Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Paralympian takes to backcountry

Tornak Hut, Sun Valley Heli Ski help create opportunity

Express Staff Writer

Beth Livingston, left, relaxes with Karen Mott, Laura Hubbard and Shannon Delay, left to right, outside the Tornak Hut after a session of extreme sledding. Livingston said the hut provides an amazing opportunity for disabled skiers who want to get into the backcountry. Photo courtesy of Joan Scheingraber

After nearly falling victim to flames of the Castle Rock Fire in August, the Tornak Hut, which went through a complete renovation this past summer to become the first fully wheelchair accessible backcountry getaway in the area, received its first disabled visitor, and a distinguished one at that.

Last week, Beth Livingston, a competitor on the U.S. Paralympic Nordic Team at the 2002 Salt Lake City Games, spent two nights at the hut, which provided her not only with stunning views of the Smoky Mountains, but also a chance to feed her growing addiction to backcountry sports.

"This is the next phase for me," Livingston said after returning home to Bozeman, Mont. "I've gone from racing, to destination skiing, to getting into the backcountry."

Without the Tornak Hut, north of Ketchum, this would be virtually impossible in the Wood River Valley.

In August, the hut was transformed by Sun Valley Trekking Co. from just another one of the adventure company's six remote backcountry huts into a viable getaway for disabled outdoor enthusiasts.

Tucked away in an isolated mountain basin at 8,600 feet, the Tornak Hut is the result of a three-way partnership between Sun Valley Trekking, Ketchum-based Sun Valley Adaptive Sports and the Arthur B. Schultz Foundation of Alta, Wyo. The president of the foundation—which has given a $6,500 grant to fund the construction costs—is Hailey resident Erik Schultz.

"We're really excited about it," said Francie St. Onge, a Sun Valley Trekking owner and guide. "Hopefully we'll be able to provide a unique opportunity that isn't available anywhere else in the country."

The opportunity it afforded was invaluable for Livingston, who helped with the design of the hut by providing information about wheelchair widths and turning radii.

"It was an amazing life experience that I haven't had in 20 years," said Livingston, who was paralyzed from the waist down after a car accident in 1989. "Getting out there, in the backcountry, is a difficult proposition. That people made this possible is extremely generous."

Although the hut usually benefits from relatively easy accessibility, by way of a groomed seven-mile snowmobile trail along the East Fork of Baker Creek Road, the avalanche danger caused by the heavy snowfall of the past month meant that original plans for either a snowmobile or snowcat ride were no longer options.

Instead, Livingston made the trip in a much more spectacular fashion, courtesy of Sun Valley Helicopter Ski Guides.

The heli-ski company flew both Livingston and her friend Jill Holder up to the hut on Tuesday to meet the five other members of the group, which included Livingston's former national Nordic coach Joan Scheingraber, now a Wood River Valley-based acupuncturist.

"We jumped at this chance to share our extraordinary backcountry," said Sigi Vogl, marketing director for the heli-ski company. "Hopefully this is the first of many opportunities to help get disabled out to the hut."

By all reports, the four-minute ride from Baker Creek, where the helicopter is staged during the day, was remarkable for everyone involved.

"I had previously only seen the rolling hills around Sun Valley," said Livingston, who was in town to assist Wood River Adaptive Program Executive Director Marc Mast with his Nordic development camp. "You get back there and it's truly stunning alpinist territory."

She wasn't the only one awed.

"Our guides went out and had a full day of heli skiing, but said that picking Beth up was by far the highlight of the day," Vogl said. "She has an energy about her that's extraordinary and contagious."

That energy comes in handy for the mother of two, who, since finishing her competitive career, spends her time as a mixed-media artist, testing and designing products for Patagonia and driving around the West for her kids' hockey games.

While other people might choose to spend their down time on the couch, Livingston, who started downhill sit-skiing in 1997, looks for her next adventure, such as ice climbing in Alaska or training for adaptive mountain biking.

Up at the hut, Livingston said that this year, her annual adrenaline exploit with Scheingraber included extreme sledding on the surrounding slopes and enjoying the panoramic views.

"It's great that Beth could be a part of this rather than just hearing her friends talk about it afterwards," Scheingraber said. "For Sun Valley Trekking and Sun Valley Heli Ski Guides to come together to make this happen is special."

Livingston couldn't agree more.

"This is just an amazing gesture of goodwill," Livingston said of the Tornak Hut. "It was done in the right spirit of including everyone. It says of the people who created it that if they were in my situation, they would want this option available to them."

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