The winter of 2011/2012 was a strange one for this Berkeley quadriplegic ski junkie. In fact, It was a strange winter for any ski junkie in California. Hell, why be specific? It was a strange winter period. From a sheer numbers perspective, it will probably go down as one of the driest on record in terms of snowfall in the Sierras. A dubious record from a skier’s perspective, but from a quadriplegic’s living in Berkeley, not being bombarded by cold, wet Pacific storms week in and week out, unseasonably comfortable.
But I’m not your average quadriplegic, I’m a quadriplegic ski junkie. And while the average quadriplegic in me was right at home in the 60° plus, cloudless days month after month after month after month after month, the ski junkie part of me — the larger of the two — was not. Fortunately, the Zen part of me — the part that makes up all of me (think of that particular math equation as a Zen koan) — is fine with whatever, so I wasn’t losing any sleep over either (that came later when I was actually up in snow country and my excited 5-year-old-kid-at-Christmas-morning part showed up). Bottom line, and parts aside — quadriplegic, ski junkie, Zen, whatever — I just f**kin’ love to ski. It’s not who I am, it’s just what I really, really love to do.
And that seems like the perfect preamble for this post on my tardy, anomalous, truncated 2011/2012 ski season.
Typically if my ski plans are ever going to be affected by the weather, it’s because there’s too much snow i.e. the drive over Donner Pass to Tahoe is gridlocked or shut down. In fact, I can’t think of a winter where I’ve ever been skunked by the lack of snow.
Which isn’t to say, there was no snow this season; they were making it as often as they could (when it actually got cold enough to do so), but it hardly seemed worth shelling out good lift ticket money to ski on man-made ice crystals, when I know what the good stuff is like. Don’t misunderstand me, I was frothing pretty hard by the end of February to get that new bi-ski of mine on the mountain, but this ain’t SoCal, it’s Tahoe, and we’ve got standards.
Of course, there were a couple of teaser storms that came through over the winter, but they were typically underwhelming and filled more with hope and promise, than pregnant, cold North Pacific ferocity. And while for some NorCal skiers less, well, quadriplegic than myself, a quick, short noticed surgical strike on these small dumps was quite doable, for myself — a full-blown quad — such spontaneity is difficult.
So all winter and into early spring, I studied the long-term forecast models, watched resort WebCams, listened to snow prognosticators, read the tarot, made offerings to the snow gods and kept my fingers crossed that La Niña would at last grow weary of pushing endless high-pressure systems over the coast of California and allow our storm door to swing wide just long enough, so that Northstar’s Superpipe could stay open more than 2 days at a time without needing to be rebuilt.
But as we hit the middle of March, both the high spring sun and rapidly approaching, premature closure dates for the resorts hammered it home that if I was to get any time on the mountain this season — Superpipe or not, man-made snow or not — I better take what I could get, pull the trigger and start making some hard plans to get up there. Because as much as I wanted to get vert, this season was really all about trying my new ski.
And so after conferring with my ski partner Brian Sheckler, Roy Tuscany over at High Fives and my amazing friend Natalia, who was absolutely invaluable to all of it, and letting my other attendants know I’d be gone for a week with a decent amount of advanced notice, all the pieces were lined up for a quad version of a surgical bi-ski strike on Tahoe.
The plan was to drive up on the 20th, test the ski out the 21st at Alpine Meadows to make sure it loaded on the lift properly and perform as expected, and use the following day — my butt day of rest — for any significant tweaks and changes that might be needed, and then hit the Superpipe with Roy and the crew on the 23rd — with or without mother nature’s cooperation.
Now whether it was my sense of detachment or brazen defiance of the conditions (which could’ve been mistaken by mother nature for taunting), or both, I don’t know, but the next day a nice big purple blob showed up on the Pacific forecast models with a legit 2 week winter cold front bearing down on California and the Sierras, packed with an anticipated 8 feet plus punch of snow!
