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. 


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