Tuesday, 3 April 2018

Flying into the History Books...

Hello there sunshine and welcome to today's post! I would like to start by saying I have been dreading this post for a long while now... Confidence is always an issue for me, and this is no exception. Ever since my heliskiing adventure happened, I knew there would come a time when I needed to transfer what was going on in my head to the written word. I honestly don't think I can do that... But as this is one of the most monumental experiences that has ever happened in my life, obviously it's important for it to have a portion in my blog, so... I will try dear reader, even though I might fail miserably, to describe the day of all days... The day I made history...
At 5:00 in the morning on April 3rd I woke up tired, groggy, and well... cranky... I had barely slept that night and therefore felt like I had been hit by an Eastbound express train. When I sat up and tried to tell myself that I was actually a human, my knee reminded me that it was still angry from the night before. MCL tears are no fun.... My neck reminded me that it also was mad at me for not being able to stay calm when faced with something exciting. I got up, proceeded to try and get dressed, but while doing so fell backwards and hit my neck off the counter, which not only made it angrier but added to my gloomy state of mind. Each layer of clothing I had to put on seemed to take an eternity, which it did because my fingers acted the way they always do and got stuck in every fold of the sleeve. I was in desperate need of coffee, which only upset me more because... I CAN'T DRINK COFFEE! I made one last attempt to remind myself that I was a human before going to the lobby, where I would demonstrate how dangerous a hungry, tired, coffee deprived woman can be. Actually that wasn't the plan, but the annoying thing about skiing with Scott for two seasons is that he automatically can tell when I'm upset... my mask doesn't work on him... He grabbed me by the shoulders, held me at arm's length and said, "Smile for me, Gracie Lou. We're going heliskiing."
Heliskiing? Of course, that was the reason we were all at The Prestige in Golden BC that morning, but up until that point, it seemed like a dream to me. We had arrived there two days early in order to allow my body rest from the travel, but that whole time I was on edge, thinking that if I moved too much I'd break the spell and the dream would be over. But it wasn't a dream! I was in the lobby of The Prestige in Golden because I was about to become the first female tandem sit skier to heliski in Canada. This is what we had been anticipating for months before. This is what the community of Fernie supported so faithfully. This is what Scott worked towards with such perseverance. That was enough to make me smile. I felt Grace coming back to me again, and I began to giggle and laugh and run through the parking lot like the dork I am. That excitement lasted all through breakfast, and even when we took a couple wrong turns going up to Purcell lodge, which resulted in a few U-turns and confusion for our team following us. 
The first person I met upon arrival was Rudi Gertsch, or The Rudi Gertsch I should say. Scott made sure I was very familiar with just how much of a legend Rudi is before we came. Not only was I going heliskiing, but the man who was one of the fathers of heliskiing in Canada would be my guide... I felt intimidated and honoured all at the same time, but he immediately made me feel at ease, due to his warm and friendly spirit. The Purcell lodge was just what a lodge ought to be, with a huge fire blazing, plenty of log detailing, and a beautiful balcony with clear views of the mountains we'd be playing on. While sipping Rudi's special homemade tea, Jeff Gertsch, who is every bit as lovely as his father, began our safety briefing. He started with telling us about the avalanche beacons, how they worked, what they did, warnings not to wear anything magnetic or metal near them, etc. We then took a walk up to the heli to learn the proper way to approach it. And then the conversation took a switch... Let me summarise what the next 45 minutes sounded like.... "If you make this mistake, you'll die. If you do this by accident, we'll all die. If you break this, you'll have to remortgage your house to pay for it. If you touch this, you owe us a beer." We then went back to the lodge and had a long discussion about avalanches. Basically, "If you're caught in an avalanche, do this. If you see someone else caught in an avalanche, do this. Heliskiing is dangerous, so let's do our best to come back in one piece." At that point, there was one thing and one thing only running through my mind... WHAT THE HELL AM I DOING HERE!?!? I'm dead no matter what in all of these situations! Who said this would be fun!? I'm too young to die!! "Sit skier dies in avalanche while trying to make history", oh yes, I can see the headlines now! WHAT IS WRONG WITH ME!?!?!? Evidently, I wasn't hiding my conniption as well as I hoped... Scott said I looked as white as snow by the time the safety talks were finished. The next few minutes of getting ready and in the heli were a blur of silently wondering if I'd ever see solid ground again... I said one more farewell to my parents, made sure I told them I loved them, and then the heli doors were closed and latched. I took one look at Scott, who was smiling and chuckling to himself, and then tried to take a breath and clear my mind. It was too late to run, so I'd have to live with my crazy decision to be the disabled adventure hero... darn me... 
I was in this apprehensive mood for a moment or two longer, and then the heli rotors started spinning... They spun and spun, and then all of a sudden I felt us lift off the ground and take to the skies. It was as if someone had flipped a switch in my brain. I immediately started to smile my normal Grace smile, giggle and laugh, and make everyone else do the same because, WE WERE GOING HELISKIING!!! Every little bit of anxiety melted away in an instant as I gazed at the mountains from a bluebird sky. My feelings at that moment are hard to describe, except to say it was the most life altering freedom I have ever experienced. And oh, it was beautiful. I wish there was a word to describe the glory I saw from that helicopter. Looking down on the mountains from the sky is truly one of the most breathtaking views in the world. The peaks sparkled in the light of the sun. The blankets of snow that covered them reflected the meaning of pure. It was untouched and looked as soft as a cloud. Nothing could demonstrate God's artistic creation so profoundly. My life would've been complete with just the experience of flying in the heli, but there was more awaiting me, as we made our mark in the untouched snow and landed. 
