A Mountain Of Opportunity
There’s a little bit of blood on your nose,” said Andy Gabel, my ski buddy, as he leaned onto the snow to take a look at my face. I pulled my glasses away and knew why. There was a clean-cut hole in the right lens and blood stains on the bridge of the shades that once sat across my nose.
My ski instructor, Robert Leavitt, knelt down and dabbed some snow on my cuts to absorb the blood. My wife, Julie, and friend Amy skied over to see if I was okay. They had seen me ski my best run of the weekend as I cruised down Funnel Bypass just seconds before I crossed skis with Robert and flipped in my bi-ski.
Nothing hurt. My teeth were intact. So we did the only thing we knew to do at the time. We took a picture.
Robert (pronounced ro-BEAR) offered an explanation of my first crash while learning how to operate a sit-ski, then we whisked off down the mountainside to the nearest stop for paper towels.
“You may scare some people,” Robert said with his trademark dry wit.
“Why, because of my face?” I asked as we continued down the hill.
“Yeah,” he said.
Snowmass has a vertical drop of 4,406 feet and is the second-largest ski area in the country. It’s covered in almost five feet of snow—that’s intense. I skied on the same slopes that hosted the X Games less than a week later—also intense. I learned to navigate a sit-ski with two mini-crutches with skis on the end (called outriggers)—doubly intense. I flipped my way to a stop on my second day of learning to ski – that’s intense. And I was ready to go down the mountain again.
YOU KNOW WE CALL THIS ADAPTIVE SKIING, RIGHT?
I had no expectations around learning to ski. I didn’t know how I would be getting on a ski lift. I didn’t know if I would be sitting or standing; I have cerebral palsy and walk with forearm crutches, so standing could be an option. So I was open to anything, and that ended up being a positive.
What I did know is that Challenge Aspen, a non-profit organization in Snowmass Village, CO, specializes in teaching people with disabilities how to reach their maximum potential in a variety of outdoor physical activities. That includes learning how to ski.
“What we’ve seen is that it just opens up opportunities, especially in younger people,” said Sally O’Keefe, Challenge Aspen’s recreation program manager. “Some of them can’t walk or speak, but you put them on a horse or in a ski or in a raft and it doesn’t matter. Our goal is that by the end of the week they take that (experience) into the real world and try new things.”
I was one of 10 people enrolled in Challenge Aspen’s 13th Annual Mono-Ski Camp from Jan. 15-22. It was the third camp of the winter, and the biggest. It was designed for intermediate and advanced skiers, but it was opened up to all levels of skiers due to demand. The price typically ranges from $500 to $800 per camp. That money is directly used to run the camps, and Challenge Aspen also raises money through two major fundraising events each year as well as grants and donations. The financial books, however, do not include the in-kind gifts of free lift tickets (approximately $250,000 a year, according to the staff) or the free rentals at Aspen Sports in the Snowmass Mall (about $100,000 annually).
For this camp, there were eight professional ski instructors, 11 ski buddies—extra skiers to block the other skiers from impeding space—and two full-time employees, according to Nikki Malcolm, the groups and camps coordinator at Challenge Aspen. All ski buddies had gone through adaptive ski training, while some had achieved higher certifications from Professional Ski Instructors of America.
We came from everywhere: Georgia, Minnesota, Kansas, California and even Mexico. We had varying disabilities, including CP, brain- and spinal-cord injuries. Our previous ski experiences were wide-ranging, too. One skier, Tim Miller, had been to eight previous Mono-Ski Camps at Challenge Aspen and could easily ski on his own, while I had never even touched ski to snow.
The first time I sat in a sit-ski was during the Seating Clinic on the camp’s first day. While most of the participants planned to use a mono-ski, I was going to use a bi-ski. A mono-ski is a bucket that is mounted atop a single ski. It requires more balance and skill to maneuver down the mountain, and beginners often fall trying to master the technique. A bi-ski is designed similarly, only with two skis on the bottom and a lower center of gravity; perfect for beginners.
Padding helps fit the skier to the bucket. The more upright a skier sits, the better mobility he has to make a turn, which requires turning the head and upper body in the desired direction.
Short crutches called outriggers with a tiny ski on the end help for balance and turning. In ski position, the ski points forward and glides above the snow. In standing position, it flips up with a spiked edge digging into the snow to provide traction for mobility and leverage (often used to load onto the ski lift and move the ski short distances).
“The interesting part about Challenge Aspen is we call it adaptive skiing, and we have to adapt,” Robert said. “Every skier is so different that it makes us as ski instructors think. Rather than me teaching the same lessons over and over again, … every lesson is different and it’s a challenge as a ski instructor.”
