Trip Recap By Wendy Ong-
A few seasons ago, I had the good fortune of connecting with Telluride Adaptive Sports Programs (TASP) while I was ice-climbing in Ouray. The connection and camaraderie was immediate and we stayed in touch. In 2016, I went on TASP’s backcountry hut trip, where I learned how to travel in the backcountry again after my climbing accident. Prior to the climbing accident that left me with my Spinal Cord Injury, I was a keen telemarker and AT skier. Now, I am a three-tracker (due to a paralyzed left leg, I ski with a ski-boot and ski on my right foot, outriggers, and a Sorel snow boot on my left foot which I then clip up to a quickdraw attached to a belt) on the downhill, and use snowshoes on the uphill and carry my ski, outriggers and ski boot for the schlog up.
After my positive experience on the backcountry hut trip I asked program director, Tim McGough, about future TASP trips. He excitedly brought up the Chile 2017 Freeride Camp and encouraged me to join. I was in the middle of skiing and ice-climbing my way through North America and Europe and was not sure if I would be able to pull off even more time away. But it would have been a great shame to let this opportunity slide and, with the support of the GoHawkeye Foundation, I enthusiastically threw my hat in the ring. Aside from the opportunity to ski in the Southern Hemisphere, I was eager to get in more ski days after a bad case of peroneal tendonitis cut short skiing time in Chamonix and North America earlier in the year.
I could not have predicted what the next several months before the scheduled trip departure would have in store for me. I experienced the most mentally and physically severe health issues I have had to deal with pre- and post-accident; even tougher than my accident itself. I almost did not get through this trying time and was not sure if I would be able to go to Chile. But I would have been even more miserable if I had forfeited my place and not even tried.
My first visit to Chile was under very different circumstances and my stay had been limited to Santiago and its environs. On this second visit, I was looking forward to seeing another part of the country in the winter. Flying to South America from the Northeast makes you appreciate just how vast the continent is. Even countries that do not evoke big, like Peru and Bolivia, are rather large. As a result, the travel time from Boston to Concepción is a full 24 hours each way.
Weather-related airline delays meant my departure was delayed and I had to join the group one day later. Fortunately, the trip itinerary already accommodated such a scenario; I guess this is not the first time this has happened. It also meant that I arrived in Las Trancas very late (Chileans, or at least the ones around Las Trancas seem to have a different concept of time), tired, and having to ski the next day. Oh, the humanity.
As I navigated Santiago’s airport to make my domestic connection, carrying my huge twice-as-tall-as-me ski bag and luggage around long distances, I was acutely aware of how challenging it could be for people less mobile/strong. My right leg and upper body are very strong to compensate for my left leg, but not having full use of a leg was still a big physical challenge for me. I also understand/speak a little Spanish, and I thought that someone with a physical disability, that had not traveled much before, and didn’t speak or understand any Spanish, could have quite a difficult time. I’m always curious to see and hear how international airports accommodate people with disabilities, as well as how local cultures and society does.
Like many people, I had heard about the amazing snow in South America. Unfortunately, we did not get to experience it on this trip. Most days were rainy, and when it was snowing, almost all the lifts worth riding were closed. I was surprised because by North American standards, the weather/wind did not seem bad enough to have lifts stop running so easily. But there were two factors at play: big, wide open mountains which made for very windy conditions, and old, slow lifts with a lower tolerance for wind.
While the weather and circumstances did not work in our favor, there were a number of cool things that happened on the slopes. I am almost always the only person skiing on one ski/leg when I ski, so it was quite amazing to meet Sam who 1) is a three-tracker, 2) rips as well, and 3) skis on the same side as me. The Holy Trinity is complete! This was one of the very rare occasions where I could exchange ideas and thoughts with a three-tracker who also likes the steep.
The other cool thing that took place on the mountain was the marriage of Sam and Jody. It is not too often that you witness a wedding in an old refuge. The weather cleared up temporarily to allow all of us to be transported to the refuge via snowcat. Tim, with his newly minted online ordained minister certification, officiated the wedding. After the lovebirds tied the knot and pretty awful tasting pisco sour was served, we all skied down a thigh burning couple of miles to the base.
Unfortunately, some of the aforementioned health problems surfaced on the trip. As I did my best to deal with it, I wondered how incidents like this and physical disability are treated and viewed in Chile. While the U.S. healthcare system is broken and there are many things wrong with it, living with a Spinal Cord Injury and all its associated conditions and complications would be much more challenging in Chile and many parts of the world than in the U.S.
A bunch of snow and then blue skies were forecasted for immediately after our departure. Of course. I am not sure when I will return to ski in the Andes, but knowing that good conditions and awesome terrain are available to be skied makes me eager to make a return trip to Chile in the not too distant future.