Arkansas teen learns to hike all over again in Keystone
What’s Your Everest? 2016
What: An annual outdoor excursion event hosted by No Barriers USA, a Fort Collins-based nonprofit pairing disabled veterans and more with hiking, biking and adaptive guides
When: Friday and Saturday, July 22-23
Where: Keystone Resort and across Summit County
Cost: $500 donation
The $500 registration fee is considered a donation that helps veterans, low-income youth and adults with disabilities attend No Barriers events for free. Registration is available online or onsite for participants who want to join hikes, seminars and more during the weekend. Registration begins at 5 p.m. on July 22 in Keystone, followed by dinner and programming. For more info or to sign up, see the Keystone tab at www.whatsyoureverest.org.
It was a double black she’ll never forget.
On spring break in 2015, Georgiana Burnside of Little Rock, Arkansas was skiing with friends at Snowmass. They were loving the conditions — it hadn’t snowed in a week or two, but by then, in late March, the coverage was at its spring best — and her small group of high school friends was ready for a rush.
The 16-year-old had been skiing plenty in the past and came to Colorado as a lifelong ice skater, and so she felt nimble on her feet as the group picked its way through big, nasty moguls on the first black of the day.
Then, she hit a rough patch. Burnside’s left ski got caught on a rock near a steep drop-off and spun her around, tossing her over the drop and onto another rock. The L1 vertebrae and T12 nerve in her spine took the full impact — and then everything went black. She didn’t know it then, but the accident left her immediately paralyzed from the waist down.
“Initially I didn’t realized how severe a spinal chord injury is,” said Burnside, now 17 years old and ready for her senior year at Little Rock Christian Academy. “When you think about it, there isn’t much education about it. You don’t see it every day in Arkansas where I grow up. It was frightening and I was a little scared of the unknown. Everything was so uncertain.”
Burnside was rushed via helicopter to Children’s Hospital in Denver, where surgeons spent 3.5 hours mending the damage in her back. She was released soon after, but the road to recovery — and a new normal — was just beginning.
The road started at Craig Hospital, another Denver-area facility that’s one of the premier hospitals for spinal cord and traumatic brain injury rehab in the country. There, she met Connor Walsh, a Fort Collins teen who was injured in a hit-and-run accident around the same time. The two became fast friends, first sharing stories and memories and pain as inpatients, and then pushing each other to get better and healthier and stronger with outpatient therapy.
“We were so close in the hospital,” said Burnside, who’s currently in Colorado with her mom, Ann, for therapy sessions at Craig’s in-house rehab facility, PEAK Center. “We’re still so close and talk all the time.”
Over the course of six weeks, Burnside slowly found a community — and her first sense of a new normal — with other patients at Craig: veterans paralyzed from the neck down, fellow teens with severe TBIs, even young children coping with head, neck and back injuries.
“When I got to Craig Hospital my mentality changed,” Burnside said. “I saw people with higher-level injuries than me. I saw that I can still live my life fully, and that showed me there are really no limitations with a disability.”
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Everest in Colorado
Now, Burnside’s road to recovery and a new normal brings her back to the Rocky Mountains. While at Craig, Walsh and his mom introduced the Burnsides to No Barriers, a Fort Collins-based nonprofit made just for teens like them — and anyone else discouraged by a disability.
“Society throws a lot of stuff at you about how you should look, dress, act, blah, blah,” Burnside said. “You just have to find the confidence in yourself to be complete and whole again, even if you look physically broken.”
Burnside wasted no time hooking up with No Barriers and, less than a year after her injury, she was back on the snow at Winter Park for a monoski session with Walsh. The two have seen each other several times in the past 1.5 years, and she now describes herself as a “walking para,” as in she has partial control over her legs and uses hiking sticks to stay balanced.
When No Barriers comes to Keystone from July 22-23, it will be something of a Craig Hospital reunion for Burnside, Walsh and another disabled teen. They’ll be part of the nonprofit’s annual What’s Your Everest? event, attended by co-founder Erik Weihenmayer, a Boulder resident who became the first (and only) blind man to summit Mount Everest in 2001.
And it gets better: The three Craig alumni will load into Action Track hiking wheelchairs for a 6.5-mile hike from River Run Village to the top of Dercum Mountain — a brutal, lung-busting climb for anyone, let alone an Arkansas native.
Burnside can hardly wait to hike with her friends.
“I’m always open for new experiences (and) this is one that sounds too cool,” she said about the hike on July 23. “Now, in 2016, we have the technology to let someone like me get up the mountain and I want to take advantage of that. Not everyone is able to, and if I have the opportunity to do it I want to be there.”
A new lease on life
The trio of teens is joined on the trail by more than 200 other participants from across the nation, including Weihenmayer and Mark Yearsley, a 51-year-old U.S. Air Force mechanic and Gulf War veteran. He injured his right leg several times over 10 years of active duty, and, after 21 unsuccessful surgeries, doctors gave him grave news in 2007: they needed to amputate his leg.
“Think about it: You have no purpose or hope in yourself anymore,” Yearsley said of the deep, dark depression he fell into for several years after the amputation. “What could I do? I couldn’t help anybody, I couldn’t work, and so I lost all of that hope. It’s groups like No Barriers that get us out and show us that, hey, we have a reason to live.”
Yearsley says his depression had sweeping impacts on his family — his wife, his three grown children, his three grandchildren — but so did No Barriers. After three or four years of finding his own new normal, he discovered the nonprofit through another advocacy group in his native Idaho. He picked up rock climbing about two years ago and started mountaineering soon after, beginning with last year’s What’s Your Everest? event in Park City, when he summited Bald Mountain at Deer Valley near Park City. He tackled that mountain with one of several prosthetic legs he uses for hiking, running, rock climbing — “I have a leg for everything,” he joked.
“When you have to put your leg on every day, it still affects you,” Yearsley said. “You just can’t forget about it. It can become a chore after a while, and then you get a little depressed again, so the mountaineering was something to keep me going.”
It also kept his family going. Last year, his wife started joining him in the gym and on hikes. Yearsley lost 80 pounds — and kept it off. Now, his biggest goal is to summit a Colorado 14er when he’s in town with No Barriers. It will be his first, and definitely not his last.
“They want you to do something that’s not specifically easy, but it’s still doable. It’s about setting attainable goals. If you can sit down while you’re climbing — take in the moment, think about where you are, what you’re doing, why you’re there — that’s what it’s all about. Enjoy the moment. No barriers taught me that.”
No Barriers also inspired him to launch a nonprofit. Dubbed Outdoor Salute to Veterans, it pairs Yearsley’s newfound love for outdoor adventure with his longtime love of hiking and fishing. He was recently awarded a 501(c)(3) and takes his first group of veterans into the Idaho woods this fall.
“I now what the outdoors did for me, and right now I think my main goal is to inspire and support others, to help them overcome their barriers,” Yearsley said. “I’ve had people say, ‘There are so many times I wanted to quit, but watching you walk by me I had no excuse.’ I love hearing that.”
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