Having one’s head buried in sticky, Sierra cement snow, unable to breathe, after a heavy wipeout, isn’t generally what one would call a good ski moment. But here’s the thing, without that wipeout in the spring of 2010, my skiing trajectory wouldn’t have been the same, and my pursuit of the more extreme side of quad bi-skiing might’ve been a more convoluted path.
As it turned out, that wipeout led me to the introduction of an uber skilled ski partner, Brian Sheckler, who’s fearless commitment rivals my own, and the inspired Roy Tuscany, who’s High Fives organization has championed my out there ambitions. For me, there is no such thing as a good or bad session on the mountain, it’s all leading to something else. In this case, it led me from the dream of chasing vert to the execution of it again.
When I got back on the mountain in 2010, after missing the previous season due to an unsuccessful spinal surgery to arrest the progression of a syringomyelia related cyst/syrinx growing in my spinal column, I had no idea what to expect from my skiing. Was it going to be as it was? Would the chronic physical pain I was dealing with outweigh the joy? Would it be my last ski season? I just didn’t know.
That first day at Alpine Meadows was about as revelatory a ski experience as I’ve ever had. When I originally scheduled the half-day, I saw it as a day of testing, tweaking and experimenting, and It was as much about what my skiing would look like in the future as it was a trial run for the Superpipe at Northstar a couple of days later. In particular, I was anxious to see if the seat design I’d pursued all the way to Colorado could solve the all important issue of pressure, and keep my bony butt on the mountain for longer than 2 1/2 hours without skin breakdown.
And while I was pretty confident it could, you never know how these things will play out until you’re actually out there going through the motions with intense bumping, jarring and a few spills that could throw off body positioning and negate the offloading dynamic that makes the seating system so effective.
But by the end of that first session, everything I imagined that might be true while I sat in my ski in that Aspen Seating warehouse back in November; comfort, lack of pressure, lack of pain, security, balance, performance, turned out to be spot on. No, not spot on, better — ridiculously so. In fact, my butt looked better after a hard day of skiing — terrain park charging and all — than it did before I hit the mountain!
Typically when I schedule my trips to Tahoe, I schedule my skiing in a staggered manner; where I ski one day (half-day), stay off my butt the next to let it recover, and then hit the mountain again the following day for another session… and so on and so on, depending on the number of days I stay. Or at least that’s how I previously had to deal with my ski and travel weary butt.
Given the way things looked after that first session, however, I probably could’ve ditched that lay day spent in a Truckee hotel bed altogether, and just ate, slept and skied through the next 24 hours in my new ski and had pretty much the same results. Things looked that good.
But as revelatory as that first day of skiing proved to be, it was still just an orchestra warm-up next to what I wanted to accomplish. Sure, I was stoked with how things had turned out thus far and was frothing at what the future held, but the winter, and why was in Tahoe that week, was about chasing vert.
Of course, as many of you California skiers know, and I wrote about it ad nauseam this year, the winter of 2011-2012 didn’t make that particular pursuit easy, especially for a quadriplegic. Due to the lack of storms, maintaining and keeping open a 22 foot superpipe turned out to be a difficult task… or at least with any sort of consistency.
Still, if there was a week to throw down on some dates to ski, I really couldn’t have chosen better. We just had the dump of the season, something close to 8 feet, and the tweets I’d exchanged with the folks at Northstar who had some sway with the pipe, seemed pretty confident about its availability and were stoked to have me charge it.
But again, this was the wacky winter of ’11-12, and if it reinforced anything within me, it was the ridiculousness of having expectations. But just in case I hadn’t fully internalized this Mr. Miyagi-like Zen lesson, around 3 PM, while Natalia and I were relaxing watching the ski report on an endless loop, I got a call from Roy Tuscany over at High Fives with the news that, “due to technical reasons”, Northstar wouldn’t be able to have the pipe open for us.
Roy was disappointed, I could hear it in his voice — he was as stoked as I was about this goal of mine, and helping to facilitate it — but in his typical can-do way, he said he would try to find us another pipe open somewhere in Tahoe. Even still, I wanted to reassure him that, pipe or no pipe, everything was all good — I was in the mountains, I was with a dear friend, I’d just had a horizon expanding session, and the next day, vert or no vert, I’d be skiing a full day with him and the rest of the High Fives crew.
Now don’t misunderstand me, I was psyched to crush the pipe, and that “horizon expanding” session only served to reinforce that it was absolutely doable. But the thing is, one can only truly be bummed out about something when what one wants is incongruent with what is. Which is to say, when one’s agenda doesn’t line up with life’s. This is something I deeply understand —- with or without the Miyagi Zen lessons of detachment — things are exactly as they should be. And besides, Natalia let me know if I wasn’t going to be bummed about the pipe, she’d cover it for me. How’s that for love?
