Steep, deep, brave: Injured skiers conquer
Jackson Hole Mountain Resort and Teton Adaptive Sports host extreme ski experience.
Steve Ellefson of Calgary, Alberta, explains how his mono-ski works to Jackson Hole Mountain Resort ski school kids Saturday while waiting at the base of the Aerial Tram. Ellefson, who is paralyzed from the waist down, has attended the Teton Adaptive Sports Adaptive Steep and Deep camp for the past four years. BRADLY J. BONER / NEWS&GUIDEView our entire photo gallery >>
By Turner Resor, Jackson Hole, Wyo.
March 6, 2013
Joel Berman was riding up the Sublette chairlift at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort when he and his ski companions made an interesting observation.
“We realized that between the three of us we have two good legs, three skis, four stumps, five balls, and six outriggers,” Berman said with a laugh. “We also realized that we all have something else in common: We all love to ski.”
Berman is the executive director and co-founder of Adaptive Adventures, an organization based in Wilmette, Ill., that strives to “improve the quality of life of individuals with disabilities, through year-round adaptive sports and recreation programs.”
In 1981, Berman was in an accident that led to the amputation of his left leg above the knee.
Last week Adaptive Adventures teamed up with Teton Adaptive Sports and Jackson Hole Mountain Resort to host the fifth annual Adaptive Steep and Deep camp.
The camp, which ran for four days, concurrent with the resort’s Steep and Deep camp for able-bodied skiers, was created so that adaptive skiers can build confidence, strength and independence on a mountain internationally renowned for its difficult terrain. Skiers at the Adaptive Steep and Deep camp are even given the chance to ski out of bounds in the mountain’s backcountry.
“We want to offer people the opportunity to take their skiing to any level they choose and to offer an opportunity to get off piste,” said Kurt Henry, executive director and co-founder of Teton Adaptive Sports.
Such camps that emphasize intermediate to advanced all-mountain skiing are rare.
“When we pioneered these camps, there were a lot of beginning programs and a lot of racing camps, but not a lot of programs like this one that caters to intermediate and advanced adaptive skiers,” said Berman, who has worked with Henry to make the adaptive ski world a more inclusive place. Their success could be noted in the number and variety of skiers in attendance last week.
Early each morning, 14 camp skiers rendezvoused with instructors and volunteers at the Bridger Center to organize and prepare for a full day of skiing. The group included five Wounded Warriors and several international skiers, some coming from as far away as Denmark and Ireland.
There were two-trekkers, three-trekkers and mono-skiers — skiers who can stand, need the help of outriggers or need to sit in their gear — as well as visually impaired skiers. For some it was their first time at the camp. Others, such as blind skier Paul Schafer, have been coming since 2009.
Schafer is from northern Virginia and has been skiing for 18 years. With local ski guide Patrick Wright tapping his poles to create a sound Schafer could follow, the two skiers took on some of the mountain’s most daunting terrain, such as Tower Three, Casper Bowl and the Expert Chutes.
“He won’t get airborne and won’t drop cliffs,” Wright said, “but otherwise he will ski about everything.”
“We haven’t hit any slow signs yet,” Schafer joked.
Like Schafer and Wright, many of the adaptive skiers are drawn to the upper mountain. It’s appealing not only for its steep terrain but it also provides access to the Thunder and Sublette lifts, where mono-skiers can lap runs most easily.
A mono-ski is a single ski attached by a high-tech shock system to a plastic bucket seat. In addition to the single ski, mono-skiers use two outriggers — poles attached to miniature skis — to help them carve turns and keep their bucket seats upright. Mono-skis are often used by those who have suffered a spinal cord injury. Others, such as Steep and Deep camper Daniel Riley, use a mono-ski because they have lost both legs.
Riley is a Marine from Boulder, Colo., who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. On Dec. 16, 2010, Riley stepped on an improvised explosive device. The explosion took both of his legs and several fingers.
“The recreational therapist from the Navy suggested that I go skiing,” said Riley. “Skiing was and is my rehab.”
This was Riley’s first Adaptive Steep and Deep camp, and he was taking advantage of being in Jackson to improve his mono-skiing.
On the second day of the camp, Riley approached a steep and rocky run known as the Downhill Chute. The chute is one of the most difficult runs on the mountain and is bordered by cliffs on both sides.
“This is by far the most challenging terrain I have skied to date,” Riley said as he looked into the couloir from above.
Moments later, Riley was raising his personal bar, threading quick, sharp turns through the rocks and ice and out into the lower Cirque. Watching the young Marine ski, it was evident that he is no stranger to adversity. Without stopping for a second, Riley continued down the mountain, catching air off of a terrain feature into Lower Amphitheater.
For many of the adaptive skiers it is only the hardware and the perception of disability that separates them from their able-bodied counterparts in the other Steep and Deep camp. Otherwise, they are able to ski runs of the same difficulty at the same speed — if not faster.
Berman considers the equality of the sport to be one of the reasons why skiing is so great, especially for the adaptive community.
“Skiing is skiing,” he said, “and when we are on the mountain we are all equal. Skiing is unique that way.”
Mono-skier Steve Ellefson might be an exception to that rule in that, able-bodied or adaptive, it is difficult for any skier to keep up with him.
Ellefson is from Calgary, Alberta, and was partially paralyzed in a motorcycle accident in 1978 at age 23. Since then, he has found mono-skiing to be “hugely therapeutic.”
“When you start focusing on the things you can do rather than the things you can’t, life is fun again,” Ellefson said between runs on Thunder.
Ellefson has been coming to the Adaptive Steep and Deep camp since the beginning. He is admired for both his skiing ability and for his attitude by the other adaptive skiers and camp staffers.
Berman has had the pleasure of watching Ellefson improve as a mono-skier over the course of the previous four Adaptive Steep and Deep camps.
“Steve showed up on vacation during the camp’s first year and feared that he couldn’t do the camp,” Berman recalled. “Since then he has gone from the guy who you were waiting for to the guy who you can’t keep up with.”
Adaptive skiers such as Ellefson and event organizers such as Berman enjoy returning to Jackson year after year, not only for the quality of the terrain, but also for the way the resort accommodates the needs of the adaptive community.
Jackson Hole Mountain Resort is one of the only mountain resorts to allow mono-skiers to ride more challenging lifts such as the Bridger Gondola and the Aerial Tram. Not only is full-mountain access allowed, it is encouraged by mountain employees and lift attendants who work to make an adaptive ski day as easy as possible.
“We couldn’t do it without the support of Jackson Hole Mountain Resort,” said Henry, the program director.
In addition to helping the skiers physically, the resort and many of the lodging properties at the base give adaptive skiers a discount.
As the camp looks to the future, some ideas include mixing advanced Adaptive Steep and Deep campers with the able-bodied group and attracting more skiers from the community of Wounded Warriors.
Above all, Henry and Berman look forward to continuing their work with the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort to expand opportunities for the adaptive ski community.