The back of Andy Campbell’s orange, fiberglass-shelled Praschberger sit-ski reads die living. He just flew 20 feet off a jump, bounced 20 more feet, and is now lying on his side below a wind lip on Colorado’s Buffalo Pass. The impact sheared the bolts off his monoski and Campbell’s unable to move. He’s still buckled into his seat, but it’s no longer attached to the ski underneath. “That should have held up through that,” he says as guides try to Humpty Dumpty him back together. They eventually haul him out in a toboggan.
It’s not the first time Campbell has had to be lugged off the slopes. But it’s the first time it’s happened in the backcountry. Campbell’s here for the first-ever Legends of the Deep Powder Exhibition, a one-of-a-kind event put on by Access Anything, adventure-travel guides for people with disabilities, and Steamboat Powdercats. While every other disabled-skiing event involves either gates or skiercross (as in the X Games) on a manicured resort run, this one has some of the best athletes freeskiing off-piste, each competitor etching three tracks into fresh snow.
Campbell, 32, has picked himself up in the past. Three months after returning from the invasion of Iraq with the British Army, he was rock climbing with a friend when his anchor broke on a rappel, sending him 65 feet to the ground and to life in a wheelchair. In the hospital for seven months, he thought of what he could still pursue in the mountains. Eventually he joined the British Adaptive Ski Team.
The guides, of course, are aware of the extra care these skiers need. Sit-skier Lucien Smith, 44, promised them he wouldn’t push his tibia up into his knee again. Two years earlier at an adaptive camp, he sit-skied into a rock, broke his tibia, and was unaware it was broken until that night in the shower.
Smith, experienced with other adaptive contests, made the promise because he relishes this unique event. “I don’t have the tolerance to wait around and run gates,” he says as the competitors ride the cat up for lap number two. “That’s the only other avenue available to adaptive skiers.”
While today’s event was originally designed as a competition, organizers and participants are happy to call it an exhibition—especially since it marks the first time Access Anything has targeted such challenging terrain for skiers with disabilities. Legends of the Deep is poised to someday turn into a full-fledged event, like the extreme big-mountain championships for able-bodied skiers, that will award the title of best adaptive powder skier in the world.
“It’s all about skiing with friends and having a good time,” says Access Anything founder Craig Kennedy, who was paralyzed from the waist down after a skiing accident in 1994. “A lot of people don’t think we can compete on this level, but we can.”
Back up top, the cat doors fly open and the skiers file out. The two monoskiers who were riding in the aisle slide backward down a makeshift wooden ramp. Before them are acres of powder. While the fresh snow is harder to ski because they can’t hop or unweight their turns, there’s an upside: Face shots come easier when you’re sitting two feet off the ground.
On the final run, skiers soar off the wind lip, Campbell flying farther than the able-bodied guides. At the after-party, prizes are awarded for best line, air, crash, and face shot. Campbell, who’ll compete in the X Games the following weekend, wins the air and crash categories.
Later, wheeling up to the pool table, he sinks a combo shot and lines up another. “Skiing isn’t supposed to be about sliding down a racecourse for a medal,” he says, his eye level with the table bumper. “It’s about getting into the mountains and enjoying life, one face shot at a time.”
Three Adaptive Skiers Who Charge
Ron McMorris: McMorris, an above-the-knee amputee, calls his peg leg Pete. At Legends of the Deep he won the lack-of-face-shots award, not for want of trying, but because he’s a stand-up three-track skier.
Andy Campbell: Has the number 13 stenciled on his monoski. “After the accident everyone said how sorry they were and how unlucky I’d been,” he says. “But I feel the exact opposite. I feel lucky to be alive.”
Craig Kennedy: The brains behind the event. Kennedy runs a company, consults for Boeing, wrote two books, and mentors at-risk youth. Oh, and he also skis at least 70 days a year.