- by Chris Stewart
Breaking Down the Barriers
Paul DiBello Brings Home the Gold
Paul DiBello may not win the Giant Slalom at the World Championships in March, but don't be surprised if he does. When he sets out toward a goal he rarely gives up. Skiing with a National team had been his dream since the age of eight when he first strapped on a pair of wooden Northland skis and careened down the hills outside his home in Utica, New York, and not even a brush with death and the loss of both feet kept him off the slopes. The January 1974 accident only made him more determined.
Skiing had always been important to Paul. Several years before settling in New Hampshire, he had already been an instructor in the Catskills, New Mexico, and North Carolina, working on his technique in the sport that put him "on the edge." Warm weather in the winter of 1970 changed the picture.
With no snow in sight, Paul left North Carolina and made his way to New Hampshire's White Mountains looking for a place to ski. Late one December afternoon, he found what he thought would be a temporary home with the Appalachian Mountain Club. "While I was hitch hiking I saw a sign on the highway," Paul recalled. "It said, "Room and Board Help Wanted - - All You Can Eat." I was hungry and that message caught my eye so I stopped. I wound up staying four years."
He soon learned that being on the crew at the AMC's Pinkham Notch Camp gave him more than a place to lay his head and three square meals a day. Here, in the heart of the White Mountain National Forest, the opportunities for skiing, hiking, and climbing were endless, and in between his work Paul lived in the out-of-doors. Beginning as a dishwasher and blanket packer, Paul spent the following summer as head of the "floating" crew - a five-man team which backpacked food and supplies to the AMC's chain of eight mountain hostels. That fall he moved into the garage. "I started using my questionable mechanical ability," Paul explained. "They needed someone to repair the trucks, and I was in the right spot at the right time."
At the same time, his interests switched from downhill skiing to technical climbing. The mountains and cliffs surrounding Pinkham Notch presented limitless opportunities for climbing. Opportunities Paul explored whenever he could. "When I started climbing on rock and ice, I knew that this was what I had been looking for," Paul said. "It put me more on the edge than anything I had ever done before."
For the next two years he perfected his skills, scaling rock cliffs in the summer and sheer ice walls in the winter months. In November 1972, and again in January 1973, Paul and several friends traveled to Maine's remote Mount Katahdin where they tackled some of the most rugged ice climbing in New England. On his third trip, near the end of January the following year, everything fell apart.
Near sunset after an exhausting climb up the sheet ice-and-snow encrusted south face of Katahdin, Paul and his five climbing partners were still several hundred feet below the end of their route when a slashing winter storm pinned them in place. Trapped on a three-by-five foot rock ledge, the six men huddled together through a night of 100-mile-an-hour gales and 25-below temperatures. By dawn, they were in serious straits. Nearly frozen, each man tried to comfort the others, but there was little that could be done.
One man, then another, then a party of two managed to scale the remaining 200 feet to the ridge - and safety. Paul, having lost all feeling in his feet during the night, waited on the tiny stone platform and tried over and over again to rouse Tom Keddy, the sixth member of the group who had slumped into semi-consciousness. Finally, late in the afternoon, Paul realized that he was freezing. His only chance was to leave.
Climbing alone on numb feet, Paul inched up the mountain's face and reached the ridge an hour later. In the fading sunlight he groped his way down the trail, unable to see where he walked since the wind had frozen his eyes open. He stumbled at the edge of a cliff and fell 60 feet, but instead of rocks, he landed on an outcropping of scrub pine and the tumble merely slowed his pace. Three hours after leaving the ledge he arrived at the Chimney Pond Ranger Cabin at the base of Katahdin - a relentless effort of determination and willpower which eventually saved his life. Summarizing the accident, the then Director of the New Hampshire Parks Department described what Paul did as, "the most remarkable illustration of fortitude I have seen in a long time."
Paul's strength had kept him alive, but the two days of direct exposure to chilling cold and hurricane winds cost him dearly. His right foot above the ankle and one half of his left foot were amputated.
"When you've had an accident like that, at first you don't understand anything that's happened - except that you're hurt and just being alive is a gift." Paul recalled. "But later, when I was laying in bed, it began to dawn on me that I had lost my feet." This awareness came gradually. "By being in the hospital for nine months, the impact of what had happened was dulled," he added. "There are nurses to get you what you need, so you don't have to crawl across the room for a glass of water. When you get out of the hospital, that's when you learn how to deal with it."
Paul's recovery proved to be as difficult a challenge as he had ever faced. "A month or so after I was released from the hospital, everything seemed to hit me," he said. "I wouldn't leave the house because I was embarrassed by the way I looked. If I needed groceries, I asked a friend to go shopping for me." Then he wondered if he'd ever accept what had happened. "Other than asking, "Why me?", I felt as if I were some kind of freak and that life was passing me by."
Luckily this self-imposed exile from the outside world ended abruptly. "What snapped me out of it was a nurse who had taken care of me at the hospital," he noted. "She and her husband came for a visit and I was really happy to see them." For the first time Paul ventured out in public, forcing himself to walk on his prostheses, and forcing himself to meet the stares of people on the street. "By trying to show them that I was alright, I was pushing myself to do something I had been afraid to try," Paul explained. "Then I realized that no one was going to - or could - hand me anything. Whatever I wanted, I had to accomplish myself."
His rising sense of self-confidence helped him through the following year when he made several important decisions. The first came in January 1975, at Mary Hitchcock Hospital in Hanover where Paul chose not to keep the stump on his left foot. "I felt I had made a lot of progress, and I didn't want to risk losing it by laying in a bed for months and having to recover all over again. the night before the operation I refused to sign the release forms unless he doctors agreed to amputate the rest of my left foot." After a long talk, they did agree. "A few days after the operation, I stood on my temporary leg," Paul said. "I felt 900 pounds had been lifted from my shoulders, and I danced with a nurse."