As soon as I felt my skis sink into the 30 centimetres of fresh fluff the Purcell mountains had gotten the night before, I knew this skiing experience would be unlike anything I've ever had before. I watched as Rudi cut the first lines and skied a few turns ahead of us. He eventually stopped and signalled for us to follow. I held my breath as I felt Scott start to turn me away from the slope and pick up speed. The feeling one has while skiing powder is hard to describe at the best of times, but backcountry skiing? It's an entirely different world...  It felt as though I was completely weightless. I almost thought I was defying gravity. Not one single bump did I feel as we carved out our turns, only a lightness that made it seem like I was floating on a cloud. We stopped just behind Rudi (never go ahead of your guides... ever...) and looked back. Evidence of our presence remained in the snow, almost like the markings figure skaters make on the ice. And that's when it hit me... All the emotions that had been building for the past year filled my heart and soul... and eyes... Not only was I heliskiing, which was the best experience of my life, but I had also just made history. And no one can ever take that away from me. It was the feeling of barriers and the word impossible being shattered, of burdens falling off my shoulders, of labels and preconceived notions being broken down. It was liberating! I looked back at Scott, who I could tell was feeling the same thing I was, and smiled. I won't ever forget that moment, it was one of the most precious memories I'll have from this adventure. 
At that point, after Rudi's expectations were exceeded with how well Scott and I could ski, he made a suggestion that would become legendary to both of us. "Would you like to try some powder eights?" Rudi is known for his powder eights... I'm sure I'm not explaining this properly, but powder eights are when the first skier makes tight turns down the slope, and the second skier matches their rhythm except in the opposite direction. We stopped at the bottom and looked back at the perfect figure eights we had just drawn out. The most beautiful powder eights I've ever seen... That moment had way more of an impact on Scott though, whose goal it had been to ski powder eights with Rudi for many many years. I'm only sorry he had to share that with me... But it was a moment I shall never forget. Our chariot was waiting for us at the bottom, so we loaded up and began all over again. Just a note here, I don't think I can ever be content riding a chairlift again... the heli wrecked me... 
Emotions for both Scott and I were very high as we paused for lunch, and then Rudi said, "You know Grace, every time I take a group out, someone always asks me what my best day was. Up until now, I didn't have an answer. Now I have an answer." My whole heliskiing day could've ended right there and I would've been over the moon. To hear the man who not only brought heliskiing to Canada, but also had been guiding for 50 years, say our adventure was the best in his mind was incredible. To say that I was honoured and overwhelmed was an understatement. And on that note, we continued to ski... My heart was so full at that point I felt like it would explode... More powder eights followed, some with the heli flying over us, and all within the most perfect weather imaginable. It all felt like a dream... a wonderful wonderful dream... 
I sat out the last run of the day to give Scott a much deserved free ski, which I didn't mind at all, because well... the heli has to turn around to fly back to the bottom... which means it literally has to turn sideways... Have you ever looked straight down a tree while being sideways in the air? It's fantastic! When Scott got back in the heli it looked like he had just gone to heaven and back... he got his powder eights with Rudi... After five glorious runs, four for me, we lifted off and headed back to the lodge. I watched our powder eights get smaller and smaller and eventually fade away. Our tracks may get covered so other skiers can enjoy the freedom of fresh lines, but in my mind, I will always see them, and they will always signify a life changing experience. 
We landed on solid ground again, which I'm not going to lie was kind of a relief, and I knew I could never be the same. I smiled like an absolutely starstruck dork the whole rest of the day. I literally felt like I was floating in another reality. We all went back to the lodge to unwind and enjoy some apres ski snacks. But I went out on the balcony and just stared at those glorious peaks, which were transformed and took on a whole new meaning to me. The feeling that dominated my heart and soul was thankfulness. I could never have gone on such an adventure if it weren't for Scott and his belief that anything was possible. I am ever so grateful to Rudi, Jeff, and the Purcell Heliskiing team for supporting our out of the ordinary vision. They are an incredible team who I am honoured to know and ski with. And honestly, none of this would have happened without the wonderful community of Fernie, who gathered around me to make my dreams come true. Amazing feats can be accomplished when one has the support of those who share a common goal, a common dream. I know I can't thank everyone who helped me to make history, but just know that what you have done will stay with me forever. Thank you does not seem adequate... 
Dear reader, if there is anything I would wish you to take away from what you have just read, it is this... It's ok to be afraid when faced with a new challenge. Fear is part of the struggle that comes with stepping outside what is comfortable. Don't be ashamed of that fear, it's natural, normal even. But never, never ever, let fear be what stops you from trying something new, from going on an adventure, from being a pioneer. Make the choice to be an overcomer, take the difficult path that leads to the unknown. For what you will discover at the end of that path might surprise you and even change your life. The victory is sweet, but the struggle and fight to get there is even more rewarding. Most importantly, never give up!
I watched the sun set on the beautiful peaks I had just become acquainted with, and as I drifted off to sleep that night, all I saw was powder eights. They may have been erased the next morning, but they'll always be there in my heart, representing a breakthrough from fear, and a new definition of possible. 

