By Kinsee Morlan / Photos by Donald Miralle (unless noted)
Jeremy P. McGhee's faithful black Lab, Freedom, is by his side almost everywhere he goes. But not even Freedom was up for McGhee's latest adventure.
Climbing up and then skiing down Bloody Couloir, a mountain outside Mammoth Lakes, is a big deal for even the toughest backcountry powder chasers. McGhee's got the extra challenge of being in a wheelchair.
Paralyzed from the middle of the back down in a motorcycle accident, the California native was back skiing in Colorado just months after his accident. When he hit the bunny hill for those first few runs (his ribs still broken), half a dozen people had to help him as he tried to regain some semblance of his life as an outdoor enthusiast and athlete.
"Yeah, it was frustrating," says McGhee, blue-eyed, sun-kissed and with a fresh scrape on his nose from being hit in the face with a paddle during a surf session a few days ago. Then he shrugs, adding, "But, whatever. It was humbling."
For the recent climb, McGhee wanted to do most of the heavy lifting. He knew his wheelchair couldn't get him to the top, so he and his crew equipped a child's sled with a pulley system, essentially requiring McGhee to drag himself up the mountain using only his upper-body strength.
"I just wanted to eat this peanut butter and jelly sandwich with my friends," says McGhee with a laugh. His friends hike Bloody Couloir every year for a mountaintop picnic and ski session "That sandwich was mushed and mashed by the time I got to the top, but it was awesome. And I was starving."
McGhee's epic climb was filmed as a pilot episode for a television show, but everyone involved agreed the footage was too good to cut down to 30-minutes. So, the producers created "Drop In," a documentary they hope will be the first in a series of films featuring McGhee being a daredevil - diving with great white sharks off Guadalupe Island, kayaking with whales in Alaska and downhill mountain-biking the most dangerous road in Bolivia.
Now in the final stages of editing, the film is set to be released this fall.
Despite having overcome adversity, McGhee says his goal isn't to be viewed as a paraplegic guy with the guts to do extreme things. Instead, he says the film's message is about building friends and relationships through experiencing adventures and facing challenges together. He hopes the film inspires others to do something exciting, even a little scary.
"My friend talks about her tummy flipping," he says. "I like that. It's a very tangible, straightforward feeling. I hate to say the word 'should,' but I really think that whatever gives us that feeling - whatever makes our tummies flip - that's what we should be doing."
The Wheel Deal
McGhee's latest addiction is downhill mountain biking. His specially equipped bike is big and barely fits into his pickup truck or the gondolas at Mammoth Mountain, where he likes to ride. Pushing the bike uphill is painful. McGhee can reach back and spin the wheels like he would with a wheelchair, but it's awkward and exhausting, and he'd rather ask for a push than struggle unnecessarily.
"At first, I was limited to the wide open fire road trails," he says. "But now I'm proficient enough and know the trails well enough that I can ride almost anything on the mountain solo."
The difference is the amount of preparation, consideration and gear that go into McGhee's getting to the point where he's ready to ride.
"In the snow, I need knobby mountain-bike tires on my chair and use insulated belay gloves to push it," he says, explaining just one small part of the process. "Three pairs of gloves are involved: liners, chair-pushing gloves and ski gloves."
Getting from his chair into the deep bucket seat of his sit-ski poses a challenge. McGhee has to tip the seat back, and then lift and lower himself in, paying close attention not to sit on any straps. If he sits on a strap, he has to start over. "A slight misalignment means redoing everything," he says.
Once he's on the lift, McGhee sits back and enjoys the view. At the top, he skis his ass off. On the way down, if he falls and has an especially hard time getting back up, he's never too proud to ask for help.
McGhee used to load his board onto a wheeled cart, roll it to the sand, and then drag it to the water, all without help. The process damaged his boards, though, so now he either surfs with friends or gets a helping hand from other folks surfing his regular break.
Once in the water, McGhee doesn't require help. His board is outfitted with a seat - he sits to surf. It has a removable fin, which he removes in shallow water to avoid getting stuck in the sand. He uses a paddle to help him through the second biggest challenge: powering through the shore break.
"Then, I'm surfing," McGhee says. "I'm strapped in with a quick-release belt, so, if I eat it, which happens a lot, I pull the belt and eject."