Mind over mountain

As adaptive adventure sports boom in the West, a paralyzed athlete pushes his limits.

  • Jon Arnow crutch-hikes, skis and kayaks around Lake Tahoe, using specialized equipment that he either designed or helped manufacturers create for disabled athletes like himself.

    Ryan Salm
  • Jon Arnow pushes the limits of adaptive adventure sports.

    Ryan Salm
  • Jon Arnow crutch-walks – or crawls, when necessary – up a trail in North Canyon during a recent Grand Canyon rafting trip.

    Jon Arnow
  • Jon Arnow ascends the Atlantic Ocean Wall on the southeast face of Yosemite's El Capitan, in 1997, before the skiing accident that almost killed him.

    Jon Arnow
  • Arnow in the hospital after his accident, his wife, Debbie, standing by, center.

    Jon Arnow
  • A later X-ray revealing the steel rods and screws that were installed in 2008 to support his spine.

    Jon Arnow
  • Jon Arnow, paddling on Lake Tahoe, learned the hard way about the special equipment he needs for kayaking.

    Ryan Salm

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Over the previous days, a warm front had driven rain high up the slopes. Then temperatures plummeted, freezing the saturated snow. Arnow, a powder hound, rarely sharpened the edges of his skis, and now he couldn't stop. He picked up speed. The chute forked, and he careened over the rocks in between. When he woke, he struggled to catch his breath and saw feces and blood. He'd punctured his lungs, and the lobes of his pelvis had been driven in opposite directions "like two propeller blades," ripping his colon from his rectum, and opening a wound "you could put a fist in," he says. He had cracked his sacrum and burst his highest lumbar vertebra, damaging a bundle of nerves at the base of the spinal cord called the cauda equina. He couldn't feel his legs. When his friend reached him, Arnow deadpanned, "You know, I've skied that better."

Arnow spent 51 days in intensive care in Reno. Then he moved with his wife, Debbie, and 12-year-old son to Englewood, Colo., to be treated in Craig Hospital, a leader in rehabilitation for spinal cord and traumatic brain injuries. Craig attracts military veterans and outdoor athletes and is known for the adventures it offers – sailing, horse-packing, scuba diving and downhill mountain biking, to name a few. Due to the misery and disorientation of their injuries, patients sometimes shy away from sports, but athletics can work wonders, says Claire Cahow, one of Craig's recreation therapists. "They get away from a hospital setting and realize, 'Oh my God, life is going on out here. I need to join in.' "

Colorado was familiar ground, not only for Arnow, but also for Debbie, a nurse who had studied and worked in the Denver area in the past. Their combined medical expertise would prove invaluable in the months to come, but they would nonetheless face a steep learning curve. When Arnow arrived at Craig, he weighed 110 pounds – thin enough that his watch slid onto his biceps if he lifted his arm. His doctors had put his chance of survival at less than 1 percent, and he'd barely beaten the odds. "I was such a basket case," he says. "I was very much in pain." Cahow took him into her office and showed him videos of other disabled athletes, most notably Mark Wellman, a paraplegic who scaled the 3,000-foot face of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park in 1989. For that climb, Wellman had done more than 7,000 pull-ups, ascending ropes fixed by an able-bodied partner. It was an opening act in the era of adaptive adventure sports. "It was massive," says one writer who specializes in spinal cord issues. "That climb blew open the doors." Arnow, who had climbed El Cap six times before he was injured, wondered if he would perform such feats again.

Victims of traumatic spinal cord injuries can spend months or years in denial, fighting the finality of their loss, sometimes searching in vain for a cure. When someone loses the ability to walk, "there's a clutching that goes on," says Candace Cable, a disabled rights advocate and athlete who has won a dozen Paralympic medals. After damaging her spine in a car accident in 1975, she isolated herself from family and friends, bewildered and depressed. Eventually, she found camaraderie and self-confidence in athletics. She hadn't been a competitive athlete before her injury, but she went on to help pioneer the sport of wheelchair racing, won the women's wheelchair division of the Boston Marathon six times, and became the only American woman, disabled or otherwise, who has taken an overall title in World Cup Nordic skiing. When she met Arnow, he impressed her with his unflinching appraisal of his injury. She lives near Lake Tahoe, as does Wellman. The day after Arnow returned from rehab, he called both of them. "He was looking at the problem and saying, 'Hmm, OK, let's just see how we can make this work for me,' " Cable recalls. "He fully understood the ramifications."

In 2001, Barry Corbet, a paraplegic journalist, delivered a speech at Craig Hospital describing those with spinal cord injuries as "conquerors of the ordinary." Corbet had been an accomplished climber before he broke his back in a helicopter crash in 1968, and the comment was a riff on the title of a classic mountaineering book, Conquistadors of the Useless. At Craig, Corbet spoke on a topic most of his audience already knew too well: For those with damaged spinal cords, daily life demands the navigation of many minutiae, some dangerous. Bowels and bladder become unruly, prone to obstruction, infection and other sudden, unpleasant surprises. Skin ulcers can develop in a matter of hours if a person without sensation rests too long in one position; if infected, they can be lethal. Circulatory problems crop up. Sexual function may fail. "We find adventure in reaching the unreachable object, in scratching the unscratchable itch," Corbet said. "We find it every time our equipment breaks down or an attendant doesn't show up. Our conquests are ordinary as dirt – but they are adventures and it helps if we see them that way."

Just before his accident, Arnow had been planning to ski the Haute Route, a multiday journey over the glaciers of the French and Swiss Alps. When he returned from rehab, he found his duffels waiting for him, not yet unpacked. Now, simply getting out of bed demanded the finesse of a rock climber. He could maneuver around the house without a wheelchair, but it was a precarious undertaking – a stumble from room to room, braced on a countertop, a wall, a cane. At the same time, he was becoming acquainted with neurogenic pain, a chronic condition that can afflict those with damaged spinal cords. Arnow's lower body, otherwise numb, tingled and burned with a severity that defied drugs, and, sometimes, description. He searched for motivation, telling himself he had to set a positive example for his son, but still, the pain isolated him, forcing him to close his medical practice, and leaving him curled in bed for long hours, cut off from his family. The mountains offered solace. "I loved skiing as much as anyone can love skiing," he says. "It was damn important to get back on snow."

Arnow didn't miss a season. In the winter of 2003, he drove to Alpine Meadows, the site of his injury, to train with Disabled Sports Far West, a nonprofit based beside the resort's bunny hill. It was an auspicious, if humble, place for a new beginning. The organization began half a century earlier, when a group of injured World War II veterans, members of the 10th Mountain Division, took to the slopes at small resorts on Donner Pass, above Truckee, Calif. For balance, amputee skiers back then wielded heavy steel outriggers – essentially crutches fitted with sawed-off ski tips. With the Vietnam War, participation surged. "It was crazy," recalls Kirk Bauer, who joined as a participant after losing a lower leg in Vietnam and has since become director of the national nonprofit Disabled Sports USA. "You were scrounging for equipment. You were scrounging around for donations. We were making up the ski teaching methods as we went." In its early days, the group was called the National Amputee Skiing Association. Its model proved popular, and offshoots spread to other ski towns, then elsewhere across the country.

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