- Written by Ben Jacklet
- Category: Mountain Characters
- Published: March 18, 2014
- Last Updated: March 19, 2014
As amazing as the Paralympic Games have become, it is hard to believe that not so long ago winter sports were simply not an option for people with disabilities. Opening the slopes to all people took work, and a lot of that work was done on Mount Hood, by an enterprising ski instructor named Lee Perry.
Lee Perry is 83 years old, but he still remembers past events with all of the details that make for a great story.
Perry first skied the Glade Trail from Timberline Lodge to Government Camp in 1943. He has been a ski instructor on Mount Hood for 55 years, and he has seen a lot of mountain stories unfold. The story he knows best is the one he has been at the center of for decades: the movement to open up skiing to people with disabilities.
Perry was a Korean War veteran back in Portland in the 1950s when he first started toying with the idea of teaching amputees to ski. Two of his war buddies, a fellow infantryman and a medic, lost their legs in Korea. Another high school friend lost his leg in an industrial accident. Perry saw some film footage of an amputee skiing in Europe and he was captivated. He decided he wanted to create a program teaching amputees to ski on Mount Hood.
He presented his idea to four friends who shared a regular carpool ride with him up the mountain to teach skiing with the Jaycee Ski School at Timberline. His friends were enthusiastic, but the wider ski community was skeptical. “The rule of thumb in the United States and all over Europe at that time was that you cannot ski as an amputee if you did not ski prior to your amputation," said Perry in a recent interview. "That was the consensus of skiing for amputees worldwide.”
Perry set out to prove that consensus wrong. He befriended an accomplished amputee skier named Dick Martin, who lost his leg in an auto accident, and began studying the technique and equipment Martin and other amputees used to ski.
In those days amputees used heavy iron outriggers that they leaned over hunched at the waist to create a sort of tripod. It was an awkward style that required incredible abdominal strength, but Martin and others made it work through pure determination.
With Martin's help, Perry and his ski instructor buddies began recruiting amputees with no skiing experience, to bring them up to Mount Hood and teach them to ski. They followed leads and knocked on doors, and before long they had a small group of dedicated students. They started their adaptive skiing program in the winter season of 1959-60. A short time later they formed the Flying Outrigger Club, the world's first adaptive ski club, and started training the first amputees ever to become certified ski instructors.
This was long before adaptive ski equipment was commercially available, so Perry and his team had to make their own gear. It just so happened that Perry's father was a steel worker and a good friend of the owner of Pesznecker Brothers Inc., a custom metal fabrication business that agreed to help for free. Lee and his friends would join Pesznecker employees after hours to tweak their designs and repair the outriggers after they got beat up on the hill. Perry and his father also built a device that he would clamp to his ski and put his skiboot into, enabling him to ski on one leg using an outrigger just as an amputee would.
"We learned as we went along," said Perry. "We would break the outriggers on Saturday and Sunday and rebuild them during the week, and then we would bring them back up the mountain and try them again.”
The outriggers were solid, heavy and rusted, forearm crutches known as “Canadian Canes” welded to ski tips picked up from local shops, 24 inches long and four pounds apiece, with solid iron hinges. “They were crude and rusty," said Perry. "But who cares? If they work they work.”
Eventually Perry and his friends improved both the outrigger design and the skiing technique to allow skiers to stand up straight without leaning forward hunched at the waist. They also switched from iron to aluminum to make the outriggers less cumbersome. A photography shop in Portland gave them a 35mm Bell and Howell camera that could shoot a whole roll of film in 30 seconds, for slow motion study, and they found new ways to improve technique and style.
News about what Perry and his friends were accomplishing on Mount Hood began to spread. Perry was invited to give a talk to instructors from around the country in 1963, and in 1964 he staged the first ever ski race for amputees on Mount Hood, with help from 1948 Olympic gold medalist Gretchen Fraser, who had a long interest in helping people with injuries and disabilities. Fraser became deeply involved in Perry's program and for several years she and her husband Don hosted an annual Christmas party for the amputees at their home in Vancouver.
The Oregon Department of Corrections also became involved. Lee Perry's friend Bob Cavanaugh had given a series of civic presentations about amputees skiing and eventually worked out a deal with a prison warden to get inmates serving life sentences to assemble the outriggers.
Perry and amputee skier Hal Schroeder wrote down everything they learned, and in 1965 the Portland Junior Chamber of Commerce published their detailed guide to teaching amputees how to ski, titled Amputee Ski Technique.
Here is a reproduction of a photo of the authors, Lee Perry and Hal Schroeder, on Mount Hood:
Perry's biggest break yet came in 1966, when he was invited to give a demonstration of amputee skiing to instructors from 23 nations as part of the huge ski industry event Interski in Aspen, Colorado.
Being invited to Interski was a great honor, but Perry and his team did not have extra money for travel.
Out of the blue he got a phone call from a guy he knew but only slightly: Dan Hanna, the legendary Oregon car wash entrepreneur whose son Kirk owns the Mt. Hood Skibowl resort. "He said 'I understand you need to get to Colorado.' I said yeah. He said, 'Well, I will give you the use of my Lear jet, my pilot, my co-pilot and all the fuel you need. The plane is yours for a week. You can go anyplace in the United States you want to and stay as many days as you want.'
“I asked what we could do in return and he said, ‘Just go and do your presentation. It’s going to help a lot of people, and knowing that is my pay.’”
The presentation in Aspen was a success, and it connected Perry and his team with like-minded adaptive skiing enthusiasts from around the world. Perry and his team had written the book on adaptive skiing, and now they were sending out amputee instructors to spread the knowledge, and supplying outriggers for resorts and ski schools all over the United States to start new adaptive instruction programs. A movement had been launched, with irreversible momentum.
Today double amputees, blind skiers and competitors with all sorts of disabilities rip down race courses at 60 miles an hour. The Paralympic Games have grown into a mainstream televised spectacle that is as entertaining as it is inspiring.
Perry is a quiet, unassuming guy and not one to boast, but when he speaks of the Paralympics and the amazing advances in design, inclusion and athletic accomplishment we have seen over the past 50 years, he lets his pride show: "That all started here on Mount Hood,” he says with a smile.
Each year in early June the U.S. Paralympic Ski Team travels to Mount Hood to train on Palmer Snowfield, and Perry gets together with the coaches and athletes for a meal and a visit. "They are a wonderful group, just gracious and fun to be around," he says. "It is incredible how far the sport has progressed."
Many thanks to Lee Perry for his time, and to Jon Waldum for suggesting a story about Lee and contributing helpful background research.