Not surprisingly though, in line with other storms this winter, the snowfall didn’t exactly line up with what was predicted/hoped for. Nevertheless, it was the right kind of storm, both wet and cold, and dropped enough snow to make Tahoe look like Tahoe again and not some ski park in Dubai. More serendipitously, I suppose, was that our drive up followed immediately behind it, which meant no chains, no traffic delays, no road closures and fresh, cold snow to look forward to. In other words, from 3000 feet up, as we drove past snow dusted trees and roadside snowbanks, I had an ever present grin on my face.
All that said — the odd winter weather, the anticipation, serendipitous snowstorms, etc. — this trip was as much about people as it was about skiing, and the first thing I wanted to do when I got up to Truckee, was head over to the High Fives office to meet with Roy Tuscany and the crew and give the guys a soul deep high five in person for all they’d done for me.
I’ve always felt, and have expressed it before in the pages of this blog, that spaces take on the soul and energy of the people who inhabit them. In the case of the High Fives office, and the on site CR Johnson Healing Center, in a otherwise nondescript Truckee industrial park, this was a space of breathtaking love, commitment and positivity. The guys themselves felt like old friends, the kind of which you could not see for years and still feel as though no time has passed between you. They were kindred spirits who’d been carried through some heavy experiences by a deep passion for a beloved sport, and I felt honored to be part of the family.
The dynamism of Roy and the guys, Adam Baillargeon and Steve Wallace, and the Center itself, ran very deep. What they are doing there is in no small way of life changer, to be sure, but it’s also an important game changer. My connection with the place was rooted in the fact that what they’ve accomplished with the Foundation and the Healing Center, lines up directly with what my post injury life has been all about, and what I strongly feel is necessary for accelerated, successful, and sustainable long-term recoveries; complete access to physical therapy and a “back on the horse” facilitator like High Fives, where unfettered drive and imagination translate to limitless potential.
My own recovery was/is fueled by a will and athletic fortitude fused deep within my DNA, and while that’s endlessly important, it might’ve been worthless if I hadn’t had access to good physical therapy. In my case, I was fortunate, insurance covered not only 9 months of hard-core inpatient recreational, occupational and physical therapy, but an additional year of outpatient therapy once I was released from the rehab hospital. On top of that, I was blessed to work with an amazing sports medicine specialist at the local college, who helped me move even further beyond what was thought physically possible for someone with my level of injury; fusing my will and potential with expertise and environment.
But again, I was fortunate, because this is not the typical scenario for most people recovering from a catastrophic injury. In fact, it’s almost unheard of to find somebody who’s had 9 months of inpatient physical therapy, let alone three — no matter what the injury. Whether this is due to it not being considered important enough, insurance won’t cover that amount of time or somebody just doesn’t have the insurance to begin with, are all realities with the possibility for the same unfortunate consequence; limits.
And that’s where the Center steps in, and why it’s such a game changer, it picks up where the traditional medical institutions leave off, removing those aforementioned barriers by providing a space where expertise, equipment and environment intersect and can jettison one’s recovery into previously inconceivable directions. The participants at the Center are by and large already athletes who know the meaning of hard work to reach goals, so how incredible is it to have this drive fused with a place were those goals can be realized, regardless of whether or not insurance will cover it?
Being there with these new friends, in this magnificent memorial to their friend CR Johnson, surrounded by state-of-the-art rehab equipment, on site acupuncture, massage, training, and the vibes of so many changed and soon to be changed lives, was a profound experience. And as I said my goodbyes for the afternoon and got back in my van to head back to the hotel, I’m not going to lie, things got a little bit dusty.
You see, I’m forever in a state of wonderment over how things line up for me in this life, particularly the people in it. How I hooked up with Roy and the guys at High Fives is through series of seemingly random connections. And while I’d love to say it was purely chance how I happened to be skiing with someone who knew Roy and thought we’d have some things in common, while never saying anything specific about the foundation itself, I know better. Because the truth is, while skiing might’ve been at the heart of that particular afternoon’s connections, it wasn’t skiing that facilitated them, it was passion and a fearless openness to life. Skiing just happens to mix well!
Next up: Part 2; It’s all about the angles, kids. The mechanics and huevos of chasing vert in the bi-ski!