Hitting the green wall
Early Friday morning we awoke to a fresh dusting of snow and unseasonably cold bluebird skies. It was a beautiful day, and for a winter that had cemented it’s dubious snowfall legacy by what it didn’t deliver, rather than by what it did, the snow served up for us that morning was cold and fast, and almost comically un-March like. Things were so lined up, in fact, it would’ve been a real challenge to feel anything was missing; there were good friends, we had great snow and, unlike any bi-ski session I’d had up until that point, I had a full day pass clipped to my pants.
Usually when I ski, I do something called tether skiing. Which, if you’ve seen the videos, means my partner skis behind me, holding onto tethers about 6 feet back, keeping me from crashing into trees, other skiers and, to the best of his ability, from killing myself. When I ski banks, like those found in terrain parks, we take off the stabilizing outriggers (at the front of the ski), drop the tethers and do something called bucket skiing; where my partner grabs onto the back of my ski and has direct control over carving, leaning and sliding. Because of my lack of trunk and back muscles, there is no other way to maximize the bi-ski’s full turning ability without utilizing this technique.
From an independence, and downhill speed perspective (and let’s face it, adrenaline infused risk), I generally prefer tethering — it’s closer to pure skiing as I know it. But because I really like to push things, and I’m currently about chasing vert and beyond, I’m totally at peace with letting go of some of my control in exchange for where bucket skiing can take me.
But if I’m really going to break things down, I don’t see any of the skiing I do as a “compromise” or “letting go” of anything; bi-skiing as opposed to how I skied before my accident or bucket skiing as opposed to tethering, it’s just the way I ski. Bucketing or tethering are simply different means to different ends.
As a fairly high quadriplegic, if there’s anything I have a grasp of it’s that I need a little help from others with most everything I do; getting up in the morning, catheterizing, showering, exercising, cooking, going to bed at night, etc. Pushing the boundaries of what a quadriplegic like myself can do on a bi-ski is no exception. Assistance is just part of the gig.
The trick, of course, as with most things in my life, is finding the right folks who “complement” me. In this, I’ve been blessed that it’s always come fairly easily and with little effort. I’m forever grateful for the amazing people who are, and have been, part of my life. And while it’s indeed a mystery, to be sure, the serendipitous entry of the right people at the right time, it’s just the way things are, and hooking up with Brian in 2010 was no exception.
Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of great, talented tether masters/instructors at adaptive ski programs all around the world, and I’ve skied with a few of them, but I think one might be hard-pressed to find somebody who’s willing and able — or altogether comfortable — to go to the places I want to go.
This is an assumption, of course, and certainly not a slight on anyone, and indeed has a lot to do with the aforementioned serendipity, but Brian is one of those rare types whose pelotas (testicles for you non-Spanish speakers), and willingness to just f***in’ go for it, matches my own.
What makes him a perfect complement to my skiing, however, is that he also has the skills to assist me to the outer edges of my ambitions. Pelotas are great, they’ll take you far, but skill is how you manifest the creativity of your imagination into an actual experience.
So when I saw that inviting green wall in the terrain park that morning, and my skate DNA started tickling my imagination, it wasn’t a big surprise that Brian and I came to the same conclusion, “Let’s hit that!”. There was no question as to whether or not it was even possible; we’d go for it and sort it out in the doing. That lack of hesitation, that fearlessness, that confidence is something that’s at the very core of who I am, but it’s one thing when it comes from deep within oneself and quite another to have it shared.
By this I mean, I may be game for whatever, but it doesn’t necessarily mean my ski partner is. Which is neither good nor bad, but in order for me to push my limits, I need somebody who’s comfortable pushing their own. This is imperative, because quite frankly, at the end of the day, there’s more on the line for both of us as a team than there is individually… on so many levels.
As a terrain park feature, the wall presents some significant challenges for a bi-ski. Like most features in terrain parks, the wall feature comes from the street skate world, and is approached and ridden much in the same way, with two moves. The first being a kind of jump onto the wall (an Ollie), which is necessary due to the abrupt transition from horizontal to vertical, and the second a turn near or off the top.
In the snow, that first move is often less critical and abrupt than in skateboarding as the harshness of the transition is usually minimized by a gradual buildup of snow, but even still, there isn’t that smooth, rounded flowing transition you’d have with a quarter pipe or half pipe. And that, plus the difference in surface textures, is what makes the feature so unique and inviting — it still feels “street”. But it’s these two things which make it especially challenging for a bi-ski.
The transitions alone, both up onto the wall and off it, are harsh and jarring on my body, and require a lot of speed to execute. The bi-ski is heavy and any sort of jump onto the wall to initiate the climb is impossible. That first transitionary move all comes down to approach speed, the flex of the skis and the strength of my partner to huck me and the ski up the wall. But that’s just the preamble — the thing before the thing, if you will — it’s the second move, the wall ride itself, where things get interesting.
In order for a bi-ski to turn or carve, the parabolic shape of the skis need to dig their edges into some snow; ideally cold, fast, freshly groomed snow. A wall feature is constructed out of hard plastic and thus there’s no way for the skis to engage their edges, making it more of a controlled slide on the flats of the skis than a turn (a controlled slide on a near vertical wall, that is). Of course, this presents additional challenges for my partner, as we both have to get up the wall, slide a turn across the top and get down again before going over the opposite side. As a one move feature, the wall has an exceptionally small playing field for a bi-ski.
