Armed with Gentemstick demo boards the three snowboarders in Teton Adaptive Sports’ new veterans program boarded the Bridger Gondola on Jan. 22, ready for a day of fast groomers and off-trail pow shots.
“This board feels a lot like my Jones Flagship,” Mike Garcia said. “But it feels like it just really wants to rip.”
Gentemstick, a Japanese company whose boards can run upward of $1,000, makes stiff, snappy boards meant to be ridden fast and aggressively. Garcia put his rental piece through its paces.
Heading down Sundance off the top of the gondola, Garcia weaved in and out, testing the board’s carving ability, but he found that the added stiffness of Gentemstick’s Mantaray made it difficult to hold an edge through an entire turn.
Above a cat track, instructor Colton Pate corralled the group. He drew an S-turn in the snow with a gloved hand.
“Try shifting even more of your weight to your front foot as you initiate the turn,” Pate said. “Then slide back to even in the middle of it.”
Garcia took the instruction and ran with it, carrying more speed through his turns, and even though the back of the board still skidded a bit through the ends of his turns, he hooted and hollered as Sundance mellowed in pitch toward the base of the gondola.
Garcia and the two other participants, Frankie Paradise and Elias Cantarero, were part of a four-day snowboard camp for injured veterans, the first of its kind for Teton Adaptive Sports.
“The program arose from an expressed need,” Executive Director Christy Fox said. “Veteran snowboarders kept calling, asking what we had, but we waited until we had the capacity with instructors.”
Though much of the camp was spent riding in groups of varying sizes, the riders also had ample one-on-one time with instructors, offering them the chance to learn the mountain and achieve an array of goals, from simply strapping in and riding to improving on steep terrain. Each of the veterans had a different injury, which partially dictated their on-mountain goals.
Garcia and Paradise both sustained nerve damage — upper body for Garcia and lower body for Paradise — while Cantarero has ocular damage from a bacterial infection that destroyed his central vision, leaving him with only peripheral vision. For Paradise the lower-body injury influenced his goals for the camp.
“Frankie was talking to me, and he knows he’s going to be in a sit-ski someday because of his nerve damage” said Gwyenne Carpenter, his instructor. “So he just wants to try to snowboard while he can.”
Knowing that, Carpenter and Paradise spent much of their time on Apres Vous, where the lower-angle groomers better fit their objectives. Garcia and Cantarero, whose injuries don’t preclude them from riding hard, had their sights set on the upper mountain.
Cantarero rode with Billi Harrington, a longtime adaptive instructor who also works as an art therapist for the Art Association of Jackson Hole. Her instruction for him was less on technique and more about navigating the mountain.
Harrington rode ahead of him through trees and powder stashes, where he kept up just fine but needed help knowing when to turn and which obstacles to avoid.
“She was warning me ahead of time of things that we approached,” Cantarero said. “She takes me where it’s safe, where I’m not going to trip over logs.”
Cantarero’s vision impairment makes it difficult for him to see detail and gain a complete picture of a slope and the other skiers around him. Having an instructor helps him assess terrain and find his way around a big resort like Jackson Hole, but it also gives him a better understanding of his body mechanics and builds his confidence.
“The first time I came out to Jackson I was with my first instructor, Elizabeth, and we were in the Hobacks,” he said. “I was just doing the falling leaf around everything, and she stopped me and said, ‘Point it downhill and turn.’
“Everything got easier after that.”
For veterans, experiences like the snowboard camp are not simply things to fill their days. Returning from combat can result in a host of afflictions, from post-traumatic stress disorder to social isolation and depression. Those things can inhibit veterans’ ability to find jobs or assimilate into society following a deployment.
Recent research has begun to document the ways outdoor experiences benefit veterans. The first is simple: Recreation gives them something to do, an activity that occupies their time, creating a richer everyday life.
“It really changed my life because I don’t have any other sports I do,” Cantarero said. “I found something I really love.”
The other benefits the research highlights reflect Cantarero’s anecdotal experience. A pair of studies published by University of Michigan researchers in 2013 and 2014, and supported by the Sierra Club Military Families and Veterans Initiative, found that outdoor recreation improves a number of psychological measures.
One study found that “the extended group outdoor recreation experience was associated with greater feelings of social connectedness, fewer feelings of loneliness and isolation, and a more positive overall assessment of life circumstances.
It also found that “ratings were higher on attentional functioning, positive affect, and tranquility and significantly lower with respect to negative affect.”
The researchers, Jason Duvall and Rachel Kaplan, reached similar results in a second study of extended wilderness trips. They acknowledged that one major limitation of their studies — that outdoor recreation is performed in small groups, which inherently creates a small sample size — may be one of the key reasons veterans show positive results, because it gives them an intimate experience that allows them to create positive relationships.
Cantarero’s experience seems to bear out that conclusion. Because he is a more advanced rider, his snowboarding may have benefited from more time riding alone, but he found value in being with the instructors and other veterans.
Though he didn’t feel pushed by all the riding the group did, “I would definitely come back, and I don’t want to be separate from the group because of that,” he said.
The most promising part of Kaplan and Duvall’s research was the staying power of outdoor recreation’s benefits for the veterans. The researchers went into their studies with an assumption that the positive effects would be fleeting, similar to the giddy feeling you get on a powder day that seems to subside when you have to go to work in the afternoon.
However, “as with psychological well-being, there was a trend indicating that these improvements in social function and life outlook persisted 1 [month] later at follow-up,” their 2014 study said.
The results were most pronounced for veterans who deal with injuries on a day-to-day basis, so experiences like Teton Adaptive Sports’ snowboard camp allow vets like Cantarero, Garcia and Paradise to glean lessons, both tangible and intangible, that persist long after they leave the slopes.
“It has really improved my life knowing that you don’t back down when things get hard,” Cantarero said. “You just point the board downhill and turn.”