The San Juan Mountains took away Alana Nichols’ ability to walk, but it never diminished her love for the mountains she calls home.
Nichols, 32, was in high school when a trip in the backcountry north of Hesperus changed her life. While attempting a back flip, the snowboarder from Farmington landed back-first on a rock and was paralyzed from the waist down.
The injury did not slow Nichols, a four-time Paralympic athlete in wheelchair basketball and alpine skiing. She became the first American woman to win gold medals in the summer and winter Games, and last weekend, Nichols made more history when she became the first adaptive skier to descend Silverton Mountain on a monoski.
“I feel at home every time I come back here. The San Juan Mountains have been a blessing for me through and through,” Nichols said Tuesday in a phone interview with The Durango Herald. “I learned how to snowboard at Purgatory and then broke my back and re-learned how to sit-ski at Purgatory. This area of the country has taken parts of me and given them back.
“All-in-all, I’m incredibly blessed by those mountains, and feel even more connected to them now that I’ve skied Silverton.”
Silverton Mountain offers some of the most difficult ski terrain in the continental United States. The base sits at 10,400 feet, and the mountain offers one chairlift that rises to 12,300 feet. It is well known for its heli-skiing and backcountry challenges.
Nichols said Silverton Mountain was her ultimate bucket-list destination from the time she started to snowboard as a 14-year-old.
She planned to spend the New Year’s holiday in Silverton with friends while on vacation from her new home in San Diego, where she is training for paracanoe in hopes of qualifying for the 2015 Summer Paralympic Games in Rio De Janeiro.
Plans quickly went into place for her first descent of the famously steep mountain.
“The stoke was high in town for me. Everyone who saw me in the parking lot, lift line, on the shuttle bus, they were all giving high-fives and telling me how great it was to see me out,” Nichols said. “I felt really special.”
Nichols, who is now retired from alpine ski racing, took a team of five with her Saturday and skied a chute on the West face known as Tiger No. 2. After testing her turns and the snow conditions, she went up and took the Liftline down. She called the Liftline the most difficult task because of thick, choppy snow, and she wished she had brought a wider powder ski.
Nichols admitted to having the same nerves she would before a big Paralympic alpine ski race, but being part of an enthusiastic group helped her find a comfort zone. “It was amazing to watch,” said Nichols’ friend and ski partner William Lampe. “She would maybe get the point of her ski stuck in deep snow and need help to get the point out, but, if she ever fell or went down, she could correct herself easily and keep going. As far as I could tell, nothing bothered her at all. It’s tough skiing for anybody, and I was exhausted watching her, but everything went really smooth.”
Eager to get back on her ski, Nichols loaded the lift again Sunday. She did another two runs, successfully descending Tiger No. 2 and No. 3 chutes.
Todd Bove, owner of Silverton Ski & Bike, also was in Nichols’ crew. He’s seen plenty of amazing feats at Silverton, but he called the weekend’s experience unique.
“We were skiing one of North America’s steepest mountains with a world-class athlete, and that was really humbling,” Bove said. “Alana has such a positive energy and is an extremely hard worker. Those two traits make for the best type of ski partner. There was not even a second where the whole group wasn’t smiling.”
Members of the Silverton Mountain ski patrol met Nichols at the top, and they were ready with webbing to help tow her to the top of runs when needed. But members of Nichols’ team said not much work was required to get her in position.
“We helped with a crossing here or there, but that’s about it,” said Michael Loyer, a friend of Nichols and owner of The Eureka Station restaurant in Silverton.
Nichols’ skiing roots were sowed in the Durango area. After her accident in 2000, Nichols first participated in an adaptive skiing program with the Adaptive Sports Association at Purgatory Resort.
ASA Executive Director Tim Kroes remembers working with Nichols once before she graduated Farmington High School in 2001 and again when she was attending college at the University of Arizona, where she played wheelchair basketball.
A week before her Silverton descent, Nichols was back at Purgatory Resort with ASA reaching out to other disabled athletes.
“There are a handful of people in the adaptive world stretching limits and pushing boundaries, and Alana has always been one of those people,” Kroes said. “She is a wonderful role model in helping people with disabilities realize what is still possible. She would be doing the same things whether she was disabled or not, and I love that mentality.”
Nichols is set to return to San Diego, and she is ready to get back in the water to prepare for a fifth Paralympic appearance in a third sport. But she said she can’t wait to return to Silverton and work on her turns, and she would love to stretch her big-mountain skiing toward Alaska and beyond as monoski technology continues to improve.
But until she is staring down another steep pitch from the seat of her ski, she will dream about the historic first turns she made at Silverton to ring in 2016.
“It’s pretty incredible. I feel really blessed and fortunate to be the first one to do it,” she said. “Honestly, I don’t know if I’ll ever have another experience like I did in Silverton.”
2009: U.S. Paralympics Alpine Skiing National Championships, first in downhill and Super-G.
2010: Paralympic Winter Games, gold in downhill and giant slalom, silver in super-G, bronze super combined.
2011: IPC Alpine Skiing World Championships, first in downhill and super-G; paralympic Athlete of the Year.
2014: Paralympic Winter Games, silver in downhill, fourth in giant slalom.
2015: ICF Canoe Sprint and Paracanoe World Cup 2, bronze in KL2 women’s 200 meter; ICF Canoe Sprint and Paracanoe World Championships, ninth in KL2 women’s 200 meter.
2008: Paralympic Games, first.
2011: Colorado SportsWoman of the Year.
2012: Paralympic Games, first.
2016: First adaptive ski descent of Silverton Mountain
Three-time ESPY Award nominee.