Friday, 30 March 2018

She Doesn't Always Smile...

Hello there sunshine and welcome to another post! Today I am going to hit the pause button on my adventures. Dry your eyes, it’s only for one post! :) A goal of mine with this blog has been, and always will be, to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth about life with a disability. Well dear readers, the truth is that while I’ve been open about some aspects of my life, I have been very closed in other respects. Today however, I am an open book, because today I need to be. You see, most people know me as “Graciebsmiling”, the one who always has a grin on her face. But only a few people will tell you that she doesn’t always smile…
As most of you may know, I have a condition called Arthrogryposis. But what you may not know is that I also have Scoliosis, which is a curvature of the spine. In my younger years this addition to my disability labels did not have an affect on me. In fact, I was blessed with a childhood of little to no daily pain, something that I’ve learned should never be taken for granted. However, Scoliosis is unfortunately progressive, so as I grew older, my curve grew more severe. At age thirteen I remember sitting in my doctor’s office thinking the world was my oyster. With the words referral to a spinal specialist I didn’t even bat an eyelash. It was in this blissful state of ignorance that, at fourteen years old, clouded my future vision as we made the journey to Vancouver to visit a spinal specialist. I went through the typical routine of x-rays and various scans those with disabilities are no strangers to. It never occurred to me how strange it was that as soon as my scans began, the number of radiology technicians went from one to five. At fourteen years old, after completing numerous scans and tests on my body, I sat in the waiting room still thinking life was roses and sunshine.
The moment my spinal specialist walked into the room was the moment my life would change forever. My expectation was to hear that while my spine was a little crooked, it was nothing to worry about, and I could go on my merry way. My reality was much much darker. I listened in a confused stupor to the specialist tell me the true condition of my spine. The curve was severe and needed to be corrected. But the correction was not the saving grace my family and I were looking for. The correction would take place in the form of a gruelling 16 hour surgery, where I would be opened front and back, have two of my vertebrae removed, and the remaining vertebrae attached to a metal rod from top to bottom. The results would be a straighter spine, but the consequence would be having 90% of my already limited mobility taken away. The solution seemed simple to me at the time… I didn’t need a straighter spine, I needed my mobility, so I just wouldn’t get the surgery. There! Problem solved, enter sunshine and roses. But no… My specialist very abruptly informed me that if I refused the surgery, my spine would continue to deteriorate, which would shorten my lifespan significantly and ultimately be fatal. Said consequences are the unspoken dark side of Scoliosis. After all that, I remember sitting in that room, and completely breaking down.
A little piece of me was left behind that day. I could not speak to anyone for a long while. The one question that kept raging in my mind like a stormy sea was “how?”. How do I choose between life or life with little to no function? I pictured all the things that I loved doing being torn away from me. I pictured myself melting away. I questioned God, I asked Him why. Didn’t I have enough? Why did I need this too? What was the point of this? It was during the next few months of my life that my smile changed. It became a mask I hid behind. On the outside I was still smiley Grace, on the inside I was broken. Only a handful of people knew how much I was truly struggling during that time.
When we are young we have this idea, disillusioned as it may be, that we are invincible. We expect that somehow our youth acts like a force field to tragedy and death. But sooner or later, and it’s different for everyone, we get a slap in the face from reality. We come to realize that tragedy and death come no matter how young we are. I could never have imagined this sobering reality to hit me at fourteen years of age. In the months that followed the news about my spine, the questions, the dialogue in my head, the darkness I had to fight every waking minute, all of these things brought me to an early maturity. I fought with myself, I fought with God, and eventually came to the realization that only I could make the decision that was towering before me. Eventually I found my footing again, mostly because of prayer and my mother. And while I felt I would never be the same blissfully ignorant dreamer I once was, I knew that the darkness had passed. I made my decision, one that I knew would ultimately alter my life forever. Nonetheless, a life without the ability to do the things I loved was no life at all. I decided to reject the surgery and take whatever time God would give me on this earth. But that wasn’t the only decision I made. If I didn’t know how long I had left to enjoy life, then I was going to experience all that I possibly could. It was this decision that brought skiing into my existence, which as you know made a lasting impression on my life.
For seven years, I experienced adventure after adventure, stepping outside my comfort zone in more ways than I thought possible. But, as reality would have it, as time progressed so did my spinal curve. At age 21 my spinal curve is now at an 85 degree angle. A 90 degree angle is typically what your knee is at when you sit down. Now imagine that as a spinal curve… When I go for scans now, I chuckle at the ten technicians staring in awe at my images. My line is usually, “bet you haven’t seen a sexy spine like that before!” From the moment I wake up till the moment I go to bed I hurt. Sometimes the hurt lasts well into the night, depriving me of sleep. When I sit, the bottom of my ribs touch the top of my hips, creating a pressure and ache that irritates me constantly. My ribs dislocate constantly, and weekly therapy visits have become the norm. I wear braces and supports to help me make it through my days. All of this I have grown accustomed to, my spine like an old arch nemesis, challenging my every move. But since the fall I’ve noticed a change. My difficulties have suddenly become more. I even experienced loss of feeling in my legs for a time. All of this leads me to something very difficult… Even though I have again faced the darkness and came through with a decision, I still cannot find the words to explain it.
Dear reader, in the summer of this year, 2018, I have decided to start the procedure to correct my Scoliosis. This will take place over several months. The treatment begins with something called halo traction, where a device is screwed into my head, and then attached to a weight system. Traction will take place for a minimum of two months, during which time I will live at the Foothills hospital in Calgary under the watchful eye of my spinal specialist and traction team. Traction begins in July, and once completed, will be followed by the spinal fusion surgery. The hope is that traction will reduce the intensity of the surgery, possibly eliminating the need to remove vertebrae. If all goes well with traction, my surgery will take place in September. The surgery is the unknown factor in this whole process. Truthfully the complications are so numerous I don’t care to write them out… The results of the surgery, whether for better or worse, are not known. A consequence of the surgery is having to give up skiing. I knew it would happen eventually, and though it will be one of the most heart breaking things I will have to face, I am truly thankful for every memory I've been able to create. But it’s time… It cannot be delayed any longer…
In light of this life changing event, I have been asked if I regret the decision I made when I was fourteen, especially if I knew what I know now. I’ve thought long and hard about this, and I can answer without the slightest hesitation. I would not have experienced life as I have without that decision. Because of my choice I have started an adaptive skiing program, became the first female tandem bi skier to heliski in Canada, experienced leaps outside my comfort zone which led to unforgettable memories, but most of all, discovered a version of myself that I didn’t know existed. My story has really been a journey. Each step that I made has brought me a little closer to uncovering the strength, courage, and tenacity within me. How can I regret something that has enriched my life more than words can describe? Yes it’s true, there is a dark side to life, as I well know. But darkness might happen in order to see the stars. God has enabled me to see that as difficult as this experience has been, it has shown me that what matters in life is the little things. The things that make us laugh, smile, cry. Every moment, every breath, is a gift more precious than any earthly treasure. I don’t doubt that I will face many trials ahead, but I know it will only last for a time. So long as I have breath in my lungs, eyes that see, and a smile that can make others smile too, I am blessed beyond description. I am already grateful for the love and support being given to me.
My hope is to document my journey, which I sincerely wish will impact the able bodied and the disabled alike. You are not alone if you are struggling. No matter how big the mountain, we can climb it together. And as always, I would greatly appreciate your prayers and thoughts during this time. The love and support keeps this girl smiling!

