You don’t meet more excited 27-year-olds than Daniel Riley. Maybe he’s excited because of his first Heli-Skiing trip. Maybe he’s excited because Vail received enough snow to re-open after closing for the season. Maybe he is excited because he survived a bomb exploding under his feet in Afghanistan, leaving him with no legs, three fewer fingers, and shrapnel scattered throughout his body.
“My heart is about the only thing that didn’t get hit.” says Daniel, in a matter-of-fact tone.
Daniel is one of 1600 American soldiers who returned from Iraq and Afghanistan as amputees. To say it changed his life is obvious, but how it changed his life is exceptional: losing his legs turned Daniel into an athlete.
Daniel skied a couple of times before his injury, but says he wasn’t a skier. Mono-skiing is now Daniels passion and since his injury in 2010 he’s pursued surfing, cycling, running, swimming, and skiing, has competed in triathlons and has plans to try rock climbing. I met Daniel for coffee in Boulder, Colorado, where everyone and their grandma is an athlete. When I asked him what sports he pursued before the injury, he just shrugged and said, “Not any, really.”
Within the first minute of meeting Daniel told me proudly that he’d skied over 50 days this winter, the highlight being a trip to CMH Gothics. While talking about the six months in the operating room and his 30-some surgeries he said: “I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t even count the number of surgeries I’ve had. The number of days I’ve been skiing is a much more important statistic.”
So how did Daniel go from tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, to months in the operating room, to intense rehab, to the slopes of Vail, to what he calls “the pinnacle of skiing” – a trip with CMH Heli-Skiing in interior British Columbia?
The answer is Vail Veterans, a sponsor-funded organization started in 2004 by Cheryl Jensen (whose husband, Bill, was President of Vail Resorts) and David Rozelle, Professor of Military Science at the University of Colorado. The program began on a whim, when Cheryl and David decided to host a few injured veterans at Vail. The therapeutic effects of skiing were obvious and Vail Veterans was born.
During therapy, Daniel was given the opportunity to join Vail Veterans. With nothing to lose, he gave it a try. On his first day, using a sit ski, he remembers: “I was falling down every six feet – I wasn’t really getting it. But by the third day they had to drag me off the mountain.”
A few months later, Daniel had another chance to ski Vail - this time in fresh powder. "That's what really got me," he said, before happily sharing footage of his first powder day - complete with spectacular GoPro wipeout footage:
His close friend Chris Fesmire, who discovered skiing with Vail Veterans a few years before Daneil and went heli-skiing with Daniel's group, explains in sobering terms how skiing has helped him: "The Vail Veterans program saved my life. Without mono-skiing I'd be dead in a gutter."
Skiing the Gothics was full circle for Daniel, who was born in British Columbia and moved to the United States as a teenager. In the Gothics Daniel met one of the CMH staff from the same small town on Vancouver Island where Daniel grew up. Like so many others realize about CMH Heli-Skiing, Daniel said, “It’s not just about the skiing – it’s also the lodge, the people, the whole experience.”
Daniel is now a board member of Vail Veterans, and they could have no more committed fan of the program. He concluded, “The program changed my life for the better. Now I want to do that for the next guy.”
Photos of Daniel catching air at CMH Gothics, celebrating life with fellow wounded warriors, and considering life's potential with Chris Fesmire courtesy of Daniel Riley/Vail Veterans.
Interviewing CMH Bobbie Burns guide Marty Schaffer would probably be best done on a pair of skis with a recorder taped to a ski pole – Marty was skiing in his mother’s womb before he was born, and hasn’t stopped since. In fact, the only reason I caught him on a down day was because he was at his 62-year-old mother’s house helping her recover from an injury that she sustained after a jump went awry while powder skiing.
You read that right - Marty's 62-year-old mother is still going big.
I’d heard about Marty, equally comfortable on a pair of skis, a splitboard or a snowboard, and already a legend and a full ski guide at 26 years old. He was profiled on the spirited website, GetRadRevelstoke.com, where the stories of him growing up with parents who ran a backcountry lodge convinced me I had to track him down for a few more tales.
And tales he had to share. When he was 3 years old, his parents were digging out the door to the Blanket Glacier Chalet while Marty played in the snow nearby. After digging for a while, his mom suddenly asked, “Where’s Marty?”
A minute of panic ensued while they looked frantically for their son – and for good reason. They found him deep in a nearby tree well! They got him out without incident, but a treewell is the kind of trap that can kill even a strong adult without help.
With childhood imprints like treewells and backcountry lodges, it’s no wonder Marty pursues the twin pillars of mountain life, fun and safety, with almost religious fervor. “I was sort of tricked into becoming a guide,” explains Marty between chuckles. “When I was 13 or so, my dad would be guiding a ski tour with a few faster skiers, and I would take the faster guys and ski laps around the rest of the group. I didn’t even realize I was guiding. We were just skiing and having fun. I was just showing my friends the good stashes.”
