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Skiers with Very Particular challenges

post #1 of 13
Thread Starter 
(from today's LA Times, Column One)

By Steve Hymon, Times Staff Writer

ALPINE MEADOWS, Calif. — The sky is a brilliant blue, the ski runs are freshly groomed and there's a prosthetic leg — no person attached — planted in the snow by the lift.

The fake limb belongs to Eric Taylor, 34. He is schussing quickly down the mountain on his good leg, happy not to bother with his artificial one. It just gets in the way.

And then Taylor wipes out. Big-time. It's a yard sale, in the language of skiers. A small cornice of snow clings to a nostril after he rises. He dusts off the snow and resumes carving his way down the mountain.

Once the domain of able-bodied skiers, the mountains now draw more and more disabled people like Taylor. They not only can ski — they often can ski well.

The list of those hitting the slopes includes multiple amputees, quadriplegics, the deaf, the blind and those with Down's syndrome, muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis and cerebral palsy.

"Sometimes I'm asked the question, 'Isn't it risky?' " says Doug Pringle, director of the Tahoe Adaptive Ski School, where Taylor serves as a volunteer. "I tell people there's dignity in risk. Everyone has to learn to fall down and get back up again."

Taylor has spent much of his life falling down and getting up.

Neurofibromatosis caused tumors to smother the nerve endings in his lower right leg. When he was 3, doctors amputated below the knee to save the remainder of the leg.

It didn't scare him away from skiing, a sport his parents loved. Initially, he skied with his prosthesis. But there were awkward moments. Several years ago, his artificial leg fell off while he was riding a lift. On another occasion, a violent crash rotated his prosthesis 180 degrees. When members of the ski patrol arrived, they found — to their horror — a downed skier whose foot was pointing backward.

"I told them, 'Just give me an Allen wrench and I can fix it,' " recalls Taylor. "They thought I was in severe shock."

Taylor tells these stories to a reporter between runs down a well-pitched slope at Alpine Meadows, with Lake Tahoe shimmering in the distance. It quickly becomes apparent that Taylor is a fine skier. Although he uses only one ski, two poles with short skis on the bottom help him stay balanced.

The more he skis, the more apparent it becomes that he is fearless, competitive and, as his occasional wipeouts prove, very resilient. An hour later, when Taylor and the reporter part ways, he quips: "It's nice to finally ski with someone who can keep up with me."

The ski industry has for years performed a collective face-plant trying to persuade more able-bodied people to take up the sport. The number of skiers and snowboarders has remained between 12 million and 13 million for 15 years, according to industry estimates.

A 1999 survey by Snowsports Industries America, a trade group that represents equipment makers, found several reasons for the lack of growth. The No. 1 reason people gave was that they had no one to ski with. Reasons 2 through 5 all had to do with fear of falling.

Devoted disabled skiers seem to have no such fear.

At least 11 million severely disabled people live in the United States, according to the National Institutes of Health. No definitive statistics are kept on how many ski or snowboard, but ski schools serving the disabled across the West report that the number is at least 10,000 and rising steadily.

Skiing by the disabled began after World War II, as soldiers returned home missing limbs just as ski resorts were beginning to flourish. But the sport didn't really take off until the Vietnam War, when disabled young veterans found solace on the slopes.

Some of those soldiers formed the first nonprofit ski schools in the nation. Those vets "were the apostles," said Pringle, who took up and later promoted adaptive skiing after losing part of a leg in Vietnam.

As more adaptive equipment was developed, more disabled people learned to ski. The Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990 helped remove some of the last barriers to the slopes by making it clear that resorts had to accommodate anyone interested in learning to ski.

The technology has improved with time — although it isn't necessarily complex. Sometimes the equipment is as simple as poles with skis or a harness that attaches an instructor to a student.

Sometimes it's a matter of technique, not technology. Skilled blind skiers negotiate mountains — and even race — by schussing several feet in front of or behind a guide who shouts instructions such as "right turn!" "drop!" or "stop now!"

On a crisp February morning, five students of varying skill levels gather at the Tahoe Adaptive Ski School. They will do their share — and then some — of falling and crashing.

Beth Jones, 13, of Orinda wears a helmet and goggles and sits in a mono-ski, a chair attached to a single ski. She is quiet and determined.

She also skis fast — sometimes too fast.

"Right turn! Right turn!" screams her instructor, but Beth is not leaning far enough to the side to execute the turn.

Instead, in a NASCAR moment, she smacks into a snowbank and performs a half-flip. She comes to rest on her side on top of the snowbank, still strapped into the ski and peering down into a gully.

"OK," she says, smiling.

Beth was born with spina bifida, which prevents the spine from fully developing. She can't walk.

Later at lunch, she sits in her wheelchair with her family and indulges in a time-honored ski tradition: She brags about her crash.

