Who Dat?

Back in the 80s, long before the X-Games existed, Tom Haig traveled the world as an extreme athlete. He visited more than 50 countries as an international high diver, doing multiple somersault tricks from over 90 feet.

That life came crashing down one Sunday morning in 1996. While training on his mountain bike, he smashed into the grill of a truck and became paralyzed from the waist down. But less than a year later he completed a 100-mile ride on a hand-cycle and traveled by himself to Europe and the Middle East.

Since then he has continued to travel the world as a consultant, writer and video producer. He spent six months launching a Tibetan radio station in the Himalayas and shot documentary shorts on disability in Bangladesh, France, Albania, Ghana and most recently Nepal.

Monday, February 25, 2013


I’ve had the great fortune to have spent a huge chunk of my life living in or just next to the French Alps. I first set eyes on them from a mountain pass just east of Dijon on my first trip to Europe in 1986. My brother and three other companions (well two, plus one in utero) drove over a mountain pass and, on the first bend in the decent, saw the spikey chain glistening off in the distance, more beautiful than any heavanscape I could ever imagine.

View was something like this (although this is the view from  Le Revard, much farther south)

We spent the next two weeks exploring the fairy-tale cities and hiking as deep into the mountains as our gear (tennis shoes) would permit. We shuffled precipitously along the snow covered icy rails of a wooden trail, that had recently been destroyed by small rock slide. We followed frozen streams that turned into towering frozen waterfalls. In between we slept in Chitty-chitty Bang Bang towns whos streets were cobble-stoned labyrinths that somehow always led us back to ground zero. It was as life-affirming and magical a month as I’ve ever spent.

Hallstatt, Austria. You can't believe places like this really  exist. 

But what we didn’t do was ski. There were several reasons we didn’t ski. The first and most restricting reason is that we didn’t know how to ski.  We were do-tards from Wisconsin who spent our winters in chlorinated sweat tanks known as high school swimming pools. We were actually banned from skiing by our dogmatic (and pretty successful) swimming coach. Secondly we had absolutely no money and actually ended up spending a few days of that trip sleeping (read:FREEZING) in our car in what is now Croatia.

Fast forward to 1988 and once again, I found myself in the French Alps, this time having unpacked my bags for a six-month stay. It was on this trip that I discovered cycling and first heard of the magical town of Courchevel. I worked in an amusement park and a bunch of my friends worked at the ski resort when the park closed for winter. I drove up to the resort once on my day off and came upon a stunning view, but an absolutely dead town. This was before mountain bikes gave ski resorts a reason to open in the summer. We couldn’t even find a café open for lunch. 

I spent four more long summers in the Alps in ’89, ’90, ’91 and ’97.  I also returned for four more short visits before my current stay. I’ve eaten several tons of food, drank several bath tubs of wine, seen a dozen Tour de France stages and bootlegged most of the modern jazz greats. But alas, 27 years after first seeing those mountains, I had never strapped on a pair of skis.

Not until this last month when I joined my local cycling club (Velo Club Le Motte Servolex!) and was eligible to participate in Handisport Savoyarde, the local disabled sports club. Handisport is jointly sponsored by the government of Savoie and some corporate donors. I have to be very careful here and say that it is not ‘state’ sponsored. The ‘state’ is considered the government of France, and this is financed by the government of Savoie. I made the mistake of calling it ‘state sponsored’ once and the once friendly eyes in front of me lanced me with evil daggers. “We are NOT state sponsored!” I was told. 

Claude Raffin, Director General of Handisport Savoyarde
Nonetheless they’ve got a ton of gear and better yet, two amazing paid coordinators, Nicolas and Thierry, who take care of the gear, organize the trips and teach both skiers and volunteer helpers. Our first trip was to an average size resort (Portlanders -> Meadows-sized) just an hour from Aix Les Bains called St. Francois Longchamps. The trip was sponsored by a group of companies that make everything for disabled skiers from skis, to apparel to helmets to dog aids. I got strapped into a mono-ski and made my first couple runs in more than six years w/out incident. After lunch I strapped in again, but tried a new set of out-riggers (small poles with skis on the bottom). This was a major error as they were about eight inches too short and I quickly discovered that I had no control whatsoever. It was akin to riding a bike down a mountain road without brakes. I fell more than 50 times on one run which took more than 90 minutes to execute. I think my guide, Pierre, is still in pain from that run, having carrying me the final half mile. I found my old poles and recovered for a good final run, but it did not help my confidence.

