Published on March 11, 2012
Memories vivid years after ski trip of a lifetime
"So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."
— F. Scott Fitzgerald, "The Great Gatsby"
Fifty skiers were to our left and another 50 to our right. Together we formed a half circle, each skier poised to take the sudden drop down the hill into a bowl-shaped slope near the summit of 7,160-foot Whistler Mountain.
I stood directly behind my 17-year-old son, Jed. The front of his skis hung over the lip of the hill. I felt a sense of dread and could taste the bitter swill of adrenaline slicking my mouth. We are going to crash again, I thought.
I raised my hands and placed them on my son's back. We were ready to take the plunge. That's what dads do, right? Push their kids off a mountaintop. If I hesitated, all would be lost.
I shoved my son forward, and down we went.
The packed snow vanished beneath us. Wind blasted my face. Tears streaked my goggles. But Jed held firm, the snowplow wedge of his skis a mirror image of mine. I pulled back on the nylon strap, which cinched us together, and gained control of our free-fall.
For the next hour, we weaved our way down the slopes, attracting scores of onlookers who marveled at our tandem skiing. We eventually made our way back to a gondola station midway down the mountain.
Somehow we had conquered Whistler, future home of the Winter Olympics, and in so doing, made history.
This month marks the 10th anniversary of our trek to British Columbia. My heart still races when I think back to that day in March. We accomplished something no one had done before — skiing down Whistler Mountain using an adaptive ski device perfected by Outdoor for All Foundation, a nationally recognized, Seattle-based organization that provides year-round outdoor activities for children and adults with physical and developmental disabilities.
I confirmed our record-setting feat a few months after our trip when I met up with the foundation's executive director at a conference in Seattle. I asked him if anyone had skied down Whistler Mountain using the adaptive ski reins. He stared at me in amazement and replied, "Not that I know of. Who would be crazy enough to do that?"
I smiled back. "My son and I."
The device, which Jed and I used, consists of a pair of metal clamps, a long nylon strap that loops around the skier and a short bungee cord, which prevents the skis from crossing. By pulling to the right on the nylon strap, I was able to get my son to make a right-hand turn, and by tugging the strap to the left, Jed would turn left. Deceptively simple.
Though Jed was diagnosed with autism when he was nearly 3 years old, he never lacked for physical strength or agility. He loved to bounce on a trampoline and won numerous gold medals at Special Olympics track events. When the foundation held a clinic at White Pass Ski Area in 2001, I signed Jed up. He did great, so I decided to buy one of the devices.
A year later we got our chance to use it when a college friend living in Iowa called and asked if we wanted to join his wife and daughter for two days of skiing at Whistler.
Our first day was a blast. Jed and I found an easy beginner's slope, where we performed a ballet of sorts — both of us cutting a path across the slopes with me tugging at the ski reins and Jed making graceful turns by forming a wedge-like V with his skis.
The next day, though, was a different story. My legs were stiff. I could barely bend my knees. But that didn't stop me from accepting a challenge posed by my friend: How about taking the gondola to the top of the mountain? Sure, let's do it, I replied, with a bravado that comes from growing up in the 1960s when no idea seemed too crazy.
To get to the gondola, Jed and I first had to ski down a short slope. I nudged Jed forward and we started our descent. I pressed down on my skis to make a wedge. Suddenly my legs tightened. Two turns later and my legs cramped up completely.
In a split second, I whizzed by Jed. He looked at me and I stared back at him. Up ahead, a bridge over a ravine was fast approaching. I had only one choice. I collapsed to the snow and locked my skis into the slope.
An eerie calmness set it. The ski reins lay on the snow, slack at my side as Jed zoomed past. I braced myself for the inevitable. Like a horsewhip, the nylon strap snapped loudly. I felt my shoulders strain as I absorbed the impact of Jed's 195-pound body slamming into the snow. His skis flipped wildly into the air.
After a few minutes of sheer panic, we calmed down and checked our body parts. No broken bones, no limbs hanging by a torn tendon. I decided discretion, not valor, was called for, so I picked up our skis. We slowly made our way to the gondola, beaten but not defeated.
No wonder I feared the worst a half-hour later when I pushed my son down that steep slope at the top of the mountain. What a frightening yet fabulous memory.
I'm still amazed it ever happened since two weeks before our trip, Jed suffered his first seizure and was taken by ambulance to the emergency room. I called my college friend, who's a doctor, and told him I thought we shouldn't go. He said Jed would be fine. "When are you going to get a chance like this again?" he added.
So I said "yes" to the trip and to that wild ride up the gondola.
My son would die seven months later following complications from another seizure. I don't have any photographs from that trip. It doesn't matter. How could I ever forget the sight of my son leading me down the face of Whistler Mountain, with his skis creating a perfect arc in the snow, and me holding on for dear life.