IT WAS HARDER THAN I THOUGHT
The ski sat in the snow. I plopped into the bucket. Put my gloves on and strapped on my helmet with the help of Cory Connett, my ski buddy for the first day. Cory, who has been at Challenge Aspen since November, has spent a lot of his time working with children with cognitive disabilities, something that takes great patience and operates at a slower process to get the participants familiar with their new environment. “I’ve been in a biski,” he said. “We took it out so we could get the feel of it, and get perspective” on how to teach others to use it. “I want to be an instructor so I want to learn what it feels like.”
My wrists slipped through the ‘riggers and my hands wrapped around the handles.
“Ready, Josh?” Robert called out as the moment of truth came.
Robert began pushing with his skis, holding on to the bucket. We topped the tiny ridge where everyone was loaded into their buckets, and down we went.
The wind was cold in my face as we swept right, and then left down the hillside. The loading area was along Fanny Hill, one of the busiest runs on the mountain, since it’s located beside the Snowmass Mall. We dodged a few kids taking a lesson, passed one or two beginners, and then headed over the short chute as Robert called out the turns to me.
“Left turn … right turn … left turn … right turn.”
Robert instructs visually impaired skiers, and he used the same teaching method for me. Instead of explaining what we were going to do at the top of a run, then reviewing at the bottom, Robert talked me through it as we skied. It was imperative, I later discovered, in helping me know where to go on the mountain and learn while I was skiing. I wasn’t familiar with the runs, and even after we skied down the popular Dawdler run several times, I still can’t describe one inch of snow on it. Yet Robert’s calm direction made the learning curve manageable.
There’s a checklist that the mind goes through for each turn of the ski:
1. Look in the direction of the turn. Turning the head, as Robert explained, forces the torso to turn in the same direction, thus providing leverage for a greater arm reach with the ‘rigger.
2. Extend the outrigger and use it. The ‘rigger should hit the snow and be aimed at a 45-degree angle away from the sit-ski. It provides direction, much like front wheels of a car. When the ‘rigger is on edge, it allows for more leverage against the snow and a better turn.
3. Lean the body in the direction of the turn. An aggressive turn results in a “pop” feeling—the skier is pushing against gravity to turn, as Robert explained, and continues to push until, “pop,” he gives in. The ski then shifts to the neutral position, and the next turn begins.
These were my assignments as we went down run after run: improve on the “pop” feeling and shift from turn to turn. Turning keeps speed under control.
“Your instincts tell you to make too big a move,” said Robert, who has ridden in a mono-ski twice with someone “bucketing” him. “It was harder than I thought. I had a hard time dialing in the more subtle movements and I never felt that cool feeling of tipping on edge.”
Due to my short stay at the Mono-Ski Camp and the task to learn as much as possible, Day 1 was spent cramming for the exam—learn to turn, evaluate what I can do on my own and move forward the next day. Day 2 was set aside for a rehash of the basics, then a move to “tethering.”
“Bucketing” has the instructor directly behind the ski – sometimes holding; sometimes with a hand on the bucket just in case; and sometimes with a hand simply on the side of the bucket. Think of riding a bike with training wheels. The progressive step is “tethering”—me in the bucket with an instructor skiing behind only connected by tether straps. The beginning stages have a short distance between student and instructor, sometimes as little as a foot. The better the student gets, the longer the tether gets and the less control the instructor has.
CAN I GET A SLOW DOWN AND A PULL BACK?
Very little about the process was easy. There were equipment malfunctions on both days of skiing, primarily with the connection of the skies to the bucket.
To load onto the ski lift, the skis are supposed to remain in position while the bucket is lifted – Robert and my ski buddy lifted the bucket onto the lift. A lift operator is charged with slowing down the lift and then pulling the ski back onto the seat. The bucket is then safety strapped and the lift bar goes down.
Sounds simple, until an equipment malfunction rears its head.
Practicing before our first trip up the lift allowed Robert and Cory to discover that my bucket was not separating from my skis. The temporary solution was for Robert to keep his foot on the ski during our load. No problem. But once we got to the top of the lift, the ski didn’t slide off as it’s supposed to. The ski stuck to the lift seat, the front of the ski went down into the snow, and once it popped off, it fell on top of me. Robert and Cory went down, too.
“Stop!” Robert yelled.
The lift stopped, and we quickly discovered the issue was again that the ski was not separating from the bucket. We took the gondola next time.
