- by Tom Eastman
Overcoming the Challenge
March 5,1982 by Tom Eastman
Riding on a chair lift at a ski area can be a lot like hitch-hiking along the highways of life - you never know just whom you'll be sharing a conversation with before the day's over. For every 10 rides up that the discussion centers on the weather, there is always one of two where the stories told stand out as being somewhat more noteworthy. A chance encounter at Wildcat Mountain on a sunny Sunday while on assignment for a different story three weeks ago was just such an instance.
Standing ahead in the lift line at Wildcat's t-bar was Bill Trafton, his wife Virginia and their skiing companions, June and Dan Roux. Although Bill and June would probably tell you otherwise, they are - like other skiers belonging to the New England Handicapped Sports Association such as Conway skier Paul DiBello - remarkable individuals who have overcome obstacles to live fulfilling and active lives. Amputees both, they are admirable examples of what persons can accomplish under difficult circumstances once they set their minds and wills toward achieving a goal.
Equipped with "outriggers" - pole-like devices which are attached via a controllable hinge to short skis - Bill and June frequently ski at Wildcat and other MWV ski areas when not schussing down the slopes of Lost Valley near their home in Lewiston-Auburn, Maine. Both were skiers before their respective accidents, with Bill, Virginia, and their nine children having received lessons from friend Arthur Doucette at his Black Mountain Ski School. Following mutual periods of adjustment, their enthusiasm for skiing and life in general seems as strong as ever.
Typically, Bill says he enjoys the chance of meeting and helping out fellow amputees, and notes that the attention he receives is welcomed but surprising. "Contrary to what everyone thinks, it's a myth that it's difficult to use outriggers and ski on one ski," the Auburn lawyer and former Speaker of the Maine House of Representatives commented. "You find that, as an amputee, you get a lot of credit that you really don't deserve. The hardest part isn't in the skiing - it's in convincing yourself that you can go out and do just about as much as you could before."
For Bill, it wasn't long after his accident in 1966 that he was back on the slopes. Skiing with his family at Black that year, he developed an aneurism which blocked the circulation of blood in his left leg while on the slopes. Traveling to Maine before being transferred to a hospital in Boston, it was seven hours before his left leg received the attention required. "Even before the operation, I remember how the doctor looked at me and said that he had skied with amputees before," recalls Bill. "It was a shock." The leg was removed above the knee, and Bill was outfitted with a prosthesis. When therapy and encouragement seemed to be lacking where Bill looked for it among the medical staff, he found it elsewhere on his own.
There were not many handicapped skiers in the country at the time, but Bill was fortunate to be referred to a pioneer amputee skier named Paul Leimkeuhler who planned to be skiing in the Mt. Washington Valley during the winter of 1966-67. Leimkeuhler directed Bill to contact the Portland, Oregon, Chamber of Commerce for information regarding how to obtain some "outriggers," since the organization was then running a unique ski program for amputees on Mt. Hood. When the snows arrived on the slopes of Attitash ski area in Bartlett that winter, Paul and Bill were ready for it.
As all handicapped skiers discover, Paul soon found that skiing down a steep incline was well within his ability, but experienced problems in getting around on flatter terrain. As he explained, "One leg skiing is actually a lot easier, especially for a beginner because you don't have to worry about crossing your tips - you only have to coordinate one ski, so it's almost like parallel skiing made easy. The hard part, on the other hand, comes when you try to ski on flat sections or when you have to push uphill to get to a lift."
Leimkeuhler and Bill corrected the problem somewhat in the Attitash ski shop by making some adjustments on the outriggers, taking away some of the slack in the hinge that connected the pole to the short ski. Improved and stiffer, the poles allowed Bill to push himself across the lever ground with greater ease. While still a problem even with more improved outrigger models used by handicapped skiers, Bill noted that skiers still can maneuver with less trouble on the flat sections than when he first started on the old equipment.
Under Leimkeuhler's guidance, Bill's skiing improved as did his spirits. It wasn't long before he was back at Whitneys' at Black, refining his technique. "Once you start doing things like skiing again, you realize that life is still very much open to you," Bill related after enjoying a few runs at Wildcat. Noting that he is often approached by other skiers on the slopes who know of handicapped persons who would benefit from his assistance, Bill stated that he is always glad to offer words of encouragement. "It's of tremendous value for a handicapped person to observe others like him and interact," he explained. "People are always coming up to me while skiing to tell about their relatives and friends who are handicapped, and ask where they can get involved with a ski program. I think that it's natural that people try to help one another - I enjoy it, and it's what makes life wonderful."
Over the years, Bill has helped introduce four handicapped persons to skiing under his personal guidance. Included among those students who benefited from his instruction is June Roux, his skiing companion for the day at Wildcat. A physical education major at the time, June was an all-around sports enthusiast in her sophomore year at school when she experienced a severe bicycle accident 10 years ago when struck by a car. Losing her leg below the knee, she spent the year following the accident recuperating from numerous broken bones and abrasions while restoring some order back to her life. A consequence of her accidents was having to change her college major from physical education to biology.
June recalls that it was Bill Trafton who showed her by example that her love of sports need not be over. A friend of the family's, Bill was asked by June's father to stop by the house and speak to his daughter, a request to which Bill gladly acceded. "Together, they gave me encouragement, and their pushing is what got me going again," June related. Outfitting her with an outrigger, Bill soon had June out on the friendly slopes of their hometown ski area, Lost Valley, which also gave June a year's ski pass. it was the first of many such kindnesses shown to the handicapped skiers by ski areas over the years.
Now a high school math teacher, June says that she considers her amputation as more of an inconvenience than a handicap. "After you get used to it, it is more of an inconvenience that anything else," she explained prior to taking another run down Wildcat's lower Bobcat Trail. "I find that while it may take you longer to get things done that you might've taken for granted before, and your stamina isn't as strong, you can still do almost anything you want to." She added that it's up to the amputee to ask for help if needed while on the slopes. "It's your responsibility, and it's up to you to make it known to the lift attendant or whomever that you might need assistance. As a rule, everyone is more than willing to do so once they know, and we appreciate it." June said.
Both Bill Trafton and June Roux share an enthusiasm for skiing and the outdoors in general which their injuries have done little to diminish. Of the two, Bill is by far the more ardent skier, but his activities don't end once the snow has left the slopes. Using his prothesis, he continues his life-long interest in tennis in summer, and can be found on the mountain hiking trails near his second home in Jackson Village just about any time of the year using ski poles for support. While the poles usually attract a joking comment or two from passing hikers about whether he expects snow further up, Bill has more than his share of satirical responses to everyone guessing, if not laughing.
When not hiking or belting a tennis ball, the man who ran against Ed Muskie for governor and lost in 1955 can be found racing off the Maine coast in a one-man Alden shell from Kittery Point to the Isle of Shoals. Now 63, he admits to having one great skiing goal ahead of him - the Headwall at Tuckerman Ravine. "The way I look at it, I ski better now on one ski after the accident than I did on two skis beforehand. My big ambition at this point is to ski the Headwall, and I think I can do it," Bill laughed as June shook her head to indicate she doesn't share his dream. "My life at 63 is more focused on my children and grandchildren now and I'll be getting into watching their future with skiing," he stated before heading out of Wildcat's lodge to ski, within the shadow of Mt. Washington and its notorious Ravine, but I'd like to tackle the headwall."
Knowing Bill Trafton, don't bet that he won't achieve his goal.