Friday, 16 March 2018

Kitty Kitty Bang Bang!

Hello there sunshine and welcome to another post! Today's adventure has something to do with cats skiing... or maybe skiing with cats... or maybe just using cats for skis... meow... Ok ok, in all seriousness... No cats were harmed in the writing of this post...
March 24th was the first of our novelty adventures. It was the day we were to go catskiing with Fernie Wilderness Adventures. But we weren't JUST going catskiing... that was the icing on the cake... We were going catskiing with Tony Schmiesing and Brian Sheckler, the two people who inspired our Heliskiing goal, and the first to accomplish said feat in the States. Let me back up a bit...
On March 21st I could be found pacing back and forth in my bedroom, waiting... Waiting for Tony and his caregiver Jessica to arrive. Scott had gone to Calgary that day to pick them up. For the next week, Tony and Jessica were to stay with us. The whole thing seemed so surreal. A year earlier I watched his video on Facebook about becoming the first quadriplegic to heliski in Alaska. This man, this legend on powder skis, was at any moment going to arrive at my house and stay in my basement suite! By that point I had probably burned a hole in the floor from pacing so much. But at last, I heard voices outside and knew it must be them. I flew from my bedroom door to the elevator, but then… Have you ever had that feeling when meeting someone of note that you’ll have no idea what to say to them? Oh yes, that was me... I sat there, holding the door handle to my elevator, wondering what on earth I would say to the first quadriplegic to ever go heliskiing. It was this slight stupor that was interrupted by my mother asking me if I was going to move or something. I did, I went downstairs, I opened the elevator door, and I was met by one of the most genuine souls I have ever known. That’s really the only way to describe Tony. The awkwardness that exists when first meeting someone was nowhere to be found, because Tony immediately treated me as though we were old friends. I knew instantly that Tony would be a very dear friend to me, which of course remains true. Tony has the great talent of being instantly likeable, interesting, and just generally amazing company. He speaks as though he’s your family, always using words like “hey sister” or “big love”. Every morning I would hear him start playing music just as soon as he was ready, which he’d leave playing softly in the background. Tony is, though I’ve always found this strange to say, a very real individual. He’s also someone you can speak to about anything and know he’ll have a well crafted response. Tony’s caregiver Jess, was equally warm, friendly, overall just a beautiful soul. And then there’s Rhythm, Tony’s faithful and incredibly sassy guide dog. Rhythm, who is a little auburn golden retriever, only remembers she’s a working dog long enough to complete her tasks, but she does so with such a comical flare you’d almost think she was the owner and not the other way around. Tony and Rhythm are both vegetarians, and I can’t say I’ve ever seen a dog get so excited about lettuce hearts... Upon arrival , Rhythm immediately decided being a Canadian suited her, and took advantage of that every chance she got. In summary, the three of them together won our family over within minutes of arriving.
Tony’s first day was spent chiefly in showing him Fernie, unfortunately not in it’s winter splendour, because it was pouring rain… Thanks Fernie, just when I wanted to make an impression! Yet we still managed to have a fun soaked day touring the town, buying chocolate and cheese, and then finishing at Fernie Brewing Company. We then hurried home to welcome our last guest, Brian Sheckler. Brian is Tony’s ski partner in crime, whose presence impacted the room immediately, even if he was only staying for a day and a half. Brian greeted me with a bear hug, which automatically made me like him. Most people hug me like I’m a china doll ready to break if they sneeze in my direction. Brian, like our other guests, became family immediately and added a wonderful new dynamic to our group. With Brian’s arrival, the dream team was completed. What were we missing? Snow….
Unfortunately because of the rain, Tony’s first day was also spent wondering if catskiing would actually happen. The rain was making backcountry conditions variable, which meant there was quite a bit of uncertainty from Fernie Wilderness Adventures about our ski day. We managed to make it through the day with much laughter and smiles, and as we all sat down together in the afternoon, we got the call… We all held our breath as Scott answered his phone… But much to our relief, it began to snow at FWA, making our adventure the next day a possibility.
I barely slept that night, firstly anticipating the events of the next day, but mostly in imagining what a cat would look like. I’ve only seen them in animal form… For some reason, I pictured a big fur covered vehicle with skis and cat ears… I quite literally bounced into the basement the next morning yelling, “WE’RE GOING CATSKIING!!!” I was met with laughter and smiles from our group, who tried to be as enthusiastic as me, but let’s face it… My enthusiasm is as “thpecial” as I am… Poor Scott! He was stressed and preoccupied with gathering my gear together, and instead of being helpful, I just sat there and screamed CATSKIING in his ear… He puts up with so much when I decide to be immature… As we got ready to depart, wheels and ski boots alike, the sky gifted us with a show of pink and crimson. Two wheelchairs, ski gear, and a Sir Scott all piled into our van, affectionately named George, and we set off for our glorious adventure.
Our arrival at the base of Fernie Wilderness Adventures began with a revelation. Cats look NOTHING like what I had imagined! Though considering my imagination, I shouldn’t have been surprised… The cat was square looking, yellow, and to my disappointment, didn’t have ears… We were met by our guides, Brian and Brian… Yes, added together, we had three Brians in our group… not confusing at all… We were also met by Cindy and Kim, who made the whole adventure possible. Ski gear was unloaded, outwear unpacked, and safety briefings completed. I'll summarize the safety talk to save time. “Listen to the guides and don’t be an idiot, or you’re a dead idiot”. Then came loading Tony and I in our trusty steeds. My trust exercise began immediately, as my seat is detachable and needed to be lifted by two people into the cat. The cat is quite high, and as I was being lifted in, I noticed my foot was stuck on the step. Well, before I had a chance to say anything, I was lifted up by my companions, and with that came a dreadful…. POP! Followed by excruciating pain in my knee… I bit my lip for a few seconds, faked a grin, and tried to keep myself from panicking. It was probably just hyperextension I said to myself, nothing to worry about. The pain did not settle down, but I managed to calm myself, and resumed being completely and ridiculously excited. WE’RE GOING CATSKIING was my statement every five minutes until we reached the top of the mountain. It took quite a long time to reach the top, but we didn’t mind. We were too busy laughing, smiling, enduring Kyle Hamilton’s punny jokes. Finally we reached our destination, unloaded from Kitty Kitty Bang Bang as I called it, and sat looking at Fernie Alpine Resort which was situated across from us.
Then came the skiing…. I had never experienced backcountry skiing before then, and let me just say, while it is wildly unpredictable, it’s one of the most incredible feelings. Knowing that you’re the only one on the mountain, the line you choose won’t be touched by anyone else, it makes you feel like you literally are king of the mountain. Our first run completed with the ridiculous grin one has when skiing powder, we loaded into the cat for another run. This time we were deposited by a run called Little Quarry. This run would become Tony’s and my nemesis, though for different reasons. I sat at the top of the run thinking that Scott had finally lost all his marbles. The steepest run I would ever ski, it glared at me in all its intimidating glory. It almost teased me, knowing that I was shivering on the inside. I watched Tony and Brian drop in first, skiing this monster with all the gracefulness of a ballet dancer. As they reached the bottom, a sinking feeling took hold of my chest. It was my turn… I looked at Scott, mumbled that I didn’t want to do this, which he conveniently didn’t hear. Before I knew it, I found myself screaming down Little Quarry, who I’m sure was laughing at me, its newest victim. We reached the bottom, and I stared back up at it, promising that one day I would return and conquer it. However, Little Quarry took a lot of energy from me, so I opted to stay in the cat for the next round. I waited patiently with one of our group members, Debbie, who was also an instructor for the adaptive skiing program. After chatting and laughing for a while, we both began wondering why it was taking so long for the group to return. Finally our ski guide returned, though he was bearing bad news. His short comment was that Tony had a little accident but was completely fine. “Little accident” was the understatement of the year… Little Quarry had claimed yet another victim, for Tony had a horrific crash, which had visibly shaken up the whole group. A few weeks later, we discovered that Tony had actually broken his leg in this accident, though we didn’t know it at the time. For the next round, Tony decided to stay in the cat and warm up. It was the run that I switched instructors and had a chance to ski with Brian, which was thrilling! Though it seemed Little Quarry put a curse on the group, because he and I went crashing into a tree well, and Kyle fell while filming, giving himself whiplash. Our last run reunited the whole group, which was filled with victorious catskiing hoots and hollers. It was with that that we ended our day, and began the long trek back to the base. The whole ride down was spent reminiscing our adventures, with many tears shed over the wonderful memories gained. My tears were in euphoria, but mostly because by that point I could barely move my knee. I finally worked up the courage to tell Scott, who was properly angry with me for not saying something sooner. We later discovered that I had earned my first real ski injury, because I tore the MCL in my knee… Regardless of our various injuries, the group that sat eating delicious soup and sipping warm drinks at the base was a happy one. We had all been united by an incredible experience, and would share those memories for eternity. We continued the party at home with pizza and far too much laughter, if that’s possible, which brought a close to a beautiful day.
The next morning, we said a tearful goodbye to Brian, who had to get back home. Tony was feeling badly from his accident, though at the time we didn’t know why, and spent most of the day resting. He and I chatted for a great length of time, which only reassured me of our growing friendship. We then cleaned ourselves up and when out for Disability Awareness Night, which was a fabulous night to raise funds for project heli. Tony was treated as he should have been, a celebrity amongst us Fernieites, and the whole evening was a huge success.
I soaked up my last few days with Tony, Jess, and Rhythm as much as I could, dreading the day of their departure. I couldn’t fathom not hearing Tony’s music playing downstairs every morning, and hearing his “hey sister” as I emerged from the elevator. But as the saying goes, all good things must come to an end. After a week of beautiful memories, it was time to say goodbye. I think it goes without saying that many tears were shed in the process, but the gentle assurance was present that these new friendships would last a lifetime. And so, our honorary Canadians left for home, thus ending our spectacular catskiing adventure.