Taking a left-hander on the bi-ski. It helps when the poles are long enough to touch the snow. 

The next week we went to a tiny resort, La Mageriaz, which coincidentally is directly across the Nan d’Aillion valley from where Helene lived for 15 years. It was a freezing cold day with intense fog that limited visibility, but whatever I could see, I could ski. I felt cumfy again in my ski and was ready to tackle the biggest challenge to date: Courchevel.

I had some vague recollections of Courchevel from 25 years earlier, but as we started the climb to the resort, it was obvious the environment had completely changed. Courchevel is the Aspen of France chocked full of movie stars and the super-rich (Gérard Depardieu, Ewan McGregor, Lionel Richie, King of Marocco). The once sleepy town is now a massive expanse of four monster ski resorts with a combined 183 lifts and more than 360 miles of ski-able terrain.

As we continued our climb we drove past three different ‘Courchevels’.  Courchevel 1550, Courchevel 1650 and Courchevel 1850 are each named for their altitude (5085 ft., 5413 ft., 6069 ft.) and each contains several access points to the mountain, as well as bridges and tunnels to ski over and through. It is a community designed so everything is accessible on skis or ski lifts. The homes along these slopes are not cheap by any means, but not astronomical like Aspen. A 4-bedroom house with a view and easy access to the slopes can be had for less than a million dollars.

Yeah, there's a lift up there too. 

Once we arrived at Courchevel 1850 we drove to an easy access lift for the chairs and strapped in. Six of us made the trip and we were accompanied by more than a dozen relatives and assistants. Since this was our third day, we had no gear issues and were quickly on the first lift. As I ascended higher and higher up towards the walls of the peaks, the views of the Vanoise Massif launched my visual cortex into over drive and soon overload. When the resort is called ‘Three Valleys’, that suggests at least three peaks. Not only were there more than three peaks, there were lifts that took the ballsiest skiers up to those peaks for some absolutely insane vertical drops. But also, just next to our lift was a free lift for beginners – as well as one of the highest and most challenging airports in all of Europe. Literally every conceivable range of clientele had been catered to.

If you ever want to volunteer - go to your local handicapped ski club. Coolest people in the world and they have the most fun!

Unbelievably enough it was a stunning sunny day with zero wind. There was no excuse but to have the greatest skiing experience of my life. We skied all morning getting used to the terrain and the lifts, then took a long lunch break (It’s Savoie, there is no such thing as a ‘small’ meal). After lunch I strapped in again and skied another two hours exploring less than 5% of the available terrain. My arms were totally fried, but I did manage to ski the entire afternoon session without one single wipe out - a much-needed improvement from my 50-fall effort of the week before.

Smooth Baby!!

It goes without saying my eyes have never eaten so much scenery in their entire lives. After nearly 30 years, I think I’ve only now just discovered what it means to live here. 

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Prisoner of Food

To those of you whose favorite thing to do in life is to sit at a table for hours and eat course after course of delicious food, this is going to come off just horribly bad for me.

But the truth of the matter is that I don’t really like food.

What? What do you mean? Don’t like food? What the hell’s wrong with you!

As it turns out, I have a natural propensity to put on weight every time I look at a KFC commercial. This, combined with the fact that from 12 to 30 I spent most of my days in a Speedo in front of at times, thousands of people, has given me a subconscious eating disorder.

Since I dropped the Speedo habit nearly 20 years ago, the way I have avoided putting on 50 pounds is to work out voraciously when possible and to convince myself that I don’t really like food. Food is just something you have to do in order to live. But I can’t like it. So whenever I smell a turkey cooking in the oven or even an exhaust vent from a Burger King, I neurotically tell myself it’s not that great.

But, of course it is that great and therein lies the problem.

When I lived by myself I could deal with my neurosis by just buying the same old crap at Fred Meyers and keeping my refrigerator bacheloresquely clean. If I put in a 100 mile week on the bike (or if I had a raging hangover) I would treat myself with a King-size junk-food meal. But basically my grocery list was down to spuds, rice, frozen vegetables, pork, chicken, eggs and cheese. You can ask my roommates; that’s all I had.

