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‘T-bar’ lives

DEVON O'NEIL
summit daily news
Summit County, CO Colorado
Summit Daily/Mark Fox
ALL |

BRECKENRIDGE ” “T-bar” Tommy Larkin has a ski tuning station set up on his breakfast bar. Decorating the walls of his home, a small one-bedroom apartment he rents a few blocks from the Breckenridge slopes, 25 to 30 pairs of skis are mounted chronologically, the evolution of the sport spread out right there in front of you. Draped inside are Larkin’s famous one-piece ski suits, old-school garments that, along with his singular, graceful style when making turns off his beloved surface lift, allow his friends to spot him hundreds of yards away.

Then there’s the calendar. That’s where he keeps track of his ski days. Two hundred and four last season ” the third consecutive year T-bar Tommy has logged more than 200 days on the hill. Pretty good for a scruffy 57-year-old with two jobs.

He’d chalked up 49 this season by Dec. 13 ” “I haven’t been skiing much on the weekends,” he explains ” when, on his way home from the slopes before cooking all night at a local restaurant, Tommy Larkin dropped to the ground like he’d died. Which, for all intents and purposes, he had.

Larkin made it 32 years as a Breckenridge local, almost all of it injury free, before suffering that heart attack at 1:36 p.m. The arrest was massive. His heart no longer beat at a livable rate; instead it fluttered like a dying butterfly, suspended in some sort of weird twilight zone between here and gone.

By chance, an anesthesiologist from Louisiana was skiing a few yards behind Larkin when he crumpled to the snow, and the man stopped to check on the fallen skier. Finding Larkin unresponsive, not breathing and with no pulse, the doctor initiated CPR. Larkin vomited into the man’s mouth; he continued.

Within seconds an off-duty lift operator came upon the downed Larkin and the doctor trying to save his life. The liftie called 911 and delivered word to ski patrol: Possible seizure on the Sawmill run leading down to the base of the mountain; the man might not be breathing.

On their way out the door, one of the responding patrollers grabbed an automatic external defibrillator ” a tool to wake up a dying man’s heart. Defibrillators are placed on someone’s chest by the Breck Ski Patrol probably once or twice a year, according to patrol director Kevin Ahern. Much of the rarity stems from the fact that only a couple heart rhythms out of a dozen are shockable. Larkin’s heart was beating at one of those two rhythms.

After hundreds of chest compressions, the responders placed the defibrillator on Larkin’s chest and shocked him. Then they sent a tube down his throat and into his lungs and administered another 200 compressions.

Sticking to protocol, they shocked him again, then pumped 200 more compressions. Finally, they checked for a sign of life.

“He’s got a pulse!” someone shouted.

“And everyone was like, ‘Lemme check! Lemme check!'” patroller Laura Martin recalls. “We couldn’t believe it.” The pulse was slight, very slow, but it was a pulse nonetheless.

Shortly thereafter ” 10 minutes after patrol arrived on scene ” T-bar Tommy Larkin was breathing again.

If you walk into Pup’s Glide Shop on a standard afternoon, right about happy hour, you’ll find a group of Breckenridge old-timers ” funny, laid-back guys who have been here since the ’70s, telling stories that literally get better by the week. Memories are washed down by canned beer in the 16-by-24-foot purple shack, where the “waiting room” and the “bathroom” and the “tuning room” all mesh to form one big open clubhouse.

This is where T-Bar Tommy has worked for the better part of a decade, a place with ancient ski posters and classic skis and even a deadman’s ceiling shrine devoted to originals who are no longer alive.

Long before he began cooking at local restaurants, Larkin was a ski junkie. He moved to Colorado in 1974 and worked on patrol at Arapahoe Basin for $2.75 an hour; after one year of that he quit the patrol and began tuning skis, something he liked better because it allowed him more time to freeski.

He’s worked at virtually every ski shop in town over the years, a man who’s perfected his trade and shows up early for work. He has never needed much, nor has he had much. In the early ’90s, when his turn came around to host breakfast for all his fellow ski bums, Larkin oddly refused. He didn’t give a reason; he simply announced that he wasn’t able to host the meal. One of his best friends, Rick “Pup” Ascher, persisted.

“Why not, Tommy? What’s wrong?”

