DURANGO MOUNTAIN RESORT – The monoski glides smoothly downhill, piloted by an obviously skilled 13-year-old.
“This is SO hard,” he says as he angles the device into a quick turn and whips past us.
We think he’s being facetious because it’s a beginner slope and no longer a real challenge for him, but sometimes it’s hard to tell with Noah Blue Elk Hotchkiss.
One thing we can see, very easily, is that he’s come a long way since Nov. 16, 2009 – a date that brought inconceivable tragedy to his Durango family.
“It’s awesome,” Jason Hotchkiss, says about seeing his son cruising along like there’s nothing to it. “Now that he’s having fun with it.”
On the aforementioned date 2½ years ago, Jason Hotchkiss boarded a plane at the Durango-La Plata County Airport, bound for Denver. His wife, Cassandra Yazzie-Hotchkiss, and children Noah, Amada, now 10, and Dante, now 7, dropped him off and headed out. Near Oxford, an oncoming truck veered into their lane, causing a head-on collision.
Yazzie-Hotchkiss, a recent Fort Lewis College graduate at age 30, died at the scene. The three children were all seriously injured and flown in separate planes to Denver. Dante spent three weeks in a coma. Amada suffered a badly broken leg among other injuries. Noah had a broken back and was paralyzed from the waist down.
Meanwhile, Jason Hotchkiss had landed in Denver and turned his cellphone on while the plane was taxiing to the terminal. He had 27 messages. As he listened, the news got worse and worse.
“It’s still a traumatic moment. If I think about it, I just ... ,” Hotchkiss says. “There’s nothing that can prepare somebody for that phone call.”
It was nearly three months before all the children could return to Durango. Although Noah looked the best right after the accident and was most coherent, his injury was not going to heal.
“He knew right away,” Jason Hotchkiss says.
We’re sitting outside the Adaptive Sports Association office while Noah takes his Wednesday lesson. Maybe “lesson” is the wrong word at this point. It’s not a lesson so much as just skiing with a few pointers here and there. Noah’s “instructors” aid him in getting on and off the lift in his sit-ski.
Earlier I’d asked him what attracted him to skiing. Adaptive Sports volunteers Andy Asmuth and Mollie McLam, who often hit the slopes with Noah, were within hearing distance.
“Being able to bypass my instructors and leave them in the dust,” Noah says loudly.
“You can’t bypass me, dude,” Asmuth pipes up.
He’s barely a teenager, and he’s certainly got a lot of kid in him, but when he’s serious, Noah sounds more like a young man who’s been through a trauma that has forced him to mature beyond his years.
“It gives me a sense of freedom,” Noah says about why he enjoys skiing.
That feeling of speed, and of being able to control that speed even without the use of legs, is something the former snowboarder appreciates. It’s unique and exhilarating.
The accident occurred in November, and the next February, Noah showed up at Adaptive Sports for his first try. Usually the recommended waiting time for someone who has lost the use of limbs is a year or more, says Tim Kroes, Adaptive Sports’ executive director.
“A hundred days after the accident, he was up,” Jason Hotchkiss says. “It was pretty incredible.”
Hotchkiss constantly praises the staff for its work with Noah. Instructors quickly took him through the progression. The first step is a “bucket assist,” where an instructor holds the sit-ski, a device consisting of a moulded seat on a metal frame that’s mounted onto a ski. The skier uses outriggers – short, arm-mounted poles attached to mini-skis.
The next step is a double tether, with which the instructor can assist a turn. Finally, a single tether allows the instructor to control the monoskier’s speed. After that, you’re on your own.
Noah always has been athletic, and with a good attitude and only a few minor setbacks, soon he was speeding down the slopes.
“It’s frustrating to learn, but he’s always gone for it,” McLam says. “He’s really improved.”
“If it’s groomed,” Asmuth says, “he can do anything,” no matter how steep.
Early inspiration came from Alana Nichols of Farmington, an Adaptive Sports grad who had just won two gold medals at the 2010 Winter Paralympics in Vancouver when she returned to the place where she’d gotten her start. Coincidentally, after struggling with the steep learning curve sit-skiers face, Noah had just enjoyed his first good day on the slopes.
Nichols let Noah borrow her medals to see how they’d look around his neck. They looked very nice. So now, Noah has his sights set on the 2014 Paralympics in Russia. He entered his first race last month during the Dave Spencer Ski Classic at Purgatory.
After two-plus seasons, Noah now is helping others adapt.
“Probably the greatest thing this year has been him getting to instruct the other scholarship students that come here,” Jason Hotchkiss says. “He’s feeling good about what he does.”
For Hotchkiss, seeing all three kids make their way back is gratifying. He has his hands full, keeping track of five children in all (15-year-old David and 17-year-old Alicia were not in the accident), but during ski season, he knows where he’s going on Wednesdays.
“Now, I’m in trouble if I even consider not coming up here on Wednesday,” Hotchkiss says. “I’ll hear about it.”
Ski season’s over, but Noah has other ways of staying active. He’s a river-runner. Last year, he kayaked a stretch of the Upper San Juan River on his own. Last week, the family rafted on the Lower San Juan in Utah.
With a Segway, adapted with a seat, he’s able to navigate backcountry trails. Last year, with some precautions along steep slopes, he was able to make it up to Gudy’s Rest along the Colorado Trail.
Backpacking also has become a possibility. Noah and Middle Mountain School classmate Dylan Kroes, son of Tim Kroes, are modifying a Segway to tow a wheelchair that will hold Noah’s backpack.
Jason Hotchkiss counts his blessings for the resources available in a relatively small town, the Adaptive Sports Association high among those.
Noah continues to show that with a good attitude, a supportive family and some handy friends, the seemingly impossible may be possible.
firstname.lastname@example.org. John Peel writes a weekly human interest column.