Unbreakable

Mitch on his way down at Aileens…a long way down.

With all the talk of the “swell of the year” the last couple of days we thought we’d bust out this interview with Mitch Corbett which initially ran in Carve 143. It is a tale of what happens when things go badly wrong in big surf, but ultimately of overcoming horrendous injuries. Story Steve England, pics Mickey Smith.

Imagine you are at the foot of 800-foot cliffs, it’s 10-12 foot and pounding on a shallow ledge. You have broken your back.

No, we can’t imagine that either. Mitch Corbett can though. It happened to him in April at Aileens, and yes, that’s the same Mitch Corbett who was in a coma in 2009. And, yes, he’s on his way to another full recovery. We like to call him: “Unbreakable”


You can probably tell from the photos, footage and reports that Aileen’s is freaking heavy wave, but even they underestimate it’s severity. The 800 foot cliffs, the huge boulders it breaks on, inaccessibility and water rushing into a bay that is cut off during huge swells put it in the top tier of world’s heaviest waves. Even the North Shore seasoned water photographers are blown away when they first witness it in real life. It’s like no place they have ever seen.

From the first days it was surfed everyone knew it was not a good place to get hurt. Mickey and the boys even hid emergency provisions at the foot of the cliffs. Over the years things went fairly smoothly apart from couple of mishaps, but no serious injury. Then a heavy lip dislocated Lowey’s shoulder. While the injury was not life threatening the situation was. The boys down there dealt with it though. Then again in March this year when he got axed for a second time. However on April 10 the bar was raised as the wave dealt it’s heaviest blow yet breaking Mitch Corbett’s back. Yes you read that correctly. Snapped him. Stuck in the line-up at the bottom of the cliffs with that kinda of injury is a recipe for disaster of the life threatening flavour. Fortunately Ferg and the rest of the crew were on hand and got him out of there.

Mitch wanted to keep the accident and injury on the down low for a couple months until he had time to heal and find out the full diagnosis. With the all clear given we caught up with him and got his angle on things. It’s the heaviest thing we’ve read since his last mishap.

“Without trying to sound like a mystical wizard or a wise old owl of sorts, I feel that this winter has been full of change and the start of new beginnings in how all of us over here approach our surfing and the days spent preparing for these powerful swells that we love. This is due to how incredible this year was, both swell and commitment wise. We have come out of it with lessons and memories that we hold strong and precious to our hearts. From the highest of highs, to the lowest of lows. From the most out there experiences, to the most simple of existence. We have all come through with nothing but positivity and an even stronger outlook on how incredible the place is in which we reside.


“There may have been hoards of hype-driven pro surfers flying in on the obvious long range forecasts with intent to get the job done, but luckily we have had many sneaky swells that have brought along with them our most cherished waves and experiences. It seems that when the line-up has only consisted of the boys who have come here with no intentions other than enjoying themselves or been here the whole winter long, these sessions have always been full of buzz and way more meaning. It’s also rad to see how when the line-up gets crowded with pros that are better than us all put together, either Fergal or Lowey will be in the exact spot for the best wave of the day and ride it with so much passion you can only be blown away by the amount of time they must have put in to learn how to do that.

Mitch in the pit at Aileens 

“I’m currently jotting this article horizontal on a comfy memory foam mattress in the living room of the ‘health hostel’ that Fergal has transformed a fairly average 250 year old farm house into. This is due to one of the lessons that was thrown my way by Aileen’s in the form of the wave breaking me in two pieces. Basically I broke my back after going over the falls on a 10-12 foot double up beast that did not want to be ridden by me. Considering how nasty the whole scenario could have been, I got away very lightly. This was mainly due to a very calm and collected bunch of friends that had their heads screwed on enough to prevent the injury sustaining any more damage.

“I can’t really remember why I took off on the beautifully thick beast that broke me, as it was pretty obvious there was not much chance of making it. I was in ‘the heat of the moment’ and all that and I suppose it was in my mind that it was the last real swell of the season and I was going on whatever the ocean sent my way. Within milliseconds of getting to me feet I realised I was stuck in the lip and it was going to be another healthy pummelling that I would remember for a long time. The thought that I remember most vividly was “Alright then, you’ve been here many times before you so may as well enjoy it.”