Sunday, 10 September 2017

First Challenge, First Chair

Hello there sunshine and welcome back! Ok ok, let me yell at myself for you... "Welcome back!? I didn't go anywhere! Where have YOU been??? You think it's ok to just leave for months after introducing your new adventure? What kind of blogger are you anyways? You're fired! After you catch up on all the adventures you neglected to tell us about..." Sound about right? Well let me fix the situation... and then maybe you'll un-fire me... de-fire me... take-back-firing-me... You get what I'm saying...

Let's go all the way back to December 2016... even though we're almost at December 2017... December 4th my alarm rudely woke me up at 5:00 in the morning. I rolled over, looked at my clock, shivered, pulled my blankets over my head, and tried to remind myself why I willingly chose to wake myself up that early. (Admittedly, when I first woke up I did all of those things plus throw up...) I had a dislocated rib and was just starting to come down with the stomach flu. So why was I awake in the wee hours of the morning when I was vomiting and had a dislocated rib? Because first chair of the season waits for no man, woman, child, or grumpy/sick/hurting Grace. Scott and I had been planning first chair to be our first adventure for months. Scott had camped in front of Timber chair in freezing temperatures, along with the necessary but not comfortable bed partner of my sit ski, so I could be a trail blazer. And I wouldn't be the Grace that I am if I let a little puke and pain stop me from conquering a new challenge! Puke be damned, my reputation was on the line!

