In November 2014, Jim Harris, a photographer from Glenwood Springs, Colorado, and two of his friends came to Punta Arenas, a large city in southern Chile. They were there to embark on a bold adventure: a one-month, 350-mile ski traverse of the Patagonian ice cap. The plan was to use dragons moving towards their harness to effectively drag them through the frozen landscape. The day before the expedition, Harris saw his kite in an open field when a gust of wind picked it up, swept it across the football field and then gently and sharply lifted it over the sail, shot a tomahawk into the ground and knocked it down.
When Harris came to, he felt nothing under his sternum and lay on the field, unable to move. “I just looked up at the sky and tried to focus on my breath until help came,” he told me. At that time, he was already in a local hospital, his condition was stable, but he was seriously injured. He broke nine vertebrae and almost completely tore the spinal cord. It seemed unlikely that he could ever walk again.
I met Harris in February 2020. He not only came back, but also skied. It was a powder day at the Snowmass Resort near his home, and I agreed to contact him this morning to test a device that allowed him to shred all day despite his disability. We met at the demo center of the company Roam based in San Francisco, which developed a battery-powered exoskeleton specifically designed for skiers. Called Elevate, it is a bit like a complicated kneecap, with an articulated frame and pneumatic air chambers that function as shock absorbers. The frame is attached around your lower and upper legs and attached to a small compressor that is carried in a backpack that controls the air pressure. The proprietary artificial intelligence software that starts the compressor “learns” which support is best suited for your skating level. It is a wearable technology on steroids.
I first saw the lift a year earlier, at a press conference at the Eldor ski resort, near Boulder, Colorado. There, the founder of the hike, Tim Swift, introduced the product to the media team and outlined the company’s grand plans to be public with demonstration centers in the best resorts in the West such as Snowmass, Big Sky, Park City and Sunny Valley. The lift, he says, is not only for the disabled. It could help any healthy skier who wanted to get an extra boost-from elderly people with aching knees to young people who wanted to run from call to call. “We offer magic,” he repeated several times.
That day I couldn’t try the device, but the feedback from my colleagues at Eldora was mixed—skiers of different ages, all with experience, from average to experienced. Some considered it too bulky and did not improve their skating. But others liked it. One of the testers, Lisa Dawson, said that chronic knee pain prevented her from skiing, but using a lifter was like tying a new pair of legs. “I made the curve slowly, then again and again, each time faster and smoother,” she later wrote on the website WildSnow. – I’m not joking: no pain. At the end of the run, I returned to my youth carefree.”
Last year Roum made some changes to the design of the lift. The one in Snowmass looked a bit more sophisticated. I strapped on my seat belt and walked to the elevators with Harris and Johnny Kern, Rome’s marketing director. Walking in the device was strange and uncomfortable, but as soon as we got on the skis and started sliding over the snow, the device came to life. In the queue for the lift, other skiers stared at the Cyborg Pauder brothers and we asked a lot of questions about what the hell attracts us.
“It’s very important for me to minimize my disability,” said Harris, who used to use the elevator when we were riding the chairlift. “I wouldn’t say I’m a cyclist now, but I can ride at moderate speed and feel confident, not as if I’m dangerous to myself or others.”
That day, about eight inches of snow fell, and I couldn’t wait to get a taste of it. We climbed to the top of a low-carbon path next to the elevator. Will the promise of enlarged legs make a good day epic, or will they just get in the way? I was just about to find out.