So our first crack at it was just to see if we could make it over the transitionary angle and gauge how much speed we’d need to get to the top. And while that initial run was jarring, to be sure, we got up about three quarters with no problem and had a decent amount of room to spare on the way down to avoid killing ourselves.
The ride back up the lift felt eternal. We were stoked with what we’d just done, but we knew it was nothing compared to what we wanted to do the next time through the park. In fact, it was really nothing more than a taste — a great taste, yeah — but now I was jonesing for the real thing. We’d proved it was doable, now it was time to get creative.
On our second attempt, we started further away, got more speed and hit the wall as close to the left-hand edge as possible to give us more room at the top for a slide across the coping. Up to this point, I had no idea how Brian was doing what he was doing, controlling my ski as well as his own, not on snow, but a near vertical plastic wall.
For my part, there’s no question I had to be willing to throw caution to the wind and go for something where there was no precedent or roadmap — there’s no ride without this — but so did Brian. And he had to have the skill, creativity, as well as the balls, to take the speculative and bring it into reality for both of us. This was some pretty mind blowing skiing.
As to the sensations of how it felt to get close to vert again, to slide along coping and feel that momentary sense of weightlessness, well, in a word, it was epic. Without a doubt. And while it wasn’t exactly what I set out to accomplish last winter — I’ll be on that again this year — it was pretty damn close, and about as satisfying a runner-up as I could’ve imagined.
But I’d be lying if I said it sated my appetite for pushing the envelope of my skiing. Quite the contrary. Rather it only served to further fuel my desire to find out what was possible for a high quadriplegic bi-skier like myself, to really see where the boundaries are, if there are any at all. For my own benefit as well as that of others.
Whether or not I’m the first quadriplegic to bi-ski a wall feature, I don’t know, and it doesn’t really matter. In my mind originality can be misunderstood, and it’s often mistaken for the tail that wags the dog. What I love about originality, is not originality for originality’s sake, but how it endlessly expands our collective imagination. How it opens the doors of possibility and inspires people to see things in a whole new way, and how it liberates people to stand on each others’ shoulders and reach new heights that were previously deemed inconceivable or unimaginable.
So, yeah, through this perspective, originality, my own and that of others, has gotten me to where I am today — in life, skiing or otherwise — and taken me places I never would’ve expected. But if I’m ever lucky enough to do anything that resembles the above type of catalyst, awesome, bring on that particular spark of creativity and unleash the possibilities of stimulated, inspired imagination!
Crown Vic-ed: an epilogue (of sorts)
Just as dialing in my surf, ski and skateboarding equipment to maximize performance was an obsession for me before my accident, bi-skiing has been no different. From the beginning, I’ve been trying to find/figure out what kind of ski/tweaks would work best for somebody with my particular disability — a fairly high quad who tethers — and who wants to push the edges of what’s possible on a bi-ski.
Mono-skiers have it made, the equipment is beautiful, high-tech and ever evolving. And I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was envious and a little bit frustrated by the discrepancy in the two systems. I understand why this is, it’s an end use numbers equation; small production runs and the use of high-tech parts and materials make these expensive pieces of equipment to manufacture.
Mono-skis are marketed to skiers who can use them independently, and, like ultralight sports chairs, are designed exclusively with performance in mind. Bi-skis, on the other hand, start from a stability perspective and are meant to accommodate a wide range of abilities, and are mostly to be used with some sort of highly trained assistance i.e. it’s a team endeavor.
Like I said, this makes sense — in design you have to make choices — but it doesn’t mean there isn’t a market for something that combines the best of both these worlds and isn’t a compromise of either, and that there aren’t skiers out there like myself who’d be stoked to ride such equipment.
But the fact remained, until this past spring (see the photo and link below for the HOC Glide), this type bi-ski just didn’t exist. And it came down to the simple understanding, that if I wanted to ride something like the ski in my imagination, then I was going to have to create it myself.
And so a year and a half ago, I Frankensteined something together, starting first with what I figured was the most important part, the seating, dialing that in, and then tweaking a stock Mountain Man ski to better suit my own particular needs. And for the most part, it was a pretty successful endeavor — I felt much better on the mountain than I ever had before.
The ski still rode fairly heavy and tight like a typical Mountain Man, but there was only so much I could do with a stock frame and unmodifiable parts. And while my modifications weren’t the ultimate solution by any means, or the ski I’ve always envisioned in my mind, for a Ford Crown Vic style of a ski, I turned it from a company luxury cruiser to a moderately tweaked cop car… and for a big, chunky Mountain Man bi-ski, that’s really saying something.
Let it snow!
I don’t want to seem like a Berkeley wingnut or anything, but I think these guys have figured out a way to tap into my imagination, because this ski looks scarily similar to the bi-ski of my dreams!. Just saying. Coincidence? :)