Big-mountain lines and backcountry booters are the new face of adaptive skiing
For most skiers, the thought of not being able to ski again is terrifying. Ankles and knees, the articulating joints that allow you to slide down the mountain, are too often taken for granted—until the reality check of a bone break or ligament tear. Missing a season to injury over a career is in the cards for many a core skier, an unfortunate yet necessary respite that allows both body and ego to recover. But not much changes; you move on, wiser, sometimes fitter, a bit more careful, but basically skiing as you had. When you suffer a paralysing spinal injury while skiing, however, nothing is ever the same. Your day-to-day landscape is forever changed, the horizon tilted, everything a chore. Yet, for some, finding their way back to skiing is the motivation to overcome all the associated challenges. And they are again skiing… albeit differently. A few quite differently.
In what is still very much a niche community, adaptive sitski programs have slowly built a generation of athletes who are skiing faster, jumping higher and shredding more pow than ever before. No longer simply a token means for disabled sliders to get back on the mountain, sitskiing is a bona fide genre, its athletes at a turning point.
“I hope this is a catalyst that opens the door to a variety of different venues for skiers to be skiers,” says sitski Paralympian and vert-chasing celebrity Josh “Dewey” Dueck. “The way I see it right now, it’s similar to what skiing looked like in the late ’90s when the New Canadian Air Force was gaining popularity and twin-tips were coming out. Our community of sitskiers is much smaller, so I don’t expect the explosion will be quite as big. But I have a feeling it will take a similar trajectory.”
There’s an air of quiet excitement in the snowcat where I sit next to 31-year-old Dueck, who’s enjoying the friendly banter-slinging across the cabin as we rumble up Powder Mountain towards Vinnie’s Bowl. Photographer Paul Morrison sits quietly in the corner, smiling out the window at the blue sky he gets to work with today. Myles Ricketts, an Oakley field rep who coached freestyle with Dewey for years, jibes his old pal about his questionable ability to get out of bed in the morning. Blair Richmond from Switchback Entertainment has his feet propped on several backpacks full of filming equipment. If, as planned, Dewey pulls off the world’s first sitski backflip on this February day, the cat’s occupants will be among the lucky few to see it first-hand.
Dewey recalls the first of his many intimidating sitski jump experiences, exactly one year to the day after breaking his back when he overshot a landing in the terrain park at Vernon, B.C.’s Silverstar Resort. With his wife, Lacy, and friends, Mark Abma, Myles Ricketts, and Kristi Richards, he’d returned to the jump that had crippled him.
“We literally go over there [to the air site] just to have a moment of peace, just to kind of reflect on the year that has passed and what’s changed,” he relates. “Then I’m like: ‘Fuck it, boys. Pull the bamboo!’”
With some disbelief, his friends obliged, and Dewey launched himself off the very jump that changed his life. With a stuck outrigger, he cased the first attempt and tomahawked down the landing, but quickly got a push back up the in-run and landed the following two attempts.
“Given how close we were as a group of friends, they knew I was doing it for no other reason than I was ready to jump.”
That was seven years ago. Since then, Dewey has stormed the world of Para-alpine racing, earning gold at the 2009 Downhill World Championships, gold at the Mono-Skiercross at 2011 X Games, and a silver medal at the 2010 Paralympic Games in Whistler.
“I’m better at skiing powder than I am at racing—at least, I enjoy it more,” says the always humble Dewey. “But there are not many ways you can get the thrill of going 130 kilometres an hour in a bucket.”
Speed is incredibly addictive, but so is powder. Dewey still races for the Canadian Para-alpine team, with a string of formidable results, but has begun to focus more on freeriding when not on the race circuit. The footage that Dewey and Switchback Entertainment put together at Chatter Creek Snowcats in 2011 for their multi-award-winning film, The Freedom Chair, got the freeski community pumped on what sitskiers were capable of. It was during the three days spent sending it at Chatter that Switchback executive director Mike Douglas got behind the idea of Dewey going upside down on snow again.
