If there’s any place on earth where it would be most unlikely to find a C 4-5 quadriplegic, then it’s where I was, on March 6th, 2014, balanced atop the equipment basket of an A-Star helicopter on a snow-covered Alaskan peak named JJ’s shoulder.
With the blades spinning ominously overhead, my arms were gripped tightly by two friends, my legs by another, as we visually counted down to our next synchronous move away from the heli and into my bi-ski.
The chill that had taken up residence deep within me now competed with a grom-like nervous energy I hadn’t experienced in decades, as I was minutes away from dropping in on one of the steepest and deepest lines my good friend/ski partner Brian Sheckler and I had ever attempted together.
Seeded in the days just after my accident, when that first neurosurgeon stood by my hospital bed and dispassionately told me, “You’ll never walk again” — perhaps the most sobering, impactful words a newly spinal cord injured individual will ever hear — Alaska was a moment pulled into reality by the gravity of 34 years of audacious dreaming.
I’d seen moments like it unfold countless times. Mostly I’d be skiing as I had before my accident — with unfettered abandon — dropping off cornices, threading couloirs and carving fresh tracks in deep, untouched snow. What was never in my dreams was how this day would actually look.
There was no bi-ski, no five-point harness pulled so tight it often made breathing difficult, no concern for pressure sores or bone-chilling cold, no High Fives Foundation, and no Brian. None of the things that makes my skiing now as a quadriplegic so challenging, different, creative, and rewarding.
Aside from lots of powder and that holy shit feeling of “Yes!”, the narratives didn’t quite line up. Which was a beautiful incongruity to experience, because my dreams were never about how I was skiing, only that I was skiing.
In 2013, after Brian and I skied the Squaw Valley Superpipe, my buddy Roy Tuscany, who’s vital High Fives Foundation has championed my out there skiing ambitions since day one, asked me, “So, what do you want to do next?”
Without hesitation I replied, “Heli-ski Alaska.”
Just two days earlier — for the first time since my accident — I’d scored powder and it was a complete revelation. Not only did it disprove false entrenched ideas about the limitations of the type of ski I use (bi-ski), but combined with the weightless sensations of getting vert again in the pipe, it felt as though my skiing had come full circle.
Still, it’s one thing to ski powder laps at a local resort and quite another in the backcountry of Alaska (leaving out the whole quadriplegic thing entirely). And while my response was in part stoke-fueled, comedic braggadocio, it sprung from an honest place deep inside me where dreams such as that had been gestating since breaking my neck.
Naive or ridiculously bold as it might’ve come across to most people, Roy just smiled, laughed and without a bit of doubt, hesitation or placation said, “Let’s make it happen.”
At the Anchorage airport, awaiting our connecting flights back to California, my stoked, skied-out crew; Brian, Travis, Conor and I, were laughing and reminiscing about the week’s events. A knowing grin crossed Conor’s face, as he said, “Dudes, we just did something nobody else in ski history has done before.”
It was a strange moment, because, while it was true — I was indeed the first quadriplegic to heli-ski that zone — it wasn’t something any of us thought about previously. At least, not since the planning stages of the trip with High Fives and Points North, when it became clear there would be no roadmap for what we wanted to do. It would metaphorically and literally come down to hucking ourselves over some edges and seeing where things ended up.
Mainly — and this sounds like a quote from a Warren Miller movie — it was all about the love of skiing and scoring epic pow with friends. Don’t get me wrong — I’m not being dismissive or modest about what we accomplished. While it might be one of the most unconventional and smallest footnotes in skiing’s first descent history, it could be significant in terms of what it might mean to other skiers with a disability like mine, as well as heli-ski operations. They now have a roadmap.
That said, what I found most powerful about Conor’s observation — it resonates with me still — is that he said we. Not you. Not Tony. Not first quadriplegic. But we just did something. And that, for me, is what my skiing is all about; collaboration.
One of the most unexpected gifts that came along with my accident is that my life is inextricably and intimately linked to others, and skiing is a mirroring of this. As a quadriplegic, both living independently and skiing come down to a lot of the right people and pieces lining up.
In the same way I wouldn’t be able to get out of bed in the morning, shower, pee or eat without the assistance of someone like my best friend Travis or other attendants, I don’t ski, let alone heli-ski, without the help of others. I ski because others want to help me ski, and any dreams I may have had — or still have — while starting with me, are manifest through friendship and one simple word; yes.
God knows, in countless dizzying states of gratitude, I’ve tried to tug on the threads which led to the events and people that made it possible (I was even doing it on a 5000 foot peak while being fed a frozen tomato sandwich, overlooking ancient, winding glaciers), but it really was that rare aligning of stars; both large and small.
If Roy and High Fives don’t believe in, facilitate or fund our team in this very expensive pursuit, it all ends there. If I don’t have a partner like Brian, with not only the skills to ski in such an extreme manner but able to let go of the responsibility of me getting hurt, we don’t pursue the edges of impossibility. If Points North isn’t willing to take a chance on a quadriplegic skier, we don’t get out into the Chugach pow. If my friend Jack, a technical wizard, doesn’t devote hours of his time dialing in my ski, I don’t have the necessary equipment. If I don’t have a committed, trustworthy attendant like Travis, I don’t get in a wheelchair let alone a bi-ski. And finally, if mother nature doesn’t deliver with both snow and sunshine (in a season where that was entirely likely), well, it’s a trip to Alaska, sure, but not a powder skiing trip to Alaska.
I’ve given it a lot of thought as to why — at this point in my life — skiing has the kind of resonance it does. There’s no question I broke my neck at a time when sports like this literally meant everything to me, so there’s a profound visceral familiarity in all the sensations; speed, adrenaline, risk versus reward, fun, stoke, camaraderie… it just feels like me.
Returning to skiing — with the opportunity to push boundaries, my potential and creativity, and be part of a crew of amazing people who just want to help a brother ski the epic lines of a lifetime every time he’s on the mountain — feels like a gift.
And as with all gifts in my life, I hold it with very loose hands, understanding that what makes it so special is that one day I won’t be able to do it.
So, yeah, this is a “dreams come true” kind of story, but of the “if you build it, tell High Fives and your friends, and they will come” variety. Because the currency of dreams is worthless if you stay asleep. Their real value can be monetized only if you wake up and start to live. And even then, they can only buy potential. But that’s a start, and to start anywhere is the potential to go everywhere.
What’s the most unlikely place to find a quadriplegic? Not the Chugach. Not anymore.
Showcasing the unlimited potential of the human spirit and friendship, The Edge Of Impossible follows High Fives Foundation athlete Tony Schmiesing’s journey to become the first quadriplegic to heli-ski the backcountry of the Chugach Mountain Range in Alaska; the Mecca of the extreme freeskiing world. Without precedent or roadmap, and pushing the boundaries of what was previously thought possible for a disabled skier, Tony, High Fives, Points North and his team embark on a first descent project unlike any other.
Check out the film at:
Director/Editor: Conor Toumarkine
Producer: Roy Tuscany/High Fives Foundation
Principles: Tony Schmiesing, Brian Sheckler, Travis Callison, Duncan Sisson