Alaska Skiing Trip Round-up

My best friend’s wedding and a gross food intolerance (projectile, messy everything and everywhere) intervened with this write-up. Perhaps more current commentary would lend insight into how I am feeling in/closer to the moment. But allowing for some time to pass might not be such a bad idea as it allows me to see myself and the situation in a more objective light. For example, after my first day of skiing at Alyeska, I thought, this trip cannot be over soon enough. It was raining from the base to mid-mountain, and the snow higher up the mountain was super heavy, wet cement. I was on my wider ski which I had only skied one day on beforehand, is a lot more ski to push around and just being tossed about as my ski, outriggers and left leg got caught on what seemed like every turn/bump. The person I was skiing with basically offered nothing in the way of instruction, saying, I have no idea what I would do with one ski and outriggers. I thought, great. What. The. Fuck. I was close to tears by the end of the day, thinking that I just totally sucked and would never be able to ski any/all kinds of terrain again. Every one around me reassured me that these were very challenging conditions for everyone, not just me; and it is true, many people were falling left and right around me. But, as usual, I took no solace in this knowledge. The bottom half of the mountain consisted more of water-skiing back to the Challenge Alaska building. And, I also found myself quite stressed out by all the people around me, all the time, as I am introverted by nature.

At the end of that first day, I spoke with Jeremy, the director of the Adaptive Ski and Snowboard School at Challenge Alaska, saying, look, I really appreciated having someone show me around the mountain, but I had gotten absolutely nothing out of the day. I think he saw how glum I was. But, he also said, today was about you guys getting used to these conditions and me getting a baseline for where every one is at. He also said, I think it would be really helpful for us to figure out a system to hold your left leg up so that it is out of the way, you don’t have to waste your energy holding it up, and it also isolates your good leg so that it is completely free to move on its own (which eliminated my velcro between the knees idea). We played about with a piece of webbing looped around my left snow boot (Sorels) with a knot tied at the end of that, another piece of webbing threaded through a super dinky loop for the detachable braces on my ski pants and connected the two with a carabiner. Jeremy said, okay, lets go out and do one run off the beginner chair to test this out, just one run. I was in my boxer short pyjamas already, but said, okay, put my waterproof pants and jacket over my PJs, and went out. Well, that one beginner run turned out to be a bit longer, as we figured out how I could clip and unclip the webbing depending on whether I was getting on/off a lift (obviously, having my left leg free as I get on a chair is useful), but then clipping my left leg up as I started a run at the top of a chair. My left leg is a bit flaccid, so it takes some man-handling on my part to raise the heel back and high enough to clip it out of the way. It was certainly a very different feeling, but Jeremy thought it looked a lot better and asked if I would give it a try the following day. I agreed. I really appreciated him just taking a few runs with me at the end of his day.

The next day, Jeremy arranged for me to be paired with him for the day (I only later learned that his nickname, JAHA, stood for Jeremy Anderson Hard Ass – my kinda guy). The difference between my second day and first day were like night and day. Jeremy really knows what he is doing. We focused on just two things: (1) Flexion and extension at the proper place in a turn (and turn-shape – really finishing my turns), and (2) having my left hip open (i.e. facing down the fall-line) when I am on my uphill edge and letting it hang and do whatever when I am on the downhill edge. The first thing is simply a function of how tired my right leg is. The second is slightly trickier as I do not have good proprioception in my left leg/hip. So I would have to look down and see where my left quad is, adjust my core and weak left hip flexor muscle and recognize that sensation and remember it. We started off on the groomers and just did laps on that to work on these two (okay, maybe two and a half) things. We then progressed to deeper crud/off-trail stuff. Having my left leg pinned up when I stopped took some getting used to. My usual thing has been to just drop my left leg/foot when I stop; but obviously, now this results in a big THUD when I do so, and I also need to use my outriggers more to pole myself out if I am in a pickle. I was (and still am) a bit nervous about not having protection around my left knee (my usual left leg brace limits the range of motion); I will at least be wearing my old telemarking knee pads on that knee so that it doesn’t end up as messed up as it looks (hopefully not how it actually is, since I don’t have much sensation there).

My rolling ski bag *almost* doubles as a body bag.

My rolling ski bag *almost* doubles as a body bag.

Day Three was perhaps my best skiing day. The snow wasn’t super sticky/wet in the morning, but also not super deep (which I don’t have any familiarity with as a three-tracker). It was the Challenge Alaska Fundraiser, so the building was pretty packed. It was a really nice event to witness and be a part of, and see the wonderful community of folks. I had a mono-skier, Nathan, who totally rips, show me around the mountain. Nathan makes beautiful turns in all conditions, with great outrigger use; but, more importantly, just has a great attitude, it seems. He was living in Kansas to play college football, and was working some kind of job involving manual labour. A fork-lift accidentally dropped a heavy load on top of him and made him a T9-complete SCI. He did not ski before his injuries, and only took up mono-skiing after he returned to Alaska (after returning to finish college after he was done rehabilitating). Skiing with him was just like having fun skiing with any ski buddy. At the end of the day he asked, “How is your leg feeling? It must be so tired!” And this is a guy whose lower body is completely paralyzed! I was touched by that comment.

