WHITEFISH – Despite the dogged persistence of three men with spinal cord injuries, their resolve shining through tinted ski goggles and from beneath visored helmets, a combination of frustration and defeat would surely abrade their spirits, eventually.
Except it never did. Instead, they charged down the mountain again and again, picking themselves up from falls and remounting the chairlift for another lap, indefatigably.
All three Montana men enthusiastically pursued extreme mountain sports prior to their accidents, but spinal cord injuries left them paralyzed in the legs, and robbed them of varying degrees of upper-body function. On a recent bluebird day at Whitefish Mountain Resort on Big Mountain, the men were learning to ride a sit-ski, or monoski, which consists of a molded seat mounted on a metal frame, set over a shock absorber attached to an ordinary alpine ski.
The sit-skier uses steel-pointed outriggers to maintain balance and control turns, and volunteer instructors from a local nonprofit organization called DREAM Adaptive Recreation were on hand to help the men navigate the steep learning curve.
As the day wore on and the men worked through setbacks and overcame challenges, their spirits soared, even as novice skiers without disabilities grew frustrated with their slow rate of progress and called it quits.
Earlier in the morning, Kolter Beneitone, 21, of Florence had demonstrated his eagerness to learn the sit-ski by bombing down the stairs of the resort’s base lodge on his wheelchair, a skill he’s honed in the eight months since his accident – he was ejected through the sun roof of a car when it rolled last March – by “tearing it up at the skatepark” in Missoula.
Beneitone, whose legs are paralyzed, said he’s preparing to enter his first bodybuilding competition, which he’s training for by doing sets of pull-ups while strapped into his chair.
“I’m willing to try just about anything, especially if it helps show others that I can do everything they can,” he said. “I like to dive face first into everything. That’s just how I roll, and I can definitely see trying to compete at the Olympic level on a sit-ski.”
Jeff Marquis, 29, of Whitefish worked on Big Mountain and as a sous chef at Tupelo Grille before he suffered a spinal cord injury while mountain biking on Spencer Mountain in September 2011. For Marquis, as with many locals, the mountain was central to living in Whitefish, offering respite from gray days in the valley, and he spent countless days either telemark skiing or snowboarding on Big Mountain.
In the second winter since his accident, Marquis said it’s gratifying to be back on snow after so long, and as soon as DREAM volunteers had outfitted him with a sit-ski he was riding the chairlift to the summit.
“I just really appreciate anything that gets me outside, especially in the winter,” he said. “It’s amazing how much you miss the view from the top.”
Joe Stone, 27, of Missoula doesn’t remember the details of the August 2010 day his life took a turn while speed flying above Mount Jumbo. He was attempting a kind of barrel roll when his canopy collapsed like a spinnaker and he plummeted several hundred feet to the ground.
He estimates he was traveling 40 mph when he hit the mountainside flat on his back. He spent nearly a month in a coma and is now considered an incomplete C7 quadriplegic, but that hasn’t stopped him from pursuing his passions. In August 2011, he hand-cycled the length of Glacier National Park’s Going-to-the-Sun Road. He’s determined to fly again one day, and is creating a nonprofit organization to help others who suffer debilitating injuries pursue their outdoor passions.
After listening to a caveat from a DREAM volunteer about slowing down if he felt he was skiing too fast, Stone replied with a grin: “Did I mention that I injured myself speed flying? Speed isn’t an issue.”
Every day in the winter, children and adults with disabilities – both cognitive and physical – converge on Big Mountain seeking the opportunity to overcome their limitations through the DREAM program. DREAM is an acronym for Disabled Recreation Environmental Access Movement, and executive director Cheri DuBeau is trying to build the 27-year-old program to include year-round opportunities like rock climbing, biking, hiking and adaptive golf. Currently, there is the winter program and a summertime program that offers water skiing.
DuBeau, who was raised by a father who was a paraplegic, said she knows firsthand the challenges that DREAM participants face.
“I lived with and know those challenges, and it’s a passion to enable people to overcome them and explore opportunities that might not otherwise be available,” she said. “There’s a lot of life out there and we’re helping people live it.”
DREAM Adaptive Recreation is a nonprofit program that relies on about 130 volunteers, as well as donations and grants to purchase adaptive recreation equipment. A sit-ski costs around $4,000, and DREAM recently purchased a new one with a $4,000 grant from Plum Creek.
“We have an amazing base of dedicated volunteers. Some of them have been working with the program for 25 years,” she said.
Groups of schoolchildren from Columbia Falls, Kalispell and Whitefish arrive daily at Whitefish Mountain Resort for ski lessons or to ride the sit-ski, which volunteers can control depending on the skier’s ability level. The students have a variety of cognitive and physical disabilities, from Down syndrome to spina bifida.
DREAM volunteer Jack Klovstad has been with the program for 18 years, and taught himself to sit-ski in order to better instruct others. He said Beneitone, Marquis and Stone were way ahead of the curve.
“These guys are learning very quickly,” he said.
Over lunch, the men met sit-skier Annie Marrinan, who lost the use of her legs in a car wreck in April 2010. During the first winter after her accident, she went to Bozeman and learned to sit-ski with Eagle Mount, a program similar to DREAM. Then she went to Breckenridge, Colo., and worked with another program that allowed her to demo top-of-the-line sit-ski gear.
Although the seat, frame and shock absorber are new and state-of-the-art, the alpine ski the equipment is mounted on is the same ski Marrinan rode before her accident.
This is her second winter skiing, and she’s able to load and unload the chairlift independently, while her fiance tries to keep up.
“I was determined to get out there as soon as possible, determined to learn,” she said. “It’s good to share stories with these guys. They’re getting right out there, and that’s what it takes. You can’t just sit around.”
Reporter Tristan Scott can be reached at (406) 531-9745 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.