Finally, Larkin relented. “I only have two forks.”

As the years passed and the core group of Breckenridge old-schoolers watched their secret get discovered by the rest of the world, each gradually eased off to a semblance of real life. None of them ever gave up skiing, but responsibility slowly infiltrated their ways. Marriage, kids, even mortgages. The ski days stopped hitting 180 and even threatened to dip below 100. All except one.

“He’s a dying breed,” Ascher says on one side of the clubhouse, a thought quickly echoed by Jim Grotemeyer across the room.

“To make it past 30 as a ski bum, you’re doing pretty good,” Grotemeyer says. “To make it past 40 is really good. To make it past 50? Holy mackerel. He’s the real deal.”

“He’s the king of the ski bums,” says CJ Mueller, another who has known Larkin since Tommy landed in town. “He doesn’t rip, but nobody loves skiing more than he does.”

Asking Tommy Larkin to put his passion into words is like listening to the Dalai Lama explain why he seeks peace.

“Skiing is … skiing is life, y’know?” he says. “It gives you that grasp, y’know? Not even skiing the whole day, but just to get out there for two hours. It gives you that cosmic grasp that you need. It grounds you.”

It’s been three weeks since he collapsed, and Larkin is sitting in a local pub sipping a draft beer, same as he has a thousand times before. Just below the graying beard he’s left unshaven for 30 years, you can see his blue tie-dye undershirt peeking through his warm upper layers as he digs deep into an only child’s soul that has gotten a second chance.

“The love that I feel from those people around me,” he says, “it’s really special. People that I’m not even close to have come up and told me that I’m special to them and that the interactions we’ve had have meant something to them. The things that they’ve said to me, they’re things that you might only hear at a funeral.”

Larkin doesn’t remember going skiing the day he collapsed, nor does he remember anything from the five days that followed, when he lay in a Denver hospital bed gaining strength. He knows, however, that one of the first questions he posed to the doctor was, “When can I ski again?” (They told him it won’t be soon, but it will be this season.)

“I’ve realized that I can’t go so I’m able to deal with it,” he says. “It’s good that I can come down and work on skis.” He pauses. “Although I think those other guys (in the shop) gloat when they tell me how good it is.”

Larkin chuckles at that one, just as he chuckles at his health insurance worries (“I’m sure I’ve met my deductible,” he jokes, “but I don’t want to go to the post office”) and about the fact he told Ascher he felt like he was at a Grateful Dead concert when Ascher visited him in the hospital after the collapse.

T-bar Tommy’s incident quickly became a hot topic on the slopes at Breckenridge, and its story lingers still. The days that followed Larkin’s resuscitation were nervous ones for members of the Breck Ski Patrol; they worried and wondered about their friend’s well being. Finally, word arrived that he appeared to be in the clear and on the mend.

“That’s when the high fives started coming,” says Jim Levi, who was one of 16 patrollers to respond to the scene of Larkin’s collapse, a group effort augmented by the remainder of on-duty patrollers scrambling to cover the rest of the mountain.

Even now, nearly a month since it happened, locals who know Larkin continue to stop Breck’s patrollers on the slopes and thank them for saving such an irreplaceable guy. The odds against Larkin living, after all, were as steep as the T-bar terrain he loves.

“He’s the first person that we’ve found on the hill who was pulseless and breathless that we’ve been able to bring back, that I can remember,” says Ahern, the patrol director, who has been doing this job since 1976.

“If you think about this whole thing, every step that happened was as integral as anything else,” Ahern says. “Everything happened just like we practice.”

A few months before Larkin collapsed, one of his longtime friends had died of a heart attack while skiing. “Why it happened to me and I lived, it’s just mindboggling,” he says, simultaneously thanking the patrollers and Flight For Life operators and Denver doctors who helped him survive.

Luck played a role, no doubt about that. However, T-Bar Tommy has had plenty of time to ponder, and he believes one other explanation warrants mentioning. It’s a longshot, he admits. But when you’ve lived like he has, you never know.

“Maybe,” he said, “I’ve done enough skiing that the ski gods weren’t gonna let me go out on a green run.”

Devon O’Neil can be contacted at (970) 668-4633, or at doneil@summitdaily.com.


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