SNOWBIRD, UT -- As four hands worked around him to snap buckles together and tighten straps, 70-year old Johnny Proctor Longson told KSL he was feeling a little nervous.
"I don’t know about these sleds," he said, eyeing the contraption they were strapping him into.
Longson spent his life skiing, but hadn’t been back on the slopes for well over a year after a series of illnesses and hospital stays left the man feeling too weak for extreme sports.
"I told my wife, I says, I think it’s time for us to give up skiing," Longson said. "She says, how come? And I says because if I fell and broke my leg it would take me forever to heal."
That ended this year as Longson let two instructors strap him into a sled on skis. Kari Dougherty, the recreation director with Rocky Mountain Care Hunter Hollow in West Valley, says getting back out on the mountain can be scary for her residents but it can also be an incredible experience.
"It gives them a chance to be themselves, rather than be defined by their disabilities," Dougherty said. "Being up here on the mountain is just empowering for them, and they seem happier."
Longson didn’t venture out alone. Todd Mears is a quadruple amputee who spent years in nursing homes before trying his hand at adaptive skiing. Mears is not very verbal, but Dougherty says when he gets on the mountain he comes alive.
"He’s interacting with people more, he’s cracking jokes more, where typically he’s just kind of quiet. It’s the same for all of them. It seems like being up here on the mountain is empowering for them. They seem happier," Dougherty said.
The third man in this skiing trio is Justin Hepler, the resident who started it all for the nursing home.
"We came up [to Snowbird] with Justin and we were going by the little ski shop," Dougherty explained. "He just looked at the skis and looked at me and said I wish I could ski again. And I looked at him and I thought, I think we can! I think we can make that happen."
After a disease attacked Hepler’s nervous system, the formerly active man lost much of the control he had over his body. Dougherty knew typical skis wouldn’t work, so she reached out to a program called Wasatch Adaptive Sports, at the Snowbird ski resort, and using a sled built on skis, Hepler got his day on the slopes.
"I am like, I knew I could. I could ski," Hepler said.
That was three years ago. In January, Dougherty brought Justin up for his third year of alternative skiing, and Longson’s first.
"It’s such a rush to see these people who typically hang out in wheelchairs. They don’t realize that just because they have a disability doesn’t mean they can’t do something," Dougherty said. "We’re trying to teach them even with a disability you can do anything. We just have to figure out different ways and modes you can do it."
Eight of Dougherty’s residents have made it up on Snowbird’s slopes now. Longson is the most recent convert to adaptive skiing, and says he’ll definitely recommend it to other nursing home residents.
"Once you get used to the balance, it’s great," Longson said. "For someone worried about skiing, that’s the way to go."
As for Hepler, Dougherty says he’s since inspired adaptive swimming adventures for the residents and wants to try virtual sky-diving next.