Once a skier, always a skier: How one man finds freedom on the mountain without using his legs
Story & Photos By Jodi Hausen | Originally Written in 2019
It’s February 21, 2019 and single-digit temps at Big Sky Resort but the sun is out and CJ Revtai is ready to rip down the mountain. First though, he needs to get into his ski gear.
CJ, then 26, started skiing when he was 3 years old at Seven Springs Mountain Resort southeast of Pittsburgh. He moved to Big Sky a few years ago to work at the ski resort. His first year he was a lift attendant, his second, a ski instructor. Summers, he’d return to Pennsylvania to work as a whitewater rafting guide. But his world came tumbling down when one July day in 2017, he dove into the bay on the Outer Banks in North Carolina and hit bottom. A spinal cord injury resulted in paralysis from his armpits down including, to some extent, his lower arms.
Recovering from such an injury takes perseverance and grit and CJ clearly possesses both traits. Ferociously intent on getting back to the outdoor activities he loves, today is CJ’s 14th lesson with Eagle Mount, a nonprofit that provides recreational opportunities for people with special needs. With a 19-acre facility near Bozeman that’s home to a 25-yard, 89-degree pool and horseback riding arenas among other amenities, the organization supplies adaptive equipment for people like CJ and trains volunteers to aid anybody with cognitive or other disabilities. More than 2,000 participants benefit from Eagle Mount’s programs that also include snowshoeing, cycling, climbing, ice skating and whitewater rafting.
Outside the ski school, volunteer Ben Moore and Eagle Mount’s Big Sky Ski Program Director Sarah Wolf lift CJ from his wheelchair into the bucket seat of a bi-unique—a two-skied sled that can be controlled independently. But it takes practice to get there and CJ is still working on the skills he’ll need before Sarah determines he can safely do that. So for now, Ben keeps CJ’s proclivity for hot-doggedness at bay with tethers attached to the back of the sled.
Run 1: We ride the Swift Current quad and cruise down Lower Morningstar, Ben tethering CJ’s bi-unique.
Run 2: Same lift and trail, but this time Ben releases the tethers while Sarah skis alongside giving CJ some pointers. “Stay forward,” she yells. “Keep the outriggers down.”
And then … they set him loose.
For the first time in nearly two years, CJ is sliding on his own, setting his own destiny on the corduroy. Fearless and hungry for the floaty feeling of powder, he heads toward the edges. Ben stays close on his tail to catch the sled if CJ oversteers and ends up wiping out, which he does more than once.
“When you’re on tether, you don’t know exactly what you are doing,” CJ says after the lesson, sitting in his wheelchair. “Today I was free, and I really got to feel what I was doing right and wrong.”
CJ’s been taking lessons twice weekly to get to this point, and though he appreciates the opportunity, not every lesson is as jubilant as today’s. Sarah runs her lessons with a strong hand, angering CJ during a previous lesson when she insisted he continue practicing on beginner runs even after he’d had a taste of the mid-mountain. Looking back on that day, CJ admits he needed to hone his skills before he’d be ready to ski solo. And he doesn’t hold a grudge.
“Being able to be more independent is always a goal,” CJ says. “Sarah’s been the best ever. She can really decipher what you’re doing right or wrong, and her attitude makes you want to keep coming back.”
On this day, he had plenty of opportunity to learn from his mistakes—even getting tangled up in a bright orange mid-trail slow sign, to everyone’s amusement.
“This is the best day ever,” Sarah says to me, riding the lift for another run with CJ. “He’s come so far. I mean, this is phenomenal—in control, smooth and calm, and just CRUSHING IT,” she adds, throwing her head back and yelling that last. Sarah started as a volunteer with Eagle Mount 10 years ago and is in her fourth year on staff. Her love and commitment for her job is clear in everything she does.
Ben, the volunteer, is more subdued but clearly happy, “I didn’t really do much, so it was awesome,” he says, chuckling, “It was really special.”
For CJ, the ultimate goal is to get to a point where he can comfortably ski on his own, so he can give back by volunteering with Eagle Mount helping others to learn the skills he’s learning.
“I really rely on people for so much already,” he says. “So, anything I can do on my own is a plus. If I can get to that point, then I’d like to help out where I can.”
For Sarah, it’s pure joy.
“I admire anybody who is being the best person they can be,” she says. “If you have challenges, you have to work that much harder to be your best person. A program like this really gives people like CJ a chance to shine.”