How skiing can save your life

For many, time out at the snow is an opportunity to forget reality for a day, a week or a month. Those working a ski season can easily put "real life" on hold for up to four months, lost in "resort time".

For others, skiing isn’t about suspending reality but embracing it. When life deals you less than a royal flush it is how you play those cards that sees you win or lose.

I tried so hard to be cool it nearly killed me.

Liberty Skis Australia-sponsored athlete, 23-year-old Murray Bartram - aka "The Flying Muzz" - was born with cerebal palsy to parents determined to see him live a full life.  Sports helped Muzz manage his condition and at the age of 14 he discovered snowboarding, and then skiing.

'Skiing is what got me through the grief,' says Murray Bartram - aka 'The Flying Muzz' - of his father's death.
'Skiing is what got me through the grief,' says Murray Bartram - aka 'The Flying Muzz' - of his father's death. 

He was taken under the wing of Disabled Winter Sports Australia and became a promising ski racer before spending his post-HSC summer in the snow city of Kimberley in Canada, training with the local race team and coming home with five medals.

Then tragedy hit. Muzz’s father was diagnosed with terminal cancer, and told he had only weeks to live. He passed away mid Australian winter. Murray was 18.

"Skiing is what got me through the grief," says Murray. "I skied every day for four weeks, just free-skiing to help me with the loss. Dad always wanted me to ski and supported my passion. When I ski I think of dad."

Loving life ... Jason Sauer.
Loving life ... Jason Sauer. 

Five years on Murray has completed a degree, something his father wanted, and has even gone heli skiing in Alaska.

Hotham-based sit skier, Queenslander Jason Sauer, wasn't born with his disability. He lost his legs at 39 in a double amputation. Like Murray, he too skis for his dad.

Jason also discovered snowboarding as a teenager for five days a year on school holidays when he and his brother got to spend bonding time with their divorced father, an Austrian who lived in Mansfield and spent the winters working at the Victorian ski fields.

From the age of 16 to 23, Jason took up more than just snowboarding. He took up smoking marijuana and was kicked out of ski resorts when working a season because he would show up late, if at all. It was during this time his father died of bowel cancer.

"All the stoners were snowboarding back in those days and I wanted to be cool," says Jason. "I tried so hard to be cool it nearly killed me. Ski resorts have a binge-drinking culture and the irony of working at them as an addict is not lost on me."

Jason got clean and sober in 2003, attaining "long-term sobriety". He didn’t work at or visit a ski resort until late 2008, when he spent four months at Big White in Canada on holiday, eventually relocating to the country for love, and working as a volunteer ski patroller.

By 2009 he was in the midst of an 11-month relapse and an almost daily opiate habit. He tried unsuccessfully to detox three times before finally getting sober for three months.

On Christmas Day 2010 in British Columbia, Jason relapsed with an overdose of heroin that would change his life for good. After 14 hours passed out he woke without the use of his legs. Rhabdomyolysis would claim his leg muscles and trigger renal failure. Between Christmas and New Year he underwent surgery three times, the last to amputate his legs to prevent the condition taking his life.

After two months in hospital Jason returned home to Brisbane for more hospital time. He was stoned again by May when reality hit.

"I was emotionally discomposed and grieving the loss of my legs," says Jason.

A Facebook friend, an incomplete high-functioning quad based in Park City, Utah, invited him to visit the US in late 2011 to try his hand at adaptive bobsledding. It was an invitation that would save Jason’s life a second time, and put him on the path to full recovery.

"I met people who were a long way post injury than I was and they were living a full and happy life," says a clean Jason. "It gave me hope."

It was in Park City last January that Jason discovered sit skiing. He borrowed a sit ski from a mate and by the end of the day wheeled himself a kilometre and a half to his mate's place to buy the ski. He was hooked, in a good way, and joined the NAC Park City alpine team.

I met Jason this week at Hotham Alpine Resort. He was ripping it under the chairlift (always a brave move) on Heavenly Valley, skiing better than most able-bodied skiers I know.  So much so that Liberty Skis Australia approached him to discuss potential sponsorship.

Jason trains with the able-bodied race crew at Hotham and lives off the mountain in Harrietville, a choice that ensures he doesn’t lose himself in resort life.

"I love my life now and I haven't relapsed because I ski, it has saved my life and it allows me to relive the bonding moments I had when dad was alive. When I am skiing alone I talk to him.

"It's freedom for someone with mobility issues because I don’t have mobility issues on my sit ski," he says. "There is nowhere I feel more at home than at the top of a ski hill before a race with fellow adaptive skiers."

Jason knows his future is not an easy one, especially if he wants to ski full time.

"I do think people judge my future by my past when they hear my story. But I'd rather be clean with no legs than addicted with legs. I'd piss in a jug every day for the rest of my life if I had the chance to pursue a ski racing future."

Having achieved the level of skiing that he has in a mere eight months, I suspect he may just get there.

How has skiing or snowboarding saved your life? Do you ski or snowboard to escape or embrace? Post a comment on the blog below and you could win a ski trip to Japan.

Images of Jason courtesy of Skitracks.com.au

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Steve Lee taking on the mountains of Hakuba with Liquid Snow Tours photo credit: Chris Hocking

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