His second choice was less difficult. "I was having a good time living on Social Security benefits, fishing and doing odds and ends, but all of a sudden I wanted to go back to work," he said. "I was tired of sitting around." With the help of another mechanic, Paul went into business for himself, and 18 months later, he opened the Saco River Garage in Conway, an operation he continues to manage today.
None of what Paul did in the aftermath of the accident came without a struggle, yet he met almost every challenge head on. While his step-by-step rebuilding was interrupted by a four-month stint in the hospital fighting a staph infection, it proved to be only a minor setback. "I was learning that I could do things that I had thought impossible," he said. "I might not necessarily do them as well or as easliy as before, but I could do them."
Still, he did doubt his ability on the slopes. "Skiing was always on the back of my mind," he recalled. "There were many things which I couldn't do as well as before, and I could accept that, but skiing had always been such an important part of my life that I put it on a shrine. I didn't want to find out that I could no longer do it well."
In the end Paul overcame this fear, too. Encouraged by his friend Larry Wright - the head ski mechanic at Carroll Reed Ski Shop of North Conway - Paul returned to the slopes in the spring of 1977. "Larry really didn't convince me, he just embarrassed me into it," Paul explained. "When I told him I was worried, he said, 'So what, Paul, let's go.'"
Though he didn't ski like Toni Sailer, Paul's post-accident debut was a success. "It didn't really matter that I couldn't do as well at first, it was simply pure elation," he said. "I could go fast, I did have control, and the things I had worried about weren't important at all."
The following winter Paul made skiing a regular part of his routine, closing the garage each Wednesday afternoon and heading to one of the half dozen ski areas in the Mount Washington Valley. By practicing hard and refining his equipment, Paul gradually improved his technique and regained his racing form. He entered a series of local amateur meets - competing against non-handicapped opponents - and consistently finished among the top. From here, an odd chain of events led him to the National Handicapped Ski Team.
Since his accident, Paul's mother had urged him to join a handicapped organization where she hoped he would be able to share his experiences. Her suggestions hadn't made an impression. "Maybe I didn't pursue it because I didn't want to face up to belonging with handicaps," Paul explained. A visit to the annual Boston Ski Show changed his mind.
"I went to the show because I was excited about skiing and wanted to look at all the equipment - just to get the feel of winter," he said. "In the middle of the auditorium, I saw the New England Handicapped Sportsmen's Association's booth. All of a sudden, that booth stood out and I couldn't see anything else. I went up and started talking with the man behind the counter; he didn't know I was handicapped. I offered to help, but he thought I was just being friendly, when he told me, 'thanks, we have enough help,' I said, 'Look you don't understand. I'm a bilateral.' It was like admitting you're an alcoholic at an AA meeting. When I said that, I broke down another barrier." Paul joined NEHSA.
Aside from putting him in touch with a group of people who understood part of what he was going through, by becoming a member of NEHSA, Paul learned about competitive handicapped skiing. Through a NEHSA newsletter in November, he discovered that regional races were slated for January, and for the next two months he trained for the event. His performance showed that he hadn't lost his touch.
"I was a qualifier with the fastest time, and I won the Giant Slalom, Class A, in my division and overall," Paul noted. "The races were a lot harder than local meets because the course was the toughest I had ever skied as an amputee - both in length and vertical drop. The physical punishment was the worst I had ever gone through."
Despite the rigors of Hunter Mountain, Paul knew that he could compete against the best. However, since he lacked the $2,000 necessary to finance a trip to the Nationals at Winter Park, Colorado, he resigned himself to economic realities and decided to try again the following year. His friends in the Mount Washington Valley felt differently. Organized by Lanny Perry and Larry Wright, the townspeople of Conway and Carroll Reed contributed generously and Paul had his ticket.
"When I called Colorado to verify that I was coming, I was told that they'd be picking members for the National team which would compete in Switzerland," Paul said. "From then on, I had one goal: to win." Nervous and an unknown among his fellow skiers, Paul came home with a Gold Medal in the Men's Class A - an achievement which brought him closer than ever to his lifelong ambition. "How can you describe your feelings when you do something you've wanted all your life. It's a childhood dream you've always thought about, and now it's coming true."
Whether or not he wins the gold in Switzerland, Paul's return to skiing has already taken him farther than he ever expected it would. "It has definitely broken down barriers," he said, "especially the barrier of fearing that I couldn't do as well as I had done before. Part of it was I expected to 'look good,' but you have to overcome that embarrassment that you feel yourself."
Having come to understand this for himself, Paul hoped he'll be able to help others who face similar challenges. "Helping people to accept what I've learned to accept is now part of my life. what happened made me a lot more introspective, and It's not all the way out of me year, but I feel that I'm working on something that I have to do for the rest of my life.
Editor's Note: Paul Anthony Dibello passed away April 29, 2020, in Aurora Colorado. Once he got back into racing, Paul won countless medals in national and international alpine skiing competitions (see 1984 Mountain Ear photo below), sweeping gold in Austria in 1984 and Sweden in 1986 in all disciplines. Paul became a legend in the world of disabled alpine ski racing, but he was also driven beyond his own success. He was active in the New England Handicapped Sportsmen’s Association, leading individuals with disabilities on hikes, canoeing and sailing trips and was also instrumental in establishing the ski program at Mt. Sunapee in New Hampshire. And, after moving to Colorado in 1984, Paul created and ran the competition program of the National Sports Center for the Disabled (NSCD) at Winter Park, Colorado.