Another student is Jack Tuchman, a 7-year-old with curly blond hair. The boy has never spoken a word, although his hearing is good.

No one knows exactly what's wrong with Jack, says his mother, Daren Tuchman, 39, of Menlo Park. Doctors say an acute developmental disorder impaired his ability to learn and communicate. But, despite years of trying, they have been unable to diagnose the exact problem.

Jack's mother, a lifelong skier, made the decision long ago that her three children would also ski — Jack included.

An instructor at the school puts Jack in a harness and binds the tips of his skis together — to keep him from going splay-legged. A few moments later, he's skiing at a modest clip.

Jack claps as he skis. He seems to like it. He's in mid-clap when he takes a minor spill.

"Part of Jack's disability is that he doesn't understand his own limitations," says Tuchman. "I know this isn't risk-free. But maybe that's why he is stimulated by it — because he knows he can fall."

Many disabled skiers take up the sport to give their supposed limits a shove.

"Maybe in the past people said, 'Be happy you're alive,' but the prevailing attitude is, there is no reason to hold back," said Brian Davis, an assistant professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at UC Davis.

Davis and other doctors say that the biggest risk for disabled people today is to do nothing. Heart disease is a major risk for inactive people, as is depression, especially after catastrophic injuries.

"If everything you love is taken away, what does that do to you?" asks KelLe Malkewitz, executive director of the United States Adaptive Recreation Center in Big Bear.

Some disabled people have found that their handicaps were not as limiting as they had imagined.

"Look, I consider myself to be an able-bodied person," says Jenny Zimmer, 18, of Pleasanton, who has cerebral palsy and aspires to race competitively as a disabled skier.

"I want to be treated like everybody else," she adds, as she clambers out of her wheelchair and stands on her knees while wrestling on a sweater. "Cerebral palsy is not a bad thing. It's a challenge, that's all."

At Zimmer's first ski lesson five years ago, the instructor sat her down and tried to give her an inspirational talk.

"I finally told him to shut up, I wanted to ski," she says.


In 1968, Doug Pringle was two hours into a firefight with the Viet Cong in the Mekong Delta when a rocket-propelled grenade sheared off his right leg just below the knee.

Pringle survived an emergency operation and spent the next 18 months at the veterans hospital at the Presidio in San Francisco, enduring numerous "stump repair" surgeries.

Then, one day, some disabled veterans arrived at the VA with a home movie of amputees skiing. When the film ended, they asked: Who wants to try?

Pringle declined. His one stab at skiing on two legs before the war had been a disaster.

"So, some guys went up and came back and said it was great: 'We got drunk, and there were women,' " recalls Pringle. "I said, 'Sign me up.' "

Pringle and other disabled vets became amputee ski bums, traveling to the Donner Summit resorts in the Sierra Nevada nearly every weekend.

Some resorts balked, citing safety concerns. In the 1990s, a group of disabled people took Squaw Valley to court, pressing the giant Tahoe resort to allow wheelchairs on the gondola serving a mid-mountain ski lodge.

In addition, they argued that the resort was in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, because the lodge couldn't be navigated with wheelchairs.

Squaw Valley settled the suit, agreeing to modify the lodge and open its mountain to disabled skiers at a steeply discounted price. The improvements cost more than $1 million. Today, all ski resorts must be handicapped-accessible and offer adaptive lessons. Most of those lessons are provided by nonprofit schools.

Money remains an issue. The Tahoe Adaptive school, for example, relies on a bingo hall for about half its budget, or $470,000 in 2002.

But Indian gaming has taken a bite out of the bingo business. In the future, Pringle says, they'll probably have to look elsewhere for money.


In 1982, Mark Wellman, 43, of Truckee, was paralyzed in a climbing accident. In 1989, he became the first paraplegic to climb the more than 3,000-foot vertical face of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. Using special gear, he essentially pulled himself up his climbing rope with his arms.

At Alpine Meadows, Wellman is skiing with a friend, Jon Arnow, 47, a Reno physician whose legs were left partially paralyzed when he broke his back while skiing in 2002.

Although Wellman and Arnow need some help getting their equipment to the slopes, once on the snow, both are self-reliant. They wait in line for lifts sitting on their spring-loaded mono-skis, balancing with their poles, "hopping" aboard as the lift comes around. On the way down, after spills, they rely heavily on arm strength — or sometimes a helping hand — to get up.

At the top of the Roundhouse lift, Wellman says something about "skiing the rough stuff" as he and Arnow veer off trail, down a steep hill laden with trees and bumps.

They look like two guys who have hurled themselves off a cliff in chairs.

"I can't run. I can't walk well. I can't ski upright. There's a lot I can't do," Arnow said later. But he was a proficient skier before his accident, and he clearly hasn't lost the knack.

