Published January 28, 2011
It was 1947 in Sun Valley, and there was a man skiing with a big wedge under his right heel that was almost an inch and a half high.
He also had a long spring from six inches above the top of his boot to a point midway to the back of his ski. He skied using a very different style with the same knee behind the other no matter which way he turned. I found out he had lost his leg in World War II. He was the first amputee I’d ever seen making turns on skis.
For many years I devoted part of my feature ski films to segments on people who had overcome seemingly insurmountable odds to find their freedom on the side of a hill. My first ski film in 1949, “Deep and Light” featured a blind skier on the rope tow hill in big moguls at Squaw Valley.
I’ve had the pleasure of meeting and turning my cameras on people like Diana Golden, who lost her leg to cancer at age 11. She went on to win more than 30 gold and silver medals in World and Olympic competition. In her prime, she could jog a mile on her crutches in less than 10 minutes. I can’t do that with two legs. Hal O’Leary of Winter Park, the real pioneer in developing teaching methods for disabled skiers, appeared in several of my films helping people overcome seemingly impossible odds.
Once I was skiing in Vail with a group of disabled skiers—these days renamed as adaptive skiers. I was asked to guess which leg was real on my skiing companion. His technique was so good I guessed the wrong leg.
In my 1957 film, Ed Siegel of Salt Lake City came to see the movie. Appearing in that film was an amputee ski patrolman handling a toboggan as a member of the Sun Valley Ski Patrol. Ed had lost a leg in a ski accident but after coming to the film, he got back on his skis and sponsored my movies. Now over 80, he lives and still skis in Sun Valley.
Recently a friend, Dan, told me of a horrific incident his brother had endured. He was part of a research expedition in Greenland and was forced to spend 60 hours in a snow cave at sub-zero temperatures. This was after he and his partner got lost on snowmobiles during a blizzard and a whiteout. When he was rescued he had frozen both of his Achilles tendons and both of his wrists. As a result he was flown to the burn center at the University of California at Davis to endure a triple amputation of both of his feet and one hand.
Dan and I talked about it at length and I learned that his brother, Jake Gibbons, is having prosthesis’ made for his feet with the sole of a ski boot molded in so he can once again make well-controlled turns on the side of a hill and get his freedom back.
I think having the sole of a ski boot molded into the artificial foot is a great idea. That’s because, as many of my handicapped friends say, “It’s almost impossible to find a ski boot that will fit over an artificial ankle because the ankle doesn’t bend.” The limb with the ski boot soles molded in also has an adjustable articulated hinge for the ankle. The angle can be adjusted to the kind of snow he or she will be skiing in.
I hope one or more of the younger generation of ski filmmakers will find my friend’s brother, Jake, and turn their cameras on him. Seeing him would be an inspiration to a lot of less fortunate people. Meanwhile, many Iraq and Afghanistan veterans could use the simple method I’ve described to get back out there and make some turns and regain some of the freedom they left on a foreign battlefield so that you and I can enjoy the freedom of riding a chairlift at our favorite ski mountain.
Hannes Schneider said it well after he finished training the Austrian ski troops during and after World War I in 1919. He said, “If everyone skied, there would be no wars.”
None of us can change what has gone before, but we can lend a helping hand to people who want to get their freedom back on the side of a snow-covered hill. Why don’t you introduce someone to freedom on skis for the first time? There are a lot of handicapped ski programs. Check with your local ski resort and lend some of your freedom time to someone who has lost theirs.