“It seems falling from such a height when going over the falls actually gives you a little bit of time to consider the mindset you’re going to go down with. However the time it wasn’t as simple as just getting your head around the situation and taking the beating. The next moment I was in the impact zone getting another ten footer on the head with a feeling deep in my spine that I had never felt before and knew there was something to start worrying about. Luckily within a few seconds after I had shouted for assistance, Ferg had ridden a wave in and was by my side helping me. After a little bit of time scratching our heads we came up with the dramatic but very sensible idea of calling the coastguard helicopter. A way better idea than paddling through the six foot shore break and climbing the cliff. One thing led to another and the helicopter turned up 45 minutes later. It was actually really humorous when this incredible machine came flying over to us, as we all expecting a James Bond type character to come flying down and save the day. I don’t want to write the guys off as they helped me out so much and it’s really appreciated, but the panic on the guy’s face when he came down spinning and then was confronted with huge swell lines rolling towards him was a picture. He looked in more of a dilemma than me!

They got me though and I was soon in the helicopter being rushed to Galway hospital where they concluded that I had broken myself in half and I was a very lucky man to even have the use of my legs. The exact diagnostic was a transverse compression fracture of the T12 and L1 vertebral bodies.
I was on a trolley in the corridor of the wards waiting for a bed when I was told by a nurse I had slightly fractured my back. I was then waiting for another hour or so before the surgeon turns up again. He then started tapping my knees to check all the nerves were working correctly in my legs and I had not been at all paralysed. His last sentence before he left was “Do not at all try to get out of bed as we are going to on you operate. Technically in two bits right now”
From then on I was obviously a little worried but more than anything, thankful that I still had the use of my lower half. It could have been so different. Life changing.

I was then drugged out of my brain for two days until they had a slot for me to have surgery. The surgery then took five hours which consisted of putting two mental rods beside my spine to stabilise it whilst it heals correctly. If I did not have this I would have been in bed for 6-12 weeks not knowing if it would even heal properly. Fortunately it went really well. I’m so happy how it all panned out. I was up and standing the day after surgery. I currently have better posture than ever as I’m way more conscious of it and feel that it’s going to be a swift recovery all things considered.

“Fergs ‘health hostel’ has now come into its own for how much it’s helping me heal. It has only been a month and I’m already feeling as mobile and active as usual. This is also due the positivity of the people I live with as they have helped no end. Having an array of organic vegetables from the garden that Fergal has put so much effort into all winter long has really helped the first steps of my healing process. Now that I have so much time on my hands, I have been helping out with all the light weight jobs that I can get stuck into. We have already noticed the health benefits as Ferg had frozen a stock of last summers veg. This has been the first winter in my life during which I have not been ill once. That’s saying something considering we spend all winter long surfing all day and seeing who can get hypothermia first. As a result I’m pretty sure I will ea0 be in the water within the next month or so. Maybe not surfing anything heavy for a little while as it’s not wise whilst I have such a rigid section in my back. The plan is to get the rods out at the end of June, so hopefully I will be flying by then. Going to completely take it as it comes though as it’s such an important part of my body. Hopefully by winter I will be back on track! I feel I will be a little more calculated when in the water, but that’s just part of the learning process in these sort of waves. It’s in no way going to hold me back though. When I’m back in the water I will not pass up any wave that’s is rideable and that I’m lucky enough to have come my way. I don’t care how hairy fairy this may sound, but ever since my head injury I knew I was being looked after and feel I still am. That’s actually why I have been pushing myself in the surf especially and the way I approach life in general. I do understand that injuries such as broken backs and dislocated shoulders like Toms will happen surfing such heavy waves, but we are all obsessed with the feeling that we get when one of these bewildering waves cooperate with us.


“I’d like to thank Ferg, Mickey, Patch, Eva, Tom D, Stef and the boys so much for all there help at Aileen’s and so on. Also for sussing these fairy tale waves out and helping me figure out how to ride them. All in all I

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