can about the slope terrain before getting on the snowboard. He was on Berthoud Pass on a late April day about 10 years ago, making turns on fresh powder when the snowpack beneath him spider-webbed and shattered like a pane of glass. He cut off to the left just before a wall of snow, enough to bury and kill him, rushed past.

“That was a wake-up call,” Taylor says. “After that, I made a point to take classes and learn as much as I could to avoid avalanches.”

As with nursing, his love of the outdoors has turned him to service. He’s taught avalanche-safety classes and served as a wilderness first responder for the Vail Mountain Rescue Group and the Alpine Rescue Team. He estimates he’s taken part in about 150 mountain rescue missions, most for people who get lost or injured, but a small percentage to recover the bodies of those claimed by snow and cold.

He’s never on the slopes without a transceiver, a signal-emitting device that allows rescuers to find a body buried in snow. Taylor says he counts on transceivers to help him find people in trouble, not the other way around.

“As part of avalanche education, I’ve learned how to use transceivers, but also how to avoid avalanches,” he says. “It’s something you hope never to have to use. If you do, something went seriously wrong.”

Call of the wild

The mountains of Colorado are actually a waystation in Taylor’s winding path to nursing. He grew up in decidedly unmountainous Dallas with a connection to health care through his mother, who worked as a cardiac ICU nurse in Texas and at Medical Center of the Rockies and is now employed as a PACU nurse at an ambulatory surgery center in Fort Collins.

The east face of the Wetterhorn
The east face of the Wetterhorn, a 14er in Colorado’s San Juan range that Taylor (pictured) counts among the 36 he has descended on his snowboard. Photo by Ben Jordan.

He arrived in Boulder in 2002 for college, took one look at the Flatirons and spent every moment he could find outdoors, including hiking his first 14er (Bierstadt) in 2003. The white stuff he saw all around him on one of his hikes also moved him to grab hold of a snowboard – which also grabbed hold of him.

The outdoors were an inspiration, but they took Taylor’s life in a different direction. Snowboarding one day, he hit a rock, fractured his hand and tore the ulnar collateral ligament. That alone was bad enough, but the injuries put an end to his pursuit of a music degree with an emphasis on classical guitar.

Instead, he earned a Bachelor of Science in Neuroscience. Far from discouraging him, his mishap eventually sent him to the mountains in search of more outdoor adventure. He settled in Vail, working at a restaurant to finance a 150-day-a-year snowboarding habit. He says he was happy with a mundane job that allowed him to use his free time for climbing mountains and snowboarding.

It’s easy to believe him when he describes his version of a perfect day in the natural surroundings.

It includes rolling out of a sleeping bag at 3 a.m., watching the sunrise from a mountain slope, and scrambling through the thin air with ice picks and crampons to the summit. Once there, “It gets sunny and warm, and you wait for the snow to soften in a t-shirt,” Taylor says. “Then you strap on your snowboard, do jump turns in an aesthetic line and by 1 or 2 p.m. you’re sitting at the mountain base, cooking a meal. You’re healthy tired…. It’s about being in nature, coupled with adrenaline and skill.””

Digging deeper

Jamapa Glacier
The tiny figure is Taylor climbing the Jamapa Glacier on the slopes of El Pico de Orizaba in 2009. Photo by Chris Burger.

He hasn’t lost that feeling. It emerges vividly in the accounts of his mountain experiences that he’s posted on his website. Yet during his Vail days, Taylor found something missing. “I was happy in life and doing the things I enjoyed, but I wanted a job that was more fulfilling – something intellectually stimulating where I would feel that I was making a difference,” he said.

With 60 neuroscience credits, Taylor was able to enroll in an accelerated 16-month nursing program at Metropolitan State University of Denver. At UCH, he worked first as a certified nursing assistant, moved to advanced care partner, and then on to the new-grad program. With the progression, Taylor, now 30, has found a rare work-life balance.

“Working three days a week on the unit allows me to obsessively do my hobby, but at the same time I’m being pushed intellectually and I’m learning,” he said.

Snowboarding has to make room for nursing in Taylor’s world, but it’s clear that nursing also has to co-exist with snowboarding.

About the author

Tyler Smith has been a health care writer, with a focus on hospitals, since 1996. He served as a writer and editor for the Marketing and Communications team at University of Colorado Hospital and UCHealth from 2007 to 2017. More recently, he has reported for and contributed stories to the University of Colorado School of Medicine, the Colorado School of Public Health and the Colorado Bioscience Association.