The weather report called for clear skies, but as we drove over Donner Pass the light snow flurries made us question that forecast. Generally, I’d say I’m an 80 degrees and sunny type of guy, but this unexpected bit of weather had me singing a different tune entirely and I couldn’t shut up about how cool it was. It had been since my accident since I’d seen snow — let alone been in it — and so my enthusiasm for this particular meteorological phenomenon was justifiably heightened.
By the time we reached the motel at the base of Alpine Meadows it had gone from light flurries to a legitimate snowfall and my giddiness increased with each snowflake that stuck in my hair.
Later, I tried to explain to T that this mis-forecasted weather anomaly was part of a larger package of good fortunes that seem to follow me around like a metaphysical UPS truck, but I’m not so sure she bought it. Either way, we both agreed this auspicious beginning was going to make for some mighty fine spring skiing.
Inspire it then Google it
In a simultaneous burst of inspiration during a conversation T and I had a few months ago, the idea for this ski trip was born. Why it took so long to realize skiing was something I could do is an absolute mystery, but since I don’t believe in dwelling on lost time I’ve got no problem letting that go.
I wasn’t sure how it would work with my level of injury, but since I’m pretty proficient with Google I figured if it could be done and had been documented I’d find out about it. And if not, well, then like the Hawaiian outrigger my friend K and I adapted, we’d figure something out.
In Alpine Meadows (four hours from Berkeley near Tahoe), I found an adaptive ski program run by the organization Disabled Sports USA Far West, which for $66 would give me a lesson on a bi-ski and what I was yet to discover, an epiphany of profound proportions (there was no charge for the epiphany). All I needed to do was make a reservation, book a motel room, coordinate with T and break out the ski advent calendar to begin counting down the days.
The man is the foot
Like fitting ski boots correctly into bindings, getting the perfect fit in a bi-ski is a critical part of the process. Metaphorically speaking; I’m the foot and the bi-ski is the boot, the bindings and the ski. Since I’m a rather tall guy — not freakishly so, but NBA point guard tall — experience has shown me fitting into gliders, outriggers, sailboats and even wheelchairs can be a challenging proposition. The bi-ski was no different.
Fortunately, like a ski rental shop, the organization had a number of skis to choose from. Even still, we were hard-pressed to find one with enough back height to complement both my size and the fact that I’m a fairly high quad with no functioning trunk or back muscles to hold me upright.
In the end, it was simply a matter of sliding my hips forward so that I sat lower in the seat and then applying an elaborate five point harness system (with other strategically placed straps) to lock me down and keep me secure. A lot of things might happen on the slopes, but me coming free of the ski, wouldn’t be one of them.
Since we were essentially fitting me to the ski and not the other way around, the potential for pressure sores was a likely problem. This was a major concern of mine and something the crew, with their extensive experience working with disabled skiers, took seriously as well. Great care was taken to get me as comfortable as possible with as much padding as I might need around any area that could pose a problem.
That Said, if I got a pressure sore, I got a pressure sore — I was more than willing to put my body on the line to get out on the slopes. I was there to ski and nothing was going to stop that.
An hour later I had the right ski, the right position, the right straps, the right padding, the right helmet, the right goggles and a stoked enthusiasm that was ready to get me out on the snow.
Oh, hell yeah
One of the things that was difficult to get my head around when looking at images on the Internet was how the bi-ski would use the chairlift. As it turns out, it’s not very complicated. There’s a space between the skis and the seat and it’s simply a matter of a person on either side lifting the ski up onto the chair as it approaches and then riding it like everyone else — skis dangling, chatting things up with the person next to you.
But describing how I felt as I was pushed up to the chairlift for the first time is another matter; the sound of the slushy snow as it was displaced by skis, the creak of the chairlift as the cables rolled over the runners, the bright spring day, all of it triggered something deep within me — a kind of cell memory. And as I was lifted up onto the lift and we lurched forward and off the ground it felt as though all the years in between that moment and the time I broke my neck completely fell away. And this, my friends, was only the chairlift ride.
When we reached the top, I was ready to go. No question the lift was great and a moving trip down memory lane, but I was ready for some speed. Sitting at the top of the run, overlooking the valley and Lake Tahoe below, my instructor Len went over the mechanics of the bi-ski and what I’d be doing in relation to how much he’d be assisting.
Basically, the ski works like this; a bucket seat atop a mono shock system is mounted into a pair of parabolic skis, which, when the skier leans one way or the other, engages the edges and causes the ski to turn. A pair of smaller skis — approximately 12 inches — are mounted to the front of the bi-ski and function as outriggers to stabilize the ski and prevent it from tipping over. An assistant, by the means of two tethers attached to both sides of the ski, skis about 7 feet behind and can control both the turning and speed of the ski as the situation arises. As a piece of equipment it’s a marvel of ingenuity and as a sport, very much a team effort.
10 feet into the fall line of that first run I was ready to sell my soul to the bi-ski demons of the Sierras. The thing was incredibly responsive; even with my level disability and the limited movement I have, I was able to carve down the slope close to 60% unassisted. The experience was unreal — the speed of it took me right back to where I left off. Standing, sitting — what’s the difference? The sensations — the entirety of it — felt exactly the same.
Give credit where credit is due
Of course, I owe a great deal of thanks to my instructor Len and his assistant Rick who right from the beginning asked me, “would you like this to be Disneyland or a ski instruction?”
Sensing my jones for the more extreme end of things, they spent extra time working with me; taking me further up the mountain and allowing me to push things as far as I could on more intermediate runs. I learned a lot this first time out and by the end of the day my neck and shoulders were aching from all the leaning and turning.
Still, none of this would have been possible without the help of my beautiful friend T. Despite not being 100% herself, she was there for me 100% and I am indebted to that commitment. Sans television or music, with only our crazy selves to keep us company and entertained, she spent days with me in a motel room while my butt recovered from all the activities. I’ve not laughed so hard, for so many days straight, with so little sleep since… well, since… never.
If I’m ever stuck in the Andes after a plane crash or a desert island somewhere in the South Pacific or a motel in the middle of the Sierras, I hope to God T is close by.
I’ve never been one to pine for winter’s end or the fade out of inclement weather, but as spring transitions into summer and the ski season ends I have a new attitude. Don’t get me wrong, summer is still my favorite season (I’m a quadriplegic after all), but after this last ski trip I don’t think I’m going to pine for summer’s end either. Bring on those winter storms… papa’s got a brand new bag.