Riding a plank of wood down a snow-covered slope is a fluid activity—it can make for a competitive career, a creative expression, a liberating experience, and a joyous past-time. In a media-driven industry, snowboarders have options and professional success can shift in the blink of an eye. The most frequented transition in professional snowboarding is from ‘competitor’ to ‘freerider’ (thank Craig Kelly for blazing this trail). The current path is: airaware groms enter a development program, learn double then triple corks, master edge control, follow the World Cup circuit, then eventually trade parks for pow and migrate to the backcountry. It’s a simple pipeline effect that has benefited riders and the evolution of sport for years. However, this path only caters to able-bodied riders. These avenues don’t exist for their disabled doppelgängers, creating a halt in development and pushing adaptive snowboarders out of snowboarding post-Paralympics. Two-time Paralympic snowboarder John Leslie hopes to carve a new path for disabled freeriders since becoming the first adaptive snowboarder to complete Whistler’s iconic Spearhead Traverse.
Words + Photos Alastair Spriggs
John and 'Frank'
John discovered snowboarding shortly after losing his leg to cancer at age 10. Sliding sideways came naturally with his new prosthetic and residual limb—which he named ‘Frank.’ In high school, Boardercross would consume his life, setting off a trajectory that saw him compete at two Paralympic Games and establish him as one of Canada’s most accomplished disabled snowboarders. But, like all competitive athletes, retirement becomes inevitable. “The uncertainty of the pandemic really kickstarted my transition,” explains John. “For the first time in my life, I had to look elsewhere to maintain my lifestyle. It gave me time to hang out with friends, make plans, and stare at the mountains in my backyard… That’s when I started thinking about becoming a backcountry snowboarder.” After hearing of friends who conquered the route, John said, “I thought, ‘the Spearhead Traverse sounds like a good place to start…’ Little did I know.”
35 Kilometers of Clusterfucks
Spanning 35 kilometres and nearly 2,000 vertical metres, the Spearhead Traverse navigates a series of 13 glaciers between Blackcomb and Whistler mountains. Since its first completion in 1964, the passage has become a coastal classic—drawing in touring types by the thousands every year. But don’t let its popularity fool you into thinking it’s easy. To us, the coveted traverse looked like this: climb a steep ascent, shred down a steep descent, and repeat for three days. But like any backcountry mission, the difficulty is measured by the unforeseen clusterfucks that arise along the way and how you and your crew manage these challenges. We encountered a route-changing avalanche, 100 km/h winds at the crux, frigid nighttime temperatures, and a prosthetic leg that didn’t want to stay intact while hauling 60 extra pounds of camping and camera gear on our backs.
Disabled in The Backcountry
Before setting out, the whole crew felt eerie about thendays ahead. Our priority was to complete the traversenand avoid a search and rescue extraction, which the guided group just hours behind us failed to achieve due to the unexpected winds. Concern for John rested in his ability to skin with his prosthetic leg positioned on the uphill side, especially on icy, off-cambered terrain, which made up a quarter of the traverse. This is how he describes the movement, “Picture yourself running in the water. Despite your best efforts and enthusiasm, it feels like for every step forward, you take two steps back.” John completed his AST-2 avalanche training, was a damn good boarder, and surrounded himself with an experienced crew of good friends. On paper, he was ready. Though his preparedness couldn’t shake the doubt lingering in the air. Doubt created by the rooted stereotype that disabled bodies don’t belong in uncontrolled backcountry environments. “Stepping outside of your comfort zone and facing the unknown is a risk that most people aren’t willing to take,” John added. “Now, add living with a disability into that equation… it feels like the world would rather see me bubble wrapped in the comforts of home.” Home is not John’s comfort place, “But for me, my spirit requires challenge and overcoming adversity in order to grow— making the Spearhead was essential.” Considering John had never winter-camped before, his reaction to the traverse was quite extreme, “I can honestly say after being mentally and physically beat down for three days, it was the hardest thing I’ve done in my adult life.” Not a soft statement considering all John has accomplished and endured. “Despite all the preparation, I gained a lot of respect for my friends who got us through the journey safely.” Like John, I believe we managed each clusterfuck safely and appropriately, though it was far from easy.
Snowboarding, a Beautiful Thing
According to a study published in Psychology of Sport and Exercise, retiring para-athletes across all 28 sports reported increased difficulty in life due to the uncertainty of postsport employment opportunities and lack of continued support for people with disabilities. All adaptive sports require necessary modifications for people with disabilities to participate. This, in turn, requires more organizational support and funding, and without adequate community-based sport programming from the Canadian Paralympic Committee, makes sports less accessible. John argues that snowboarding could potentially fill this gap for some adaptive athletes. “Throughout my 20-year career, I’ve considered myself a racer, park rider, and now, freerider. Always able to keep up,” he explains. “It’s a sport that breeds independence and choice, and offers multiple avenues to create a profession—what a beautiful thing.” Adding, “I think it’s only a matter of time until more brands get on board and start supporting adaptive athletes in all areas of snowboarding. Creating an environment where we can excel beyond the Paralympics.”
Frank is Here to Stay
Completing the Spearhead Traverse on March 13th, 2023, marks a historic day for snowboarding at large. The first ever adaptive split boarder officially slogged 35 kilometres through the mountains, yelled “Fuck!”, froze his ass off in a snow cave, and contemplated calling search and rescue nearly a 100 times. And—lived to tell the tale. But for John, the Spearhead marks the beginning of a longer, more uncertain journey. “I’ve dedicated my life to perfecting my craft and I’m not prepared to let organized competition take that away from me. This is my first step in showing the snowboard community that I’m here to stay, promote the world of disabled freeriding, and spearhead a new path for my fellow boarders."
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