I love to ski. The speed…The cold wind in my face and being outside…The excitement that builds from the moment I read a promising forecast, to the morning I wake up and see the snow report that reads, “Today Is a Pow Day!” Snow flying in my face and softly, silently, swirling under my ski. It’s childhood magic at any age. Even on a “bad” day, it’s a blessing to spend time on the ski hill. These things don’t change just because a person can’t stand up or walk, thank God. Also, thank Hawkeye Johnson who turned his passion for taking long walks into an opportunity to help other people. For building a community of folks who like to give back. For finding ways to help people give back. For giving people the opportunity to say, “Ya know honey, I think it would feel really good to donate some money to help disabled athletes get back out there.”
Your everyday person getting into skiing might spend $750 on a nice pair of skis. They might spend another $500 on a good pair of boots. Serious money. And we’re not even talking about lift tickets, lessons and all that. An adaptive athlete can easily spend 10x that amount on a good sit ski, skis, bindings, a seat that fits and outriggers, not to mention all the usual cold weather and safety gear. It’s not easy to look that in the eye and call it fair. It’s even harder to save up the money to make it happen.
I called Hawkeye because he was trying to sell a used sit ski and I was in the market for one. Turns out that ski wasn’t a great fit for me, but he said, “Ya know Josh, we give out grants to help people buy these things. Why don’t you check out our website and send in an application? Maybe we can help you out?” So I did and I also filled out an application and received a grant from the Kelly Brush Foundation. Between these two grants and what I saved, I was able to piece together enough money to buy a really great ski and get back out on the slopes again on my own. What a dream come true people! To get something you love back into your life.
My winter began at the Ski Spectacular, an annual adaptive winter sports conference put on by Disabled Sports USA. I tried out a bunch of skis, fell in love with one and bought it with the help of these grants. A short while later, Hawkeye called me up and asked, “Have you ever heard of the Expand Your Horizons camp hosted by the Telluride Adaptive Sports Program? Hawkeye continued, “I want you to come out to the camp and ski with me so I can see that ski in action. You might even learn a thing or two.” Are you kidding me? A sponsored trip to Telluride, CO to improve my skiing and meet the guy who helped me buy my ski? I’m there man!
I rolled into Telluride and the TASP staff helped me unload my gear and get settled into our awesome accommodations which were a short walk from their office and the chairlifts. That night, TASP hosted a happy hour with appetizers and some libations. It was great getting to know the other participants and the TASP staff. Before long, Hawkeye walked in and we got to talking. We ended up talking for about four hours. For those of you who know Hawkeye, you can probably guess what we we’re up to for those hours but for the rest of you, it was wholesome.
Day 1 – Getting Familiar… Monday morning we awoke to an overcast day. I was paired with my own personal instructor, Steve Rubinstein who is really kind and a great skier. Together, we set off to explore the mountain. Before camp, TASP reached out to all the participants and asked what our goals and objectives were. Throughout the week, we were paired with one or two personal instructors to help us achieve our goals for that day. This is hands down the best way to improve your skiing, abled bodied or not, and there is always more to learn. Later as we settled into the bar to share our stories from the day, word was spreading that snow was in the forecast. The local lore said we didn’t want the forecasters to call for more than 12 inches…the big dumps come when they call for three to four. They were calling for eight and what was to follow was anyone’s guess.
Day 2 – Powder Day! I woke up and it was snowing. It had been snowing all night. I didn’t even check the forecast..I was skiing no matter what, right? I showered and dressed, and rolled out onto a beautiful heated sidewalk. Then I ran into a foot of snow in the street. But today is a powder day so after 15 minutes of struggling to slowly push my wheelchair through the fluff, I had made it from our side street to the main drag…where the plow had pushed the snow into our side street. It was at least two feet deep. Too much for the wheelchair. But what the heck! I built up as much speed as I could, popped a wheelie, and launched myself into the snow hoping for the best! Instead- I got stuck. For about five minutes I practiced wheel chair zen: the art of doing nothing while you wait for help. I saw Scott from TASP walking across the street and waved my arms. He sprung me from the snowbank and I was rolling again and headed for the slopes. My Instructor for the day, Kendal (TASP training manager and awesome coordinator for this camp), took me on a couple of warm up laps on “groomers” covered with eight inches of fresh snow. Dialing in the powder technique, we headed for chair 9 and the famous Plunge. A mile long 2,000 vertical foot run of sustained sweetness covered in knee deep powder snow. How much? Hard to say and not that important but let’s just say the locals said it was the best day in ten years. A very special time.
Day 3 – Revelation Bowl… As we went to bed that night it was still snowing and we woke up to sunshine and another helping of fresh powder. I hit the slopes with my instructor for the day, Hawkeye, and for my warm up run decided on a challenging bump run. I’ve always felt that bumps are the best place to practice your speed control and I was eager to tear it up, went in too hot and had a few crashes. Hawkeye is an outstanding ski instructor and help me slow down, pick my line through the bumps and focus on technique. He helped me remember it’s how you ski not what you ski and it was a humbling start to the day. GoHawkeye Foundation co founder, Craig Stein, was with us for the day to take pictures and capture the beautiful day. We heard that the Revelation Bowl, which was closed the day before was now open and full of snow so we headed that way. We showed up and there was 2-3 feet of the fluffy stuff under clear blue skies. I’ll be honest, I was a bit over my head (literally, I couldn’t see, the snow kept going over my head!). Hawkeye was right behind me, encouraging me to ski the fall line. “Don’t wait for a good spot to turn, just make the turn as soon as you finish the other. Turn! Turn! Turn!” It was hard but I was starting to get the hang of it even if my ski seemed too small for the conditions. About this time, Chris Fesmire shredded by on his mono ski, showing me how it was done. In the world of disabled sports everybody has different abilities but we are all trying to do the same things technique wise. It was awesome seeing how Chris crushed the steep powder. On the next run, I tried to huck a cornice for Craig’s camera and landed like a lawn dart in the deep snow. Talk about sticking the landing! Worn out from the deep snow of Revelation Bowl, we headed over to the Plunge to do more steep pitch skiing.
Day 4 – Last Day of Camp… Kinda sore, kinda tired and really excited about the previous three days. It was another bright sunny day and the groomers were outstanding. Fast, grippy and waiting to get sliced up. This was the day to internalize the lessons from this week. To point my ski down the fall line, to use my turns to control my speed, to return to the bumps and ski them smoothly with style, to work on dropping my hip as I carve my turns. A day to soak up the beautiful views of Telluride, and most importantly, to spend time with my new friends from camp. During the week, many of us skied individually with our instructors so we could focus on our personal goals but today I sought out as many of the other guys as I could to ski with and enjoy some community before packing up to leave. We enjoyed a BBQ that afternoon and a happy hour in the evening. As much fun as it is to ski at a camp like this, it’s the connections and relationships that really stick with you. The people are the gift that keep on giving. Thank you TASP for running an outstanding Expand Your Horizons camp. Thank you Hawkeye for inviting me to participate in the camp, covering the tuition and sharing your love and knowledge of skiing with me on the slopes as well as your knowledge and love for the apre ski. Thank you to the GoHawkeye community and donors for helping athletes like me have these experiences. Believe it or not, I feel very fortunate to be a paralyzed person in this country, in this time.
Weeks after the camp, I can still hear Hawkeye behind me shouting, “Turn, Turn, Turn!” Driving me to make turns right down the fall line. Pushing me to be a better skier.
Lot’s of Gratitude!