While the tools Dewey is using for his backflip attempt are different from regular skiers, the fundamentals of aerials are exactly the same: a good takeoff translates into a solid landing. With his paralysis being from just above the waist down, the ability to clench his abs and tuck in the air is severely limited, making the shape of the jump all the more important to assist in the rotation. With several seasons of foam pit practise and some great advice from former Canadian aerials team coach Nic Bass on how to shape a snow jump, Dewey had first done soon Blackcomb mountain with an airbag for landing. Today it would be in powder.
We exit the cat to find Douglas, Rory Bushfield and Canadian halfpipe team coach Trennon Paynter already at the jump. Myles was here two nights ago to get the kicker primed, but it snowed a good 50 centimetres since. Bailey Mitchell, Powder Mountain Cat ops manager and revered road builder, gets to work ploughing the in-run as Trennon and Douglas begin fine-tuning the jump. They’re looking to replicate the lip to within a degree of the dimensions they had on the airbag jump at Blackcomb a few weeks ago. Dewey chills in his chair next to Rory, who’s perched on his sled soaking up the surrounding alpine beauty. The conversation is light, with jokes and laughter lifting any pressure from today’s task.
After a couple of speed checks and a huge laidout backflip from Trennon to test the shape, the jump is ready. Rory tows Dewey up the hill. After a brief moment of composure, he drops in with cameras rolling. There’s too much throw on the takeoff, so Dewey over-rotates and lands on his back, burying himself in the deep powder landing. But he’s OK and towed back up right away. On the second attempt, his arms windmill wildly during the rotation, but he lands on his ski, bounces out of the powder and skis away: the first sitski backflip in history.
Like any good freestyler, however, Dewey isn’t satisfied with his ragged air style and decides to keep trying. After two more attempts and a shiner under his right eye, he lays one out completely, the outriggers attached to his arms stretched from his sides like a crucifix. He stomps the biggest, cleanest, backflip of the day. With the Switchback crew having banked all the footage it needs for a kick-ass episode of Salomon Freeski TV Dewey calls it. Smiles, high fives and fist pumps abound; mission accomplished.
Vote for Josh as the National Geographic People’s Choice Adventurer of the Year
a month later finds me on whistler mountain with brothers Ben and Jeff Thompson, sitskiers who rose through the Whistler Adaptive Sports Program to provincial-level racing in just two years. After a busy
month of touring with the B.C. para-alpine team, they have the chance to unwind with a 20-centimetre day on fat-board-mounted sitskis. Having lucked out with yet another bluebird day, Morrison is excited to be shooting sitskiers on big-mountain terrain
he brothers waste no time dropping into Whistler Bowl, their sibling rivalry apparent as they carve GS-sized turns at a speed worthy of any able-bodied skier. Jeff nails his first shot on Left Hook, diving up to his eyebrows in powder, much to Morrison’s delight. The boys hit a couple of cliffs on their way back down to Peak Chair, the hoots and hollers from the lineup offering resounding approval that sitskiers belong up here with everyone else.
As we head up Peak for another lap, we spot a black-clad bucket sending it off the same set of cliffs on Left Hook. Alex Cairns, the 20 year-old skate-shoe-donning sitski prodigy from Squamish, is in the house. A quick phone call and he joins us for a mission over to Harmony Bowl.
The cat track leading to the top of Harmony Chair presents the crew with an unwelcome uphill section, but with gritty determination, they dig outriggers into the groomed slope and push their way upward. Ben decides he’d rather take it easy, undoes his retention straps and walks the remainder of the way. “Cheater!” yells Jeff, happy to tough it out in his chair.
The disability affecting the Thompson brothers is an inherited nerveending disorder known as Chaco-Marie-Tooth (CMT) disease. CMT leads to damage to the myelin sheath, the covering around the nerve fibres that allows impulses to transmit quickly along nerve cells and fire the muscle. A lack of impulses causes certain muscles to atrophy, with extremities like feet and hands being most affected.