I forced myself to get up, told my mom that I was sorry I was making her get up this early, spent the next hour getting into my under layers (not kidding, that's how long it takes), managed to get down half a piece of toast, threw it up before leaving, grabbed my outerwear, and said a last minute prayer that I wouldn't be sick again while loading the chair. My overactive imagination did what it always does in high-pressure situations... I could picture the newspaper headlines... "First Disabled Girl to Puke on First Chair". Ok Grace, deep breaths... In through the nose... Out through the mouth... I hate admitting that Scott's breathing exercises, which he nags me to do pretty much every time we're together, do actually work... We pulled up to the parking lot near the Timber chair, and the first person I saw was Scott, followed by at least 100 other people in line. Scott was all smiles and energy, which is surprising considering that he slept outside in December, until he saw my face. "How are you?" he said, "Besides green?" At that point I was just trying not to lose my mind... Ok ok, trying not to lose the rest of my mind...

I spent the next half an hour getting my outerwear on and trying not to sound like a basket case for the newspaper reporter. The next thing I knew, Scott was setting me into my sit ski, clipping me in, and whisking me over to the chairlift. I joined Ryan and G-Money, the other two incredible individuals who camped at the hill the night before. This would be the sixteenth first chair for G-Money, and I felt truly honoured to be sharing it with him. As I looked down the line of 100 eager faces waiting for the chairlift to open, I couldn't help feeling overwhelmed and grateful. That moment was the beginning of a new season for each of those individuals. A season full of new memories, adventures, discoveries. The energy of that moment was almost tangible. And there I was, a disabled skier, about to experience a skier's "right of passage". I wasn't disabled in that moment. I was a skier... which means more to me than words can describe. But at the same time, I was disabled, and I was being a trail blazer. It thrilled me that I could make this statement for the adaptive community. Impossible can be just an attitude, not a reality, not a definition, not a label, and never final. I was so proud that I could have that experience if only to show that anything is possible.

"You see this ticket?" said Sir Scott. "It's going on your sit ski, and it's not going to get covered or come off unless it's another first chair ticket." As the time grew nearer to load the first chair, the energy of the crowd stepped up a notch. The cheers, the hoots and hollers, the laughter, it was brilliant! And then the countdown began... "10, 9, 8, 7..." The crowds cheered, the Fernie Alpine Resort banner dropped, we skied onto the platform, chair number 1 whisked us away, and just like that it was over. I looked at the people beside me, heard the excitement behind me, and made a point of capturing the memory in my mind forever. The day I became the first sit skier to get first chair at Fernie Alpine Resort, and the beginning of many more adventures... Come back soon to hear more...

Sunday, 5 February 2017

Another Adventure Begins: Project Heli!

When separate, the words "what" and "if" can never amount to much. But put them together, and you have something powerful enough to change the world. "What if" is the key to unending possibilities. "What if" is a challenge to go beyond what is considered normal. "What if" can be a daunting term, which beckons into the unknown. "What if" can be the start of a new adventure. Asking myself "what if" has proved to be all of these things. It has opened a new chapter in my life and promises to leave me with memories to last a lifetime. "What if" is what brought me to my newest adventure... Project Heli.

"You have memories to look back on," Facebook told me one morning in May. Sometimes I would click on the friendly notification to take a walk through memory lane, either to smile at some forgotten thought or snapshot of the past, or to cringe over the ignorance of my youth. On May 19th as I scrolled through my memories for the day, one particular video caught my eye. "The Edge of Impossible" was the title. Curiosity got the better of me as I clicked the play button. I was instantly caught up in the journey of Tony Schmiesing, a quadriplegic sit skier, and his quest to become the first tandem bi-skier to heliski in Alaska. I watched his story with excitement, awe, and admiration. And when the video was done, those two little words popped into my mind. What if... My first instinct was to completely dismiss the idea as impossible. But I knew better... Now that the idea was there I could not dismiss it. Not till I had proven whether it was truly impossible or not... I quickly hit the share button on the video and sent it to Scott. He called me a few minutes afterwards. "Do you really want to try this Grace?" he said. "Because we know it's possible, so why can't we?" Why can't we? His words echoed through my mind. It was in that moment that our next ski adventure was born.

"What about Slaying Dragons?" Scott said as we were having a chat through messenger one night. Throughout the scheming phase of our new adventure, we had decided a documentary would be the best way to capture such a landmark. We already had Fernie photography great, Kyle Hamilton, on board to show my life through the lens. But finding a name which reflected all that the project was proved difficult. I skimmed through the list I had come up with, but I knew none of them could be the one. It had to have a certain ring to it. Something that would attract interest. I stared blankly at Scott's name and picture on messenger for a few moments, as if that would somehow help me to have a flash of brilliancy. But surprisingly that's when it came to me! "Short Sleeves and Burnt Pants?" I quickly typed. It was a little odd, and surely no one would understand that it was what our last names meant in French, and yet I felt like I had something... "Short Sleeves, Burnt Pants and...." Goggles? No. Dragons? No. "Short Sleeves, Burnt Pants, and Powder Skis?" I said as a final attempt. I saw the familiar "..." to let me know Scott was typing. "Winner winner chicken dinner! That's it!" Was the response I got. The Short Sleeves, Burnt Pants, and Powder Skis: Project Heli page appeared on Facebook shortly afterwards. The next few weeks were filled with planning, drafts and more drafts of sponsorship letters, hundreds of texts between Scott and I with plan As and plan Bs. After nagging my brother to use his artistic talents and design a logo for the project, he finally caved in and created something that perfectly reflected what we were tring to accomplish. Sponsor letters were sent out to heli companies, so all we had to do was wait... 