"Skiing was like breathing for me," he said. "And it still is."

[ March 16, 2004, 07:37 AM: Message edited by: ryan ]
post #2 of 13
Just want to let you know about the wonderful opportunity I had this past Sunday. I was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time.

I skied up to our Mountiain Information Booth at Okemo just as George a Blind Skier and his guide whom is also an Ambassador were looking for a third person to ski with them. They ask'd if I'd like to ski with them. I jumped at the chance.

We skied for 2 1/2 hours together. It was the best time I've had all season. George was amazing. He kept wanting to go first. He could see dark shadow's and could follow someone who was wearing dark clothing. We just had to make sure he followed the right person. When the slopes were crowded the other Ambassador would lead I would follow.

When ever we could we would let him go first. We would ski behind him and to either side just in case he got to close to the edge.

I wish you all could feel the joy it gave me to be part of his day.
post #3 of 13
Ryan, I have been involved in disabled skiing for years. My ski coach stepped on a land mine in Vietnam. He taught me everthing I know.
The base area at Winter Park is littered with wheel chairs and prostheses. There really is no better feeling than flying down a mountain on skis. It's better than walking.
post #4 of 13
There's no better feeling...

post #5 of 13
Thread Starter 
i'm reminded of the one-legged skier i saw a few years ago at whistler, on the dave murray downhill course. this guy was FLYING and the turns were impeccable.

it was quite awesome and beyond inspiring.

also, another whistler guy, from the film SKI BUMS, comes to mind. he was cleaning condos for a long time, then sold the business so he could finally ski. race, to be specific. the sequence when he recalls the accident that cost him his leg, with his father a witness, is particularly sobering. but, again, it really puts things in perspective.

every day i've skied, i've thanked The Power What Be for the opportunity and great fortune.
post #6 of 13
A good friend of mine snowboards, rollerblades etc, all with a prosthetic leg. Doesn't stop him any!
post #7 of 13
Funny, a climber guy on TV today had lost both lower legs and both hands after getting trapped for five days on a ridge in a bad storm. His buddy died.
He says he skis better than he did before and ice climbs with ice picks for protheses. Also rock climbs without protheses and doesn't use them in daily life.

And, a completely blind skier showed up a level three early morning training class by carving faster down the same run and in better style than we skied it with just commands to turn left and right.

These people are awesome and so welcome, I hope! :
post #8 of 13
Originally posted by Nettie:
Funny, a climber guy on TV today had lost both lower legs and both hands after getting trapped for five days on a ridge in a bad storm. His buddy died.
He says he skis better than he did before and ice climbs with ice picks for protheses. Also rock climbs without protheses and doesn't use them in daily life.

And, a completely blind skier showed up a level three early morning training class by carving faster down the same run and in better style than we skied it with just commands to turn left and right.

These people are awesome and so welcome, I hope! :
Sounds like Paul Dibello, who runs the Winter Park Disabled Ski Team.
post #9 of 13
Originally posted by Brokedown Palace:
Sounds like Paul Dibello, who runs the Winter Park Disabled Ski Team.
This guy is Jamie Andrew, 30 and Scottish.

Otherwise, another dang good reason for not moutaineering!
post #10 of 13
Ryan ..

Thanks for taking the time to post this stuff. You sound like a person who gives a darn in a "me first" world. Kind of a breath of fresh air when I get negged-out.
post #11 of 13
These guys give new meaning to the word determination. Thanks for those stories Ryan.
post #12 of 13
Just a couple of thoughts on adaptive skiers.

First,it's not our adaptive brethren that are disabled, it's those of us who think that ahtletic activities may be outside of their world. It's been my experience over the last fifteen seasons, that if you really want to have a good time skiing, then invite some of your disabled friends to go with you. They'll really show you a great time and how it's done.

There is an infallible spirit to succeed within these folks. Fun is the name of the game, while
determination, perserverance, and a never say never attitude prevails.

The next time you see a group of disabled skiers skiing together, I would like you to remember the following quote from Ellen Post Foster's book, Skiing and the Art of Carving, by Mikhail Baryshnikov:

"One goes out onstage with a well-prepared technique, a knowlede of how to present that technique in its most refined form. But beyond that, what counts is the ability to be free on the stage, to dance."

I think that says it all.

For those of you,who ski at Alpine Meadows, please say hello to my friend Doug Pringle.

whtmt & Mackenzie 911
post #13 of 13
Thanks Ryan , a touch of reality does us all good , the handicapped need alot more co-operation than is often received . This something that I take to heart as my closest brother that I spent every waking hour with broke his neck the summer I left home 23 years ago. What this also should tell some people is that they are not twelve feet tall and bullet proof (this is not a shot at anybody other than those who take risks without having knowledge of what their getting into), get the training ,wear the gear and know your limits....... you only have one body.
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