A quick change in skies solved the problem after lunch, only until loading onto the ski lift at Max Park, a beginner’s area that is relatively flat. The lift operator failed to pull my ski back onto the seat, and down we went again into the snow.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” the operator said as he scrambled over to us.
“Was it my fault?”
“Yes,” Robert said.
“You’re supposed to be trained on that,” Cory added.
The failure of the ski operator, however, was no doubt a rare occurrence as every other time we entered the line to load onto a lift, the operators assisted like an oiled machine, most of the time without instruction.
Tim, who has been skiing for nine years and can be nearly independent on his mono-ski, has advanced to loading and unloading himself onto the lift. And after our lift adventures, that is clearly a useful skill.
“THIS HAS CHANGED MY LIFE.”
Prior to the Mono-Ski Camp, I had spoken with several skiers with disabilities who had been to Aspen or Snowmass, skied down the mountain for the first time, and have not been the same since. “Skiing changed my life,” was the common phrase.
They were right.
“People can arrive here with very few aspirations, or have been told they can’t do this. And then they come here and three days later they’re skiing from the top of the mountain,” said Sarah Williams Volf, director Challenge Aspen’s C.A.M.O. program for injured veterans. “People have a very mature, can-do attitude here. They don’t look at somebody and say they have a handicap or think of what they can’t do. They’re not going to ask what’s wrong with you. They’re going to see you as, ‘Man, you’re one of those guys who rip around the mountain on a mono-ski. That’s awesome.’”
Skiing did change my life. I still breathe the same, still walk with crutches, even turned 30 three days after I left the camp. But skiing changed my life.
I can ski because of the inspiration I found on the mountain. People like Joel Strain, from Wichita, KS, who was in an accident at age 16 and now rides in a wheelchair. He’s been skiing four years and only gets to come once a year—at least until this year, when he’s spending a semester in Fairplay, CO, to ski in Breckenridge.
“I don’t know that I found skiing, but rather it found me,” Joel said. “A group from Wichita contacted me and asked me to go skiing. Once I got here, I loved it. This is awesome. So I just stuck with it.”
I can ski because of Orlando Perez, from Atlanta, who has been skiing three times now. “What I like about it is the freedom that I never had as an able-body,” he said. “For me, it’s just about showing people we’re not disabled; we’re able to do whatever we want to do.”
Orlando, who is an incomplete paraplegic, had a tumor in his spinal cord when he fell onto rocks during training in the U.S. Army. He competes on the Puerto Rico national wheelchair basketball team, and also on a team in Atlanta. His peers suggested he try skiing. “It’s something I never thought I would do,” he said. “I’m from Puerto Rico. I can do the beach and all, but I never thought coming down a mountain would be so exhilarating.”
I can ski because of Ron Mayfield, from Virginia Beach, VA, who skied down the mountain standing on two skis for the first time during the camp. Eleven years ago he was shot in the head in a hunting accident. He was in a medically-induced coma for weeks, and couldn’t speak or walk for four years. Now he’s walking without assistance, driving and, well, skiing.
“I am high on the hog, man,” Ron said. “My goal was to ski. Yesterday was the first time I reached my goal. God and I are standing there in the mountains with the sun outside and I’m on two skis.”
I can ski because of Cory and Andy, both of whom became my best friends in six hours on the mountain. They’re two of the seven interns at Challenge Aspen this winter who do everything from office grunt work to assisting the professional ski instructors. They get a place to live, enough cash to eat, and a mountain of snow.
I can ski because of Robert, a construction/real estate guru by summer, and professional ski instructor by winter. Known as The VI Guy, he spends most of his efforts teaching visually impaired skiers. With his patience and guidance, we skied six runs: Funnel Bypass, Assay Hill, Dawdler Headwall, Max Park, Banzai and Velvet Falls – the last of which is a more advanced run.
I can ski because of the random mono-skier I saw load himself into his ski, push off with his ‘riggers and tear down the mountain all in the time it took me to get one glove on.
Within 30 minutes of the tumbling crash during my run down Funnel Bypass, Robert had snagged some paper towels to clean up my face and keep pressure on my nose to stop the bleeding. “Doesn’t look like it needs sewing up. Good thing, because I left my sewing kit at home. Of course, they’ve got a stapler inside the lift operator building,” Robert teased. I smiled, then we slapped a bandage across the bridge of my nose, pulled the helmet on and got the riggers in place. No glasses this time.
Robert pushed my ski over to the lift. “Can I get a slow down and a pull back, please?” he asked the lift operator. He and Andy helped load me onto the lift, the pull back was there, and up the mountain we went. No better way to recover from a crash than to hit the slopes again.
by Josh Pate