I had just about finished my routine walk around Fernie one beautiful day in summer when I heard the cheerful ring of my cellphone. I looked down at my phone to see Scott's name flash across the screen, and quickly told him I'd call back when I got home. "Hurry, you'll want to hear this... Call me!" His text said. My heart immediately went to my throat. I knew what it was, and the excitment I felt was overwhelming. I put my wheelchair in high gear and bolted home as fast as I could.
"Are you sitting down?" Scott said. I rolled my eyes and heaved a sigh at this usual sassy comment. "Purcell is in Grace!" The news sent me through the roof! Project heli went from being a bunch of hopeful plans to one step closer to reality. Shorty afterwards we found out our plan B, catskiing with Fernie Wilderness Adventures, also came together in the most amazing way. The support I've had from Purcell Heliskiing and FWA has been so overwhelming, it brings me to tears knowing they think I'm worthy of their sponsorship. 

As plans for the most epic season ever continued, heliskiing became the second to last adventure on our list. It would start with first chair of the season at Fernie Alpine Resort, conquering Polar Peak, a goal Scott and I had from the previous season, catskiing with Fernie Wilderness Adventures, heliskiing with Purcell Heliskiing, spending a few days in Whistler, and topping it all off with last chair of the season. Scott's goal was to give me every recreational skiing experience possible, and by our ambitious list of quests, the season of 2017 would not disappoint! So many dreams, dreams that would not only take me where I never expected to go, but also would break down barriers and preconceived notions of what is possible for individuals with disabilities. The season promised to be unlike any other... Stay tuned to find out more... :)

Saturday, 5 November 2016

Conquering The Saddle!

Hello there sunshine and welcome to another post!

My spirits were slightly low as I dressed in my ski gear for our final day in Whistler. With us leaving the next day, and this being our last day of skiing for the season, everything felt bittersweet. Had I known what was in store for me that morning I might have been more excited... All I knew was that Scott was taking me to ski The Saddle. Going up the gondola, The Saddle was just another run, coming down the gondola at the end of the day, The Saddle would represent victory and freedom. And one of the most terrifying runs I've ever been on... This day, with its mix of victory and terror, will forever hold the title "favourite ski adventure of 2016"! Whistler will have a special place in my heart because of it...

"That's The Saddle right there," Scott said on the way up the Peak chair. I glanced at The Saddle, then at Scott, then at Sarah. Sarah, the president of Whistler Adaptive and an all around fantastic human being, skied with us for the morning and took part in our glorious adventure. While riding the chair, we talked about our programs, which left me feeling slightly small in comparison to the superiority of Sarah's role as president of such a hugely successful program. I also attempted to tease Scott into feeling intimidated about sitting next to two lady presidents. My attempts to intimidate Scott are usually futile... Intimidating people in general is not my strong point... I took another sideways glance at The Saddle. "It doesn't look so bad," said my mind. Well reader, my mind was wrong... Yes, from the chairlift The Saddle did look non-threatening, but it is an entirely different beast when you're at the top of it.

Had Scott given me a moment's pause at the top, I may have had time to reconsider attempting to ski it. The Saddle is by far the steepest run I have ever looked down upon, and the fact that Scott wanted me to ski it made me wonder what I did to make him want to kill me. Maybe that was his plan all along, and he convinced Sarah to be in on it too! "Maybe I should've told my mother I loved her before leaving," I thought to myself. Giving me time to pull out of something is not Sir Scott's style, which I know all too well now... We barrelled over the top of The Saddle with no hesitation whatsoever, until we heard the sound...The sound that has the same skin-crawling effect as nails on a chalkboard... The sound was pure, rock hard ice under our skis... Neither of us had expected that. We pulled off to the side immediately to collect ourselves. I think this was the first time in our skiing together that Scott was noticeably nervous. I tried to distract myself by watching the other skiers, only to see that most of them were SIDESLIPPING down the run. Ironic if you ask me... Sarah had already made her way down the run and was filming us from the bottom. Filming our epic crash that would receive millions of views on Youtube. I'd be dead, but at least I'd be famously dead... My other comfort was in knowing that my mother would most likely kill Scott after discovering that he killed me on The Saddle... At least there's justice in this world!

When we were ready to continue, I took a deep breath, cleared my mind as best as I could, and braced myself for the first turn. If you ski, you might be able to relate to the butterfly feeling you get in your stomach when you make the first turn on a steep slope. I immediately discovered how thrilling those butterflies were. One turn, two turns, and before I knew it we had found our rhythm and were descending the run turn by turn. I'm sure my continuous scream of terror and joy was heard from Whistler all the way back to Fernie.... That's when it hit me. That ultimate sense of freedom that I had been hoping for. I completely forgot that I was in a sit ski, because for once I was doing something exciting and daring, slightly dangerous and at the same time thrilling. As we neared the end of the run, and I realized that I was indeed still alive, fear gave way to pure joy, and I found myself laughing and in tears all at the same time. Scott, who was apparently just as happy as I was to still be alive, began to hoot and holler and yell "THAT WAS AWESOME"! We were both laughing as we spun around and came to a stop at the bottom. The only thing that came to my mind at that moment was, "HOLY SHIT!" But apparently my mind decided thinking holy shit wasn't enough, because before I knew it, holy shit exited my lips with a louder volume than I had anticipated... Scott was pretty amused by this having never heard me swear before, and tried to make me repeat it for the camera, which I ignored. Skiing The Saddle and surviving was one thing... Swearing and surviving my mother is quite another... Her glare is like death...

