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Out of Bounds

Reprinted from SNS May 2018

Backcountry Powder Camp takes advanced adaptive skiers way beyond the ropes in northwest Montana

On a hillside 20 miles from the nearest paved road between Whitefish, Mont., and the Canadian border, 24-year-old Odie Pierce screamed through the pine trees on his modified Praschberger monoski and launched off a snow-covered rock ledge, catching 15 feet of air. His perfect landing kicked up a huge white cloud, from which he emerged moments later sporting snow-crusted goggles and a grin fitting for someone who’d just charted new territory.

This is Backcountry Powder Camp, a unique winter program for elite adaptive athletes hosted by Whitefish-based nonprofit Dream Adaptive Recreation and its local partner, Great Northern Powder Guides. For one week each February, a handful of intermediate to advanced skiers or snowboarders with permanent physical disabilities learn avalanche safety and cruise the runs of Whitefish Mountain Resort in the wilderness just west of Glacier National Park.

“You’ve got tight trees with a steep pitch and deep snow, and it’s epic,” says Pierce, who was born with a segmentation defect, missing his spinal cord from T4 to L2. “If that’s what you want, this is where you get it.”

Sound fun? The skis may be packed away for this season, but if you’ve got the chops and a passion for powder, it’s not too early to secure a spot for 2019.

True Backcountry Experience

Like many adaptive sports programs, most of Dream Adaptive’s offerings are instructive or encourage beginners to test their boundaries by learning new skills. But former Executive Director Cheri DuBeau Carlson had a different goal when she launched the Backcountry Powder Camp in 2016 — get advanced powder-hungry athletes into tree-heavy terrain they might not otherwise reach.

For help, she turned to Montana native Lucas Grossi, a single-leg amputee and a trailblazer in the professional adaptive snowboarding world, who had designed and coordinated freestyle camps for organizations in Oregon through the 2000s. The result is a destination vacation package that includes three-star lodging, fine dining, a hot springs trip, two days on Whitefish Mountain’s groomed trails and three days of guided snowcat skiing at a highly subsidized price.

The camp accommodates up to seven athletes, depending on the mix of sit-skiers and standing skiers or snowboarders. To make sure they can handle the challenging conditions of the backcountry, Grossi requires each applicant to submit a video of himself or herself skiing or riding in deep snow and advanced terrain, as well as testimony from a ski program director or coach confirming his or her abilities.

Wally Lee had no trouble qualifying for this year’s camp, held Feb. 11-17. The 55-year-old retiree long enjoyed mountain biking, climbing and backcountry skiing in the Wasatch Mountains near his Salt Lake City home.

“I love the solitude of the backcountry,” he says. “In the wintertime, you’re not confined to trails. You can travel anywhere you want because of the snow. It’s kind of an escape.”

That love was tested 16 years ago when he was following his 9-year-old daughter down a sledding hill and lost control, striking a tree. The impact damaged his spinal cord at T10, paralyzing him below the belly button.

“After I got hurt, I didn’t want to do any of the stuff that I did before because it just reminded me of what used to be,” he says.

But when his daughter reached high school and he grew nostalgic for family ski trips, he made a cautious return to the slopes in a monoski.

“It was golden. It’s hard to explain,” Lee says. “Skiing is one of those activities where someone who has a spinal-cord injury (SCI) can get pretty good and can ski the same runs and lines as able-bodied people.”

It wasn’t long before he was skiing groomed resort trails three or four days a week and longing for a way into the backcountry. Pierce encouraged Lee to apply to Dream Adaptive’s camp.

Backcountry skiing comes with plenty of hazards, from avalanches to tree wells — areas of deep, unpacked snow near the base of trees. Backcountry Powder Camp begins with a half-day seminar from the Flathead Avalanche Center that gives the athletes hands-on experience using two-way avalanche beacons, probes and shovels, all tools that are essential to locate and uncover someone who’s buried in the snow.

“We’re the only adaptive organization in the country that actually offers avalanche training and awareness to people with physical disabilities,” Grossi says. “Everyone out there needs to appreciate the dangers and have the knowledge of how to save a person in their party.”


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