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Don’t Leave Me Hanging

By: Megan Michelson

The High Fives Foundation isn’t just helping athletes with life-altering injuries, they’re also trying to prevent injuries from happening in the first place.

Danielle Watson soars over tacky red slickrock in Moab, Utah. A blond ponytail sticks out of the back of her helmet as she gracefully navigates the knobby tires of her mountain bike around each corner.

When Watson stops alongside her friends, a broad and contagious smile spreads across her face, full of joy and gratitude. Not long ago, doctors told her she was lucky to be alive. They said life as she knew it would never be the same, and mountain biking was out of the question.

In 2011, Watson was rock climbing near Gunnison, Colorado. She had completed a multi-pitch climb and started to rappel, a controlled descent using a rope and a friction device, when something went wrong. The rope didn’t catch. Watson fell nearly 300 feet to the ground. Doctors think she landed on her feet, and that’s likely what saved her life. The impact broke both ankles, her right femur, her pelvis, and fractured her spine in two places. Six surgeries and more than three months in the hospital followed before she emerged paralyzed from the waist down.

At first, Watson felt that those few seconds of free fall had destroyed her identity. She had always been active, climbing with her dad in childhood and later taking up snowboarding and cycling. At 27, she left a comfy job at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art to spend a year as a vagabond climber. But even though she was still confined to her hospital bed, Watson Googled “extreme wheelchair sports.” Soon, she discovered a nonprofit called the High Fives Foundation, which offers support to people who’ve suffered life-altering injuries in mountain sports.

Since 2009, the High Fives Foundation has distributed more than $1 million in grants to 79 people across 20 states, many of them with spinal cord injuries like Watson. Others have suffered traumatic brain injuries, amputations, and other mobility-limiting injuries. The foundation gave out $226,000 in 2014 alone. But money isn’t the only thing they provide. “High Fives made me part of their community,” says Watson. “You never want to hear about people being injured, but seeing that there are others like me who got back into outdoor sports made me feel less alone.”

High Fives paid for Watson’s sit-ski lessons and bought her a season pass to Oregon’s Mt. Bachelor. This spring, they flew her to Crested Butte, Colorado, where she picked up a recumbent off-road handcycle she won in an essay contest. Built by a paraplegic bike designer, Watson’s new ride was painted a custom shade of raspberry. And in May, a woman who can’t walk explored Moab by mountain bike instead.

Watson exudes relentless optimism, a trait that everyone involved in High Fives seems to share. Walk into the CR Johnson Healing Center in Truckee, California, and you’ll find fit young people bearing the physical scars of brutal injuries. But nobody at High Fives seems sad or full of pity. Self-doubt isn’t allowed and the word “can’t” is verboten.

Institutional positivity is the edict of Roy Tuscany, the organization’s founder, who thrusts his hand in the air for one of those ubiquitous high fives whenever the mood strikes him—and it strikes him a lot. But Tuscany is no vacuous cheerleader offering hollow platitudes.

In 2006, Tuscany flew off a jump in the terrain park at Mammoth Mountain, California. When he crashed into the ground, he felt his spine scorpion, followed by otherworldly pain as his hips smashed his shoulders. In the hospital, steel-faced doctors diagnosed a burst fracture of his T12 vertebra. Their prognosis: It was entirely possible he would never walk again. Skiing was off the docket.

The dour words just motivated Tuscany. A year after his accident, he walked. Two years later, he was back on skis, using pole outriggers to descend familiar terrain. Communities where he’d lived in Tahoe and Vermont rallied behind him with emotional and financial support. Which led him to wonder: How do others in this situation get help? In 2009, Tuscany formed the High Fives Foundation, which operates out of the CR Johnson Healing Center, named after an influential pro skier who died in 2010. The facility offers a gym, physical therapy, and assorted treatments for recovering athletes.

Immediately, Tuscany felt like the nonprofit was making a difference. But two years later, grant applications from injured athletes still flooded the office. Outdoor athletes were getting seriously hurt at alarming rates—and High Fives didn’t have enough money to help them all. Tuscany began thinking: What if we could stop people from getting hurt in the first place?

Around this time, pro skier and famed BASE jumper JT Holmes approached Tuscany. Holmes had a similar idea for an educational program to teach mountain athletes the skills and checklists required to approach potentially risky scenarios. It was exactly what Tuscany had been looking for.

In 2011, Holmes and Tuscany, along with former High Fives staffer and cancer survivor Adam Baillargeon, launched BASICS, which stands for Being Aware and Safe in Crazy Situations. They later changed “crazy” in the acronym to “critical,” because Tuscany says the perception was that they were supporting daredevils, which isn’t the case at all. “From the outside, you don’t really see the inner workings of the foundation and our guidelines,” says Tuscany. “But with BASICS, we wanted to provide education to kids to help prevent critical injuries.”

High Fives has since conducted more than 135 BASICS presentations to school-aged kids from California to Maine. The nonprofit also launched the #helmetsarecool campaign, a video and social media push to change the culture around wearing helmets, and #knowyourpark, a 22-minute video shot like a ski movie, about staying safe in terrain parks. “It’s frustrating seeing injuries that simply should not have happened,” says Holmes. “What was considered extremely dangerous even five years ago has become commonplace. The goal is to get people to use their heads.”

Recently, Tuscany and his full-time staff of three rewrote the High Fives mission statement to encompass injury prevention awareness and include all mountain athletes, not just those involved in winter sports. “We were seeing people getting injured mountain biking, rock climbing, and paragliding,” says Tuscany. “We wanted to be able to help them, too.”

While it’s hard to quantify the people who don’t hurt themselves in mountain sports thanks to BASICS training, the people who have benefitted from High Fives are all around us: A California kid who may never walk again is learning to surf; a paralyzed girl in Nevada now has a wheelchair so she can play adaptive rugby. In March 2014, Tony Schmiesing become the first quadriplegic to ski in Alaska’s Chugach backcountry. And when an insurance company told Jocelyn Judd of Washington State that her policy would only cover 22 days of physical therapy after she was paralyzed in a ski accident, High Fives gave her $25,000 to cover therapy. That marks the biggest grant they’ve awarded to date.

Then there’s Danielle Watson. Now 32 years old and attending graduate school for occupational therapy, she embodies the positive High Fives spirit. Her accident hasn’t slowed her down—if anything, it’s only propelled her to do more. Since becoming paralyzed, she’s completed marathons on a handcycle, finished long-distance bike tours and triathlons, and competed on an adaptive team in the Pole, Pedal, Paddle mountain triathlon that turns Mt. Bachelor’s closing weekend into a slushy, muddy spring jubilee.

A few seconds of free fall nearly killed her, but getting back outside brought her back to life. “I was such an outdoorsy, active person. Then all of a sudden I was confined to this seat,” says Watson. “Learning new sports gave me something to live for when my future felt so uncertain.” And a few high fives helped along the way.

First Descents is proud to be a part of a community of amazing non-profits like the High Fives Foundation, that use the outdoors as a way to empower their participants to live the lives they want, even in the face of challenge. They truly embody the Out Living It culture. 

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