A crazy circle brings him back

PURGATORY – Over there is where I flew 219 feet and pulverized my left leg into 26 pieces, the tall, earnest man tells you.

These slopes, Bryan East continues, motioning to the Columbine beginners’ area to his right, “I knocked all the trees down to build this thing.”

And the 59-year-old San Diego resident recalls the season that Dave Spencer, an amputee, showed up and helped launch what became the Adaptive Sports Association. East’s printing business once made T-shirts for the association’s fundraiser.

It takes awhile for these circumstances to merge together in your brain. East’s story ties together so nicely that it seems built not so much with threads but ropes.

In a nutshell: Bryan East, who once groomed snow in winters and cleared trees in summers to create many of Purgatory’s slopes, visited recently to learn how to ski on his two new prosthetic legs. So by happenstance, he’s a beneficiary of what he helped make.

East is very willing to share his story in the hopes of creating more opportunities for adaptive skiers and to laud the program Purgatory started in 1983. He’s also not shy about sharing, in a matter-of-fact and sometimes graphic way, the condition he’s found himself in.

He and Adaptive Sports volunteer instructor Dave Trautmann are taking a lunch break on this blue-sky, late-January day.

Tips such as carving wider turns and lifting his head have allowed East to make huge strides by his third day on the mountain.

“I can’t say enough about this guy and what they do up here,” East says of Trautmann. “Every time they tell me something, it’s something I should be doing. They have nailed it.”

Trautmann says 15 years after being named Adaptive Sports volunteer “rookie of the year” at age 55, it doesn’t get old. “You get hooked on it,” he says.

He obviously appreciates East’s grit and his positive attitude. He’s also getting some insight into Purgatory’s early days.

East grew up in the Denver area and came to Durango in 1971 to attend Fort Lewis College. But he had a weakness for skiing and driving snowcats and instead found Purgatory, then in its formative years. In 1972, he took a full-time job and continued to work part- and full-time until he left Durango in 1989.

He recalls felling trees to build lifts 3, 4, 5 and 8 and the runs surrounding them. And he recalls that day in 1978, his leg exploded upon impact after going off the gelande jump during a competition. His crushed leg healed, but he knew, long term, he’d have issues with it.

“I’ve been mentally prepared to lose one leg,” he says.

East and his wife, Stacey, opened the silkscreen printing business Paradise Productions in the 1980s on County Road 203 across from what was then Sweeney’s Restaurant.

Two decades ago, the Easts moved west to San Diego, where he now works as a landscape architect.

Two years ago, he developed a strep infection that, because of complications with diabetes and a condition called Charcot foot, lodged in the bones of his ankles.

The raging infection made him delirious to the point where he lost track of time and didn’t recognize his wife. Then the bone infection led to a blood infection.

“At that point they basically started cutting off chunks until they found fresh meat,” he says. “Then, they could stop there.”

Between June 5 and June 28, 2011, he had five surgeries and lost both lower legs 15 centimeters from the middle of the knee. At that point in the grim retelling he brightens up.

“But I’ve got a matched set, man,” he says. “They are dead on. Seriously.”

And, later, he says, “I went into the hospital 6-(foot)-5, 220 (pounds) and I came out 5-2, 146.”

He takes one prosthetic off and puts it back on. We hear the compression sound, an indication of the vacuum that’s created to keep it attached. He also uses a neoprene wrap in case the vacuum fails.

“There’d be nothing worse than riding a chair (lift) and having your leg fall off,” he laughs.

For the last 15 months, he’s been perfecting walking on his prosthetics. He plays tennis, kayaks and, now, skis.

“I don’t do anything different,” he says. “I just do things differently. ... I have to do it the way you do it when you have no legs.”

The recent ski trip to Purgatory came about from another rope in this story. The Torrey Pines Kiwanis Club of San Diego sponsors Durango trips for several groups of adaptive skiers each year. East was aware of the connection. As he lay in his hospital bed, having epiphanies about what he could do next, he thought about applying. He did, and was accepted.

He’s still gushing about his teachers as he wolfs down part of a salad and sandwich and heads for the ski lift. And he’s emphasizing the role he and others need to take in being advocates for the disabled and challenged. Hanging around the Adaptive Sports hut there at the base of the Columbine area will do that to a person.

“You see the kids in here with smiles on their faces,” East says. “If that doesn’t melt your heart, you don’t have one.”

johnp@durangoherald.com.John Peel writes a weekly human-interest column.

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