Coming from such a rich background in the ski world, I had to ask Marty about the changes he’d seen. His first answer was the same one everyone gives: ski technology. Ski technology has made everything more fun.
His second answer was more surprising: “The average weekend warrior is skiing things the pros were skiing 10 years ago. Backcountry education is cool now. It’s cool to be prepared.”
Marty adds a cautionary tale at this point. During a recent freeride camp organized by Marty’s private guiding service, CAPOW!, Canadian Powder Guiding, he took a group skiing with ski pro Chris Rubens. They were skiing on mellow terrain on Rogers Pass, looking up at tantalizing extreme terrain, when Chris turned to the group, “If it were just Marty and me skiing here today, we’d be skiing exactly this same terrain. Conditions have to be perfect to ski that stuff.”
The moral of the story is that while average backcountry skiers push into more serious terrain, the ski pros don’t always ski more aggressively. “My ski pro friends are some of the most conservative skiers I know,” explained Marty.
The Blanket Glacier Chalet works in the same area as the CMH Revelstoke Heli-Ski operation. Marty remembers slogging up a skin track with his dad and seeing the Heli-Ski helicopter fly overhead. He remembers saying, “Dad, when I grow up I’m going to do that!”
He did just that. And working with CMH Heli-Skiing has proven to be more than he could have even imagined: “I still have to pinch myself sometimes to make sure it’s real! There’s a great mentorship program at CMH. Even as a full ski guide I learn stuff every week.”
Talking with Marty was entertaining, and revealing of the cutting edge of both recreational and professional skiing, but as it should be, talking with Marty mostly just made me want to go skiing.
Showing wisdom beyond his years, Marty concluded: “I’d like to think things haven’t changed too much. It’s all about fun and safety, the same as it was when Hans (Gmoser, the founder of CMH Heli-Skiing) was taking people ski touring in these mountains all those years ago. It’s not just about powder snow – it’s the whole thing.”
It was a painful interview for Marty. He could scarcely contain his enthusiasm. “It’s totally bluebird in Revelstoke and the stability is great! I can’t believe I’m inside!”
Photos: Marty checking the air for the pilot in CMH Bobbie Burns by Carl Trescher, Marty dressed up as a mountain guide with his dad's old gear for Halloween from the Schaffer family archives, and waiting in the lift line at CMH Bobbie Burns by Ryan Bavin.
“Quality.” Replied Joe Flannery, the new President of CMH Heli-Skiing and Summer Adventures, when I asked him what CMH is all about. “Quality of snow. Quality of experience. Quality of guides and staff. Quality of helicopters. Quality of lodges. Quality of the alpine ethic.”
Last month I had breakfast with Joe in Denver, Colorado where he was attending the SIA trade show. I was thinking he might give me a laundry list of the changes he was planning with CMH, but before the waiter even poured coffee, Joe made it clear that his role was not to make a laundry list of changes, but rather to get educated about the complex workings and then to ensure the future vitality of one of the world’s most established and respected mountain tourism companies.
He did explain that there were some things he saw no need to change, including CMH operations in the field. “The product doesn’t need to be reinvigorated,” he explained. “The product is the best in the world.”
And Joe knows something about quality. In the three years after he finished undergraduate studies at the University of Heidelberg in Germany, he went from a financial analyst, to a startup employee, to a product director for Nike. He then spent a decade working for Adidas in Bavaria, the mountainous region in southern Germany, where he headed Adidas’ billion-dollar sports heritage division. After returning to the United States, Joe landed a job as the Global VP of The North Face, and helped the company to grow 300% during his tenure.
During his free time in Europe, the United States, and now Canada, Joe picked up a wide range of outdoor sports including skiing, snowboarding, surfing, rock climbing, mountaineering and cycling. As he puts it, humbly: “I’m a participant in all. Expert in none.”
To lead CMH Heli-Skiing and Summer Adventures, Joe moved his wife and six-month-old child from San Francisco, California to Banff, Alberta, to be close to the heart and soul of CMH. “There is so much energy in this company,” he said, explaining his reason for immigrating to take the job, “it doesn’t make sense to be the leader and not be there.”
After a second cup of coffee, he shared a simple three-part plan for, as he put it, “making sure CMH is as successful in the future as it has been in the past.” First, learn as much as possible about the legacy, the present state, and the future potential of CMH; second, dial in the CMH business model to a contemporary, nimble form to match the company’s strong legacy as it moves into the future; and finally, bring greater awareness to the world’s greatest skiing. Joe explained, “We have such a diverse range of guests that we need to customize our voice so it is right for all of them.”