Saturday's setting light. It was only just before 9pm here, and the clearest it had been in Girdwood, AK.

Saturday’s setting light. It was only just before 9pm here, and the clearest it had been in Girdwood, AK. It is hard to capture the steep, sick chutes and scale of these mountains rising up from sea-level.

Scott and I did are own thing on Sunday (Day Four), getting on first chair to take advantage of the cooler mornings and lighter/less heavy snow. I was happy to be on our own as I appreciate the solitude and not being around people all the time. Being pretty much at sea-level, Alyeska gets this very thick pea-soup fog that rolls in; but conditions really seem to change from minute to minute. I became more proficient at clipping and unclipping my left foot up below my butt. Even though when Nathan and/or Scott helped me I would joke, Man, I’ll try not to fart, being independent here is (psychologically and otherwise) very important to me. I do not want to have to rely on having someone around to help me with lift-served terrain.

Here I am, looking like Kenny (ala South Park), as usual. My left leg is dropped down because I have not clipped it up while we are standing around. I only clip it up when I am skiing.

Here I am, looking like Kenny (ala South Park), as usual. My left leg is dropped down because I have not clipped it up while we are standing around. I only clip it up when I am skiing.

Outriggers flipped up

Outriggers flipped up

There was some uncertainty over whether my deep snow skiing abilities were good enough for me to get on the heli-skiing on Monday. It was clear that my deeper snow skiing abilities had improved considerably since my arrival at Alyeska, but the question was, had they improved enough? I am probably the least confident person in my own abilities, and the last thing I want is to be a safety liability to others. This is something I am very conscious about. But folks who had been with me skiing decided that I was a go. The party was going to consist of two able-bodied skiers, and myself and another one-legged skier (Vasu Sojitra). A restless Sunday night and Monday morning were spent feeling very ill with nervousness.

Clear skies were a rarity on this visit; unfortunately, the moon did not allow for Northern Lights sightings this one clear night.

Clear skies were a rarity on this visit; unfortunately, the moon did not allow for Northern Lights sightings this one clear night.

Monday morning was the first clear morning of our entire trip. It looked like the weather gods were cooperating and a heli-skiing weather window was a possibility. Chugach Powder Guides gave a good safety orientation early Monday morning and we were on 10am weather standby. The standby was pushed to noon, then 1pm, then 2pm. All the while, we skied in-bounds at Alyeska in order to warm up/get our skiing legs (or leg, in my case) under us, but also not get so tired that we would be totally gassed for heli-skiing. At 2pm, CPG ended the standby and cancelled all trips for the day. We were only slightly bummed. On the one hand, it would have been an amazing experience. But, I had gotten a lot out of this trip already; namely, devising and iterating a new system for getting my gimpy leg out of the way, and improving my skiing in challenging conditions. Plus, next year I will be a better skier and be able to ski more challenging terrain and snow.

My soul-patch under my lip from the numerous face-plants . From the window, you can see how little snow there is at the base of the mountain

My soul-patch under my lip from the numerous face-plants

My last runs of the trip did not end on a good note. I was tired, perhaps from that day as well as the accumulation of five days of skiing in heavy snow and the repeated tumbles with a very high DIN setting on my bindings, really hurt my (good) knee. Before, I used to be of the mindset that it was important for my right ski not to release if I fall, because retrieving a ski is more difficult for me these days. Now, I am a firm believer that wrecking my good knee isn’t worth it; I will be dialing my DIN setting down to something a bit more appropriate for my weight (say, a 6 – which is very aggressive for someone weighing 112 lbs – instead of an 8!) In any case, I was, yet again, in tears, as I gingerly skied through the slush back to the Challenge Alaska house. We had a reservation at Jack Sprat, a fantastic restaurant in Girdwood, that evening; and, like Gijon, I had to actively go against the voice in my head that said “You do not deserve this meal.” :( For anyone in Girdwood, I highly recommend the restaurant.

A lovely stroll along the meadows between the Challenge Alaska house and the Alyeska Hotel

A lovely stroll along the meadows between the Challenge Alaska house and the Alyeska Hotel

I was particularly impressed with a blind member of the Paradox crew. I was very curious about how he had adapted to going about daily life being blind and asked him all sorts of basic questions. I became aware of the term “lights out”, which means that a person is completely blind. His active pursuits were impressive; say, kayaking the Grand Canyon. But, I was even more bowled over by the fact that he had raised three girls as a single father. That is the ultimate in bad-assery, in my opinion.

One cool thing is that Scott learned a lot from the coaching I was receiving, even as someone who skis with both legs, and his skiing improved as the trip progressed. The morning of our departure, as we were looking up at the north facing headwalls at Alyeska, Scott said, to go from falling off a green chair-lift, to skiing black diamond runs in Alaska and possibly heli-skiing (save for Mother Nature) in three months, is pretty incredible. I am inclined to agree with him, despite my initial dejection and disappointment with myself. While this disappointment stayed with me even a few days after my return from Alaska, looking back, I can say that I got a tremendous amount out of the trip, including meeting some wonderful people in the Paradox crew and the Challenge Alaska volunteers. Fingers crossed, I am very much looking forward to a return visit next season.

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