So on the occasion that I would grab some food at a restaurant before a Timbers game or be treated to a killer Portland BBQ, I would guiltily consume at will, knowing that it was just a small treat and  the next day I would be back to  my normal bland diet.

Sure, it's completely neurotic, but it worked. I’d always toss on a few lbs in the winter, but by mid-summer, I’d have ridden it all off and by the first week of October I was downright svelte for the Portland Marathon.

And then came the France thing. Now that I live in the gastronomic capitol of Europe, every day, check that, every hour revolves around food. When I first showed up it was right before Christmas and there were throngs of holiday parties and marathon dinners with friends I hadn’t seen in years.

These dinners go like this (not even the slightest exaggeration either) -> You arrive around 7:30 and are presented with your choice of cocktail and a huge spread of snitchables (enough that I could eat an entire meal of just appetizers). You’ve got chips, peanuts, cheese,  and usually some sort of little  baked seafood spread on crackers. Then you sit down to some soup or a little antipasto or both – again enough to satisfy a normal American dinner requirement. Then comes the baked cheese and potato casserole (gratin) followed by vegetables in some ungodly rich cheese sauce along with a gargantuan chunk of beef, fish or chicken – often times all three.  Not to be forgotten is that with each course you’re probably being served another glass of wine; not so much to get you drunk, just enough to help you process more food than you should be eating.

After that plate is cleared it’s time for cheese (four kinds minimum) then a little salad (read: HUGE complex salad, possibly with more meat or fish) to rinse the palette before desert. Desert isn’t just a scoop of ice cream, but a litany of pies and cakes paraded in front of you like super models on a runway. Since often times the guests bring desert, it’s polite to have at least a little piece of everything. And yeah, a scoop of ice cream too.

Finally the table breaks and the smokers go outside to satisfy yet another craving they may have left, while the host clears the table and sets out shot glasses for ‘digestives’ which are shots of 190 proof distilled fruit spirits. You don’t slam the shot, you milk that baby for all it’s worth. Finally it’s coffee which is normally served with some cookies. And then while everyone mills around the table and splits off into different conversations, they usually toss a basket of fruit out there for you to nibble on.

By this time it’s close to midnight and you’ve been at this for more than four hours. Nobody is drunk, but everyone is beat to death from the effort. You go home (or clean up if you’ve hosted) and feel absolutely gutted by the experience. You lie down and say good bye to your toes, because you may not see them again for a few days.

So the fact that I’m complaining about this might be too much for some of you to bear, but this doesn’t just happen on Thanksgiving. This goes on ALL THE TIME. By the time New Years was over I’d eaten at least a dozen of these meals in the space of three weeks. I don’t know how many kilos I’d packed on, but luckily I’ve been given a hand cycle and the weather wasn’t so bad that I couldn’t ride a bunch of it off.

But a few days after the 1st, I dismounted my ride and came into the apartment to be told that we had a dinner appointment with my girlfriend Helene’s brother.

“Again?” I asked. Helene was stunned.

“What do you mean, ‘Again?’”

“We just ate with them last week – we don’t have to have another huge dinner do we?”

“I thought you like them,” she said. “I thought you said the food was delicious?”

“I do!” I said. “And the food was great. But aren’t we done with the big parties?”

At this point she opened up her date book and showed me the plans for January. We had at least three of these dinners every week. It’s what they do. We get together over beers and watch sports – they eat massive marathon meals. Dining IS their sport. We know the names of all the players, teams and leagues; they know the names of all the wines, cheeses and vegetables. Helene refers to her friends by what they served at dinner – “We’re going to Martha’s house tonight. You remember them - they served the endive salad and the Thom cheese. You loved the boudin in the paillison! ” To which I nod my head and roll towards the car door having no clue as to which of her friend's houses I will end up in.  

When one of us is gone all day and we haven't seen each other, the question upon arrival is not, “How was your day?” The question is, “What did you eat?”

So not only am I living in one of the most beautiful places on Earth, I’m also eating like a king and drinking the finest wines and spirits on the planet. This may sound like heaven to many of you, but all this food is making my neurotic 25-year-old Speedo-wearing conscious explode with guilt.

I have been told it is actually polite to refuse desert or one of the courses, but I’ve yet to see this happen in actual practice.