"God, it's great to be alive!" Craig Kennedy exulted this week. "Every year, some of my friends say, 'Ah, I think I'm over it.' But I'm less over it every year. I don't think I'll ever get over it."
The "it" Kennedy hasn't gotten over isn't life per se, but skiing. Or maybe "it" is Kennedy's life in skiing. He made his life-affirming exclamation Jan. 6 near the summit of Buffalo Pass with 1,000 feet of untracked powder spread out in front of him. And there wasn't anyone in his party of almost 25 people who didn't feel the same way.
However, for Kennedy, skiing symbolizes tremendous ups and downs.
The accident happened March 24, 1996. Kennedy was headed down Mount Werner after a work shift and for the first time in two years of skiing Steamboat, he decided to point his skis down an advanced run named Vertigo.
"I went to get some air, and my feet went out in front of me," Kennedy said. "The next thing I remember is the ski patrol standing over me."
The spinal cord injury Kennedy suffered in the fall meant he would become a wheelchair user. But it didn't mean the end of skiing. Kennedy skied four or five times in March 1997, using a piece of equipment described alternately as a "mono-ski" or "sit-ski."
Kennedy and 18 adaptive skiers from the Breckenridge Outdoor Education Center were tearing up the snow on Buffalo Pass last week courtesy of Steamboat Powdercats/Blue Sky West. There were other skiers using mono-skis like Kennedy's as well as skiers with amputations. Some of the skiers who were missing limbs chose to stand on a single ski; others preferred two skis.
Steamboat Powdercats guides such as Kevin Owens worked hard to find slopes that gave the sit-skiers just the right combination of pitch and snow depth that would allow their skis to plane through the snow.
"Just stay away from tree wells and beware of the cat roads," Owens urged.
Kennedy was in some very fast company last week. A few skiers on the trip were members of the U.S. Disabled Ski Team who had just completed a series of races in Park City, Utah, before aiming for the powder on Buffalo Pass.
Chris Canfield skis upright on a single ski. He explained that in deep snow it's much more difficult to float in the powder when all your weight is on one ski. Canfield made it look easy.
Retired U.S. Disabled Ski Team member Sarah Will, using a sit-ski, earned more face shots than anyone else, and her smile was evidence of that fact.
However, it was Kennedy who threw air off a rock, landed his sit-ski and skied away from the landing without a bobble.
Quintin Gray uses a sit-ski and has been teaching at Breckenridge for seven years. He said the goals of sit-skiers are similar to those of skiers who stand on two skis.
"Wherever your eyes and chest go is where you are going to go," Gray said. "In this powder, just to get off your outriggers is the hard part."
Gray explained that on groomed slopes, sit-skiers quickly become accustomed to leaning on their outriggers as they bank a turn. That technique doesn't work in the nearly bottomless fluff on Buff Pass.
The sit-skiers were followed closely down the mountain by guides from the Breckenridge Outdoor Education Center. Anytime they fell, which was often during the first four runs of the day, they relied on their guides to extricate them from the snow.
Tim Hannon of Denver began volunteering with BOEC nine years ago and has been on staff for the past four. He and Gray traded good-natured barbs every time Hannon had to stop to pull his friend out of the snow.
"There's a special bond," Hannon said. "The BOEC is like a family. We have our boys, and we're pretty tight."