He shared an example of his own learning about the current state of CMH: At the SIA trade show he chatted with Chris Davenport, the visionary skier who has won extreme skiing competitions and skied all 54 of Colorado’s 14,000-foot peaks in a single year. Chris joined CMH Heli-Skiing for a week earlier this season and explained to Joe that before the trip he didn’t think skiing with CMH was his kind of thing. Chris went on to explain that the experience had exceeded even his expectations: “I was blown away. It was one of the best skiing experiences I’ve ever had in my life!”
“Even a skier as well-traveled as Chris Davenport didn’t realize what CMH was really all about,” explained Joe, “that means we need to tailor our message a bit better.”
By the time we finished breakfast, I had the strong sense of Joe Flannery’s ultimate goal as President of CMH Heli-Skiing and Summer Adventures – to tell the world what CMH is really all about.
Joe concluded with a big smile: “It’s going to be a lot of fun!”
Photo: Joe Flannery (on the right) with CMH General Manager, Rob Rohn, checking out the dreamy ski conditions of this season at CMH Galena. Photo by Mike Welch.
Last week I had a chance to catch up with Andy Mahre during a film shoot at CMH K2 and the Gothics, and before Andy skis with CMH Heli-Skiing groups at CMH K2 next month. Andy’s father (Steve) and uncle (Phil) took silver and gold medals in the slalom at the 1984 Olympics, so skiing was certainly in Andy’s genes - if he wanted it.
He wanted it. Here’s what the easy-going ski star had to say about this season with CMH Heli-Skiing - and having an Olympic medalist for a dad:
TD: How has it been skiing with CMH so far?
AM: The snow here (CMH K2) has been EPIC! The first few days it was almost too deep. But once it settled and the sun came out it made for some really fun and photogenic runs.
TD: How much of a "soccer dad" was you dad, or did he keep it fun and low pressure?
AM: The only pressure I got from my dad was to make sure I was having fun. If I wasn't having fun, I probably shouldn't be doing it. I was on the local race team growing up and quit to have him as my coach. Crazy enough, there was no friction because I knew that he knew what he was talking about.
TD: Regarding the fun factor for you and other K2 athletes, how does the CMH/K2 relationship compare to the other commitments on your pro calendar?
AM: The CMH/K2 relationship is a very cool deal for us. It's rare to have a connection where you get to heli ski for work and for fun.
TD: I skied the southern Kootenays once (where CMH K2 is located), and was impressed with how almost every meter of the mountains could be skied. What are your thoughts on the snow and terrain of the area?
AM: The mountains are endless. If you want to hit cliffs, there are cliffs. If you want trees, there are trees. Add the open glades and pillows and you have everything you need to have a great time. There are far more runs/lines than you could ski in your lifetime.
TD: How old are you?
AM: 28 years old
TD: What is the biggest change in ski technology and mental approach to skiing in your time as a skier?
AM: My last pair of slalom skis were 180s. Straight and narrow. I now ski a rockered 179 fat ski that has helped push skiing to new heights. Everything is becoming easier, which makes many more things doable. Powder skiing has forever changed.
TD: If you could pick your last ski run, what would it be?
AM: There is no one run in particular that I could choose as a last run. It would however need to have everything. Powder top to bottom. Cliffs, pillows, gaps, trees, you name it.
TD: Sounds like most runs at CMH! Anything else you’d like to add?
AM: Just finished another epic day, and now we are on our way up to the Gothics. Stoked!
Heli-Ski with Andy at CMH K2 February 18-23, and receive a free pair of cutting-edge K2 skis that are yours to keep. You heard me right: Heli-Ski with Andy and get free K2 skis.
Photo by John Entwistle/CMH Heli-Skiing of Andy Mahre ripping CMH K2 last week during a Poor Boyz Productions film shoot.
CMH has teamed up with K2 Skis and Poorboyz Productions to capture some of the best athletes skiing the best terrain in the world. That, combined with the the winter storm that has dumped over four feet of snow in the last week, has created a truly "Perfect Storm" for a legendary shoot.
Seth Morrison Getting Deep on "Mugwump" - CMH K2
With the likes of Seth Morrison, Sean Pettit, Andy Mahre, and Collin Collins, we knew we were in for a treat.
The first day, we headed to an area that guide Patrick Baird took our "Steep Shots and Pillow Drops" two days prior. With 50cm new snow since the last skiers were there, the pros had a wicked time selecting lines and shredding.
At the end of the day Monday, Pettit came out of a pillow line saying "That landing was NECK DEEP!" It started snowing last Saturday, and it is still coming down 4 days later!
You might think that because we are up here with one group of professional skiers exclusively using one Bell 212, we have been doing a LOT of skiing. Wrong. Tuesday, we accomplished 5 runs in 5 and a half hours. Well under half of what any average group on any CMH trip would accomplish. My respect for these athletes has grown exponentially. The ability to ski the lines they do on a count down of 10 seconds after not moving for 20 minutes is truly amazing.
I can't wait to see the finished films that come out of this week. Stay tuned next week for another update!
Sean Pettit on "Square head" CMH K2
Photos: John Entwistle