Scott turned me around so we could stare at The Saddle and try to grasp what we had just done. I felt like I had been given a precious gift as I looked at that slope. There have been many times in my life when I felt like giving something up because of fear. But sit skiing has taught me that fear is the driving force behind victory. The Saddle was like the pinnacle of this journey of self-discovery I have been embarking on. The Saddle was my break through. The fear lasted only a moment, but the joy and the victory will last a lifetime. Conquering The Saddle will forever hold a special place in my heart.

I am forever thankful that I was given the opportunity to ski again this season. What I have seen and done this year was certainly beyond what I could ever imagine, and although not every experience was pleasant, the results have taught me so much about myself and have been a true joy in my life. The instructors who skied with me were my rocket fuel, taking me to new heights, and blessing my life beyond words. To everyone who was involved in my ski adventures this season, I say thank you... Thank you with all of my heart...


Thursday, 20 October 2016

I'm a Real Skier Now!

Hello there sunshine! Welcome back to the tales of ski adventuring! This post is brought to you by... Smiling... It's good for you... :)

Being in Whistler was a little surreal for me after having been there for the closing ceremonies of the Vancouver 2010 Paralympics. Little fourteen-year-old Grace was completely caught up in the spirit of the games that had infected Whistler village many years ago. It was as if this spirit had been saturated into the ground, and into the very walls of the buildings, as twemty-year-old Grace walked through the village. I think the best way to describe Whistler is upbeat. There's a constant excitement that just seems to hang in the air and pulsate through every living creature. The feeling is so real it's almost tangible. But I think to truly know the essence that is Whistler, one must go there and experience it in person, which I highly recommend of course.

Our first day was spent getting to know the workings of Whistler Adaptive Snow Program, a massive, hugely successful, and slightly intimidating program. Winter sports are just one of the many recreational outlets for WASP. We spent the morning listening to presentations by the individuals who make this organization a success. The amount of work and effort it takes to run a program with hundreds of members is completely overwhelming... In comparison, my getting stressed over the 40 members involved with my program seems utterly ridiculous. I crammed so much information into my poor head that morning I felt sure my brain was going to explode. In the afternoon there was even more learning to be done, as we participated in an Autism/cognitive delay course offered exclusively by Whistler Adaptive. By the end of the day I think my brain did explode...

The next day I was up bright and early, buzzing with excitement and anticipation over my first day of skiing. After skiing with me in Fernie, Wylie insisted on being the one to introduce me to all the wonders of Whistler Blackcomb. I must say that being on his own turf made Wylie a completely different person. I've been carefully considering how to describe Wylie so my readers can understand him... Dearest reader, I admit to my own defeat in this circumstance. There are no words I could possibly use to describe Wylie... To attempt it would be an injustice. Furthermore, to praise any of his qualities would only fuel his ego, which is something one simply must not do as a rule. To that effect, Wylie is quiet, boring, plays it safe at all costs, and isn't at all pleasant to be around. There, I tried.

The first day out on skis was really just spent trying to get to know my surroundings, Wylie, and the fact that the mountain is HUGE! It takes two gondola rides to get to the very top, and the weather at mid-mountain can be completely different than at the top. We took it easy to begin with, staying at mid-mountain and going slow. That was partly due to Wylie and I trying to adjust to each other, and partly because it was raining and extremely foggy. I skied all morning, took a lunch break, and went back out again in the afternoon, which I will mention is the longest I've ever skied at one time.

The next day was one of my favourite days of the whole week. Why? It was the first time I had ever been on the very top of a mountain. The day before Wylie had promised he'd take me on the Peak chair, and I spent the whole evening wondering what it was going to be like. Well, if I'm honest, I spent most of the night wondering if I really belonged up there. Going to the top of mountains was for real skiers, and in my mind, I wasn't one of them. I tried to push these thoughts away as we rode the chair to the top. I like to think I have a pretty creative imagination, but not even I could dream up what I saw when we cleared the chairlift. Again this is a scene that my words will fail to describe, other than to say that it was the most majestic view I've ever seen. Wylie let me sit there for a while, drinking in the beauty of my surroundings. One could turn in a complete circle and see mountains on all sides. Each peak has a personality and character of its own. As we skied a little farther, we came to look out over a lake, so crystal clear it reflected the mountains surrounding it with perfect accuracy. Everything I saw felt like a dream, and yet, so wonderful it couldn't be a dream. I couldn't be more thankful that Wylie gave me the opportunity to see the world in such a way. I won't ever be able to forget it.

After coming back to reality, even though it WAS reality which is still hard to believe, Wylie took me to ski an area he knew I'd love. The run weaves through the trees, and when the sunlight shines through the open spaces, it casts the most enchanting shadows on the snow. I kind of felt bad for Wylie, because instead of paying attention to our synchronization, I watched the light and the shadows move as we passed them. As we came to the bottom of the run, I found myself saying something I never in my wildest dreams expected to say.
"I feel like a real skier you know," I said. I could literally feel the glow radiating from my cheeks. "I can't believe I just said that! But it's true. For once in my life I'm doing something everyone else gets to do, and I don't feel different. I feel what everyone else feels. I saw what everyone else sees. I don't know... I just... I feel like a real skier. I AM a real skier." I have Wylie to thank for this victory, and I'll keep that day in my heart forever.

The goal was to ski every Alpine lift on both Whistler, the "light side" according to Mr. Wylie the Gandalf Jedi, and Blackcomb, the "dark side". And we did just that! Wylie lost his Gandalf Jedi powers upon arrival on the dark side, and was dismayed when I informed him that I liked the dark slightly better than the light... In my best smart ass manner I reminded him of that the entire week.

By the end of the week, I had skied more than I think I ever have before, learned that Wylie doesn't take to teasing very well (which I used to my advantage of course), and saw myself and my abilities in a whole new light. I was having the time of my life, and didn't believe it could get any better, but little did I know what was waiting for me on our very last day. Be sure to come back for the last installment of my Whistler excursion, and my favourite adventure of all! Coming soon! :)

Click here for Whistler skiing video: