Skiing in a sitski is very different from what most “able-bodied” skiers might imagine. But first, I have a bone to pick with the term “able-bodied.” I can say, without reservation, that Andy Campbell is very much able-bodied. Sure, he may not be have the use of his legs, but he is far more active than most. And what he is capable of on snow has heads swiveling daily. So, when Andy told me that the National Ability Center was lending him a sitski for the weekend, I immediately signed up for a lesson.
As Andy helped me get strapped into the sitski, I have to admit that I was feeling smugly confident. I figured that it would come pretty easily- HA! Everyone says that a healthy helping of humble pie is good every once in a while – consider me served!
Outriggers down, with the ski flipped up so that it functions as a pole, I balanced waiting for my first task. I was ready to take the mountain by storm when Andy told me that before we did anything I needed to learn how to fall. Just like anyone skiing or snowboarding, if you fall, it is best to orientate yourself with your skis downhill for leverage so you can hoist yourself back into position. Needless to say, that is easier said than done in a sitski. The next step to learn was that when you actually do go down it is crucial NOT to fight it. Andy explained that when you can’t use your legs, your arms become exponentially more important. What is tough is that as I began to crash I instinctually tried to catch myself with the outrigger. After one such incident, it became all too clear that it was a sure-fire way to annihilate your shoulder.
Not one to brag, but I became an expert at falling. But only because I had a LOT of practice! However, it is the getting up that is a challenge. Getting up is a two-part process. First, you prop yourself up on your fist and outside outrigger. Second, once you are halfway up (straining to stay balanced) you whip the other outrigger into you hand so that you can make it up the rest of the way. Whether that description makes any sense is not important. Take it from me – it is a freakin’ workout! Luckily, Andy gave me a hand for most of my falls or else my arms would have been putty after a half hour.
When I finally got the hang of falling and getting back up, we took it to High Meadow. What I will say is that, if anything, sitskiing makes you look at the mountain differently. Looking down on the most beginner slope at Canyons, I realized I was apprehensive. Feeling completely out of your element, in what otherwise IS your element, is a disconcerting feeling.
Andy said, “Forget everything you ever learned about skiing.” I furrowed my brow and took his instruction to heart. When I started I instantly began to rely on the sidecut of the ski, causing me to carve, which would get me going too fast, and result in a crash. Andy explained that I had to learn to slide small radius turns before I began to carve. Only once you know how to control your speed can you allow yourself to carry heat safely.
To begin a turn sitskiing, you initiate with your upper body. I had to completely rotate my shoulders to get the ski to come around. I got this step fairly quick, but would always end up putting the ski on edge resulting in, as I mentioned before, too much speed. Then, Andy told me something that clicked – “Push your bum out at the bottom of the turn!” With that little physical cue, and a lot of trust that I would not tip over, I was able to pivot creating a beautifully tight, skidding turn.
When my session concluded Andy said the coolest thing. I was going on about how awesome he is at sitskiing and how his talent is so impressive, etc . . . when he interrupted me. Andy explained that he is not trying to be radical for his own glory or to be special in his own right. He is doing all this to show other handicapped people that if he can do it, they can do it too.
After almost two-and-a-half hours of toiling, I finally linked five turns. True, it was a humble accomplishment. But it gave me a glimpse of the exhilaration one must feel when moving so fluidly for the first time. And for many people, the first time in a very long time. Being paralyzed is not a sentence to a life of second bests. As I learned, with a sense of humor and some gumption, anyone can be floating through powder whether they’re “able-bodied” or not.