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Hope on the Slopes

Post by Craig Hill / The News Tribune on Dec. 2, 2007 at 9:00 am with No Comments »
December 2, 2007 9:00 am

If you read today’s story about White Pass Ski Area, you might be curious about this year’s Hope on the Slopes event. This is a 24-hour ski endurance competition that races money for the American Cancer Society. I participated with about 130 skiers and boards in 2006 and finished third (Yes, I typed that last sentence with one hand so I could pat myself on the back while I was writing.) It is one of the coolest fund raisers out there and a great way to get hypothermia.

Click here to get more info.

Here’s my column from the 2006 event (Note: The event was called the Vertical Challenge before this season.)


When Derek LaFramboise greeted me in the White Pass lift line at 2:30 a.m. on March 12, I thought I knew plenty about endurance.

I was 14 1/2 hours into a 24-hour ski competition called the Vertical Challenge, and I was fighting leg cramps, fatigue and numb toes from the 15-degree cold, with no intention of slowing down.

A six-minute lift ride later, I realized I was about to get an endurance lesson from Derek’s 14-year-old son.

“Why are you doing this?” Derek asked.

I just wanted to know what it was like to ski for 24 hours, I replied.

“Well, let me tell you why my son is doing this,” Derek said.

I’d noticed his son, Sam, about 10 hours earlier. The Yakima eighth-grader stuck out on the slopes the way a Porsche would at a tractor pull. While most skiers linked neat turns, Sam simply ripped straight down the hill like the police were after him.

From 4 p.m. to 1 a.m., I’d skied the same way trying to catch Sam to ask what was driving him. At 4 p.m., he was only two chairs – about 30 seconds – ahead of me. Nine hours later, he was still two chairs ahead.

Endurance? Sam knows way more about this subject than any kid should.

“Two years ago, Sam’s older brother died of cancer,” Derek said. “Sam is bound and determined to win this for him, and I’ll be honest with you, we’re a little worried about him. We can’t get him to stop. I’m afraid he’s going to hurt himself.”

About this time, as if for effect, Sam rocketed by under our chair.

“You’re pushing him pretty hard,” Derek said. “Maybe if you took a break?”

Now, you’re probably thinking the same thing I was at first: The dad’s trying to get me to take a dive. But it quickly became clear that was not the case. Derek wasn’t concerned I would beat his son. He knew Sam would push himself as hard he needed to win. That was his concern.

Losing son, brother

For about an hour, Derek and I skied together talking about how proud he was of his straight-A son and how his family stayed strong despite the devastation of losing Max.

The Vertical Challenge was the perfect way for Derek and Sam to pay tribute to Max, because the event is a fundraiser for the American Cancer Society. Sam raised $2,322, more than all but one of the 182 participants.

On his fundraising Web site, Sam posted a picture of himself and Max smiling under a tree in Maui on a family vacation in February 2004.

A few days after the picture was taken, Max, 14, started feeling sick. At first, doctors thought Max had fluid in his lungs. Then they found a tumor on his collarbone.

“When they told us it was cancer, we were floored,” Derek said.

After 10 days of intense chemotherapy at Children’s Hospital in Seattle, the news got even worse. The cancer had spread to Max’s spine. There was nothing else doctors could do.

“I remember Sam saying, ‘Dad, I don’t want to be an only child,’ ” Derek said. “He was scared. He was losing his best friend.”

Either Derek, his wife, Joan, or Sam were by Max’s side at all times. Some nights, once Max fell asleep, Derek drove home to Yakima and back before Max woke.

“Max was the bravest person I’ve ever seen,” Derek said. “He was so strong at the end, even though he was scared.”

On April 24, 2004, just two months after he and Sam were smiling under that tree in Maui, Max was gone.

Family of skiers

Max was a fixture at White Pass, just as Sam is now. As members of the Yakima Valley Ski Club, they spent so much time on the hill that the lift operators, ski patrol and even the general manager knew them.

So, when Max died, he had to be honored. The ski area had a small brass plaque mounted on a rock at the top of the mountain. It’s simple inscription: “Max.”

When the LaFramboise family skis at White Pass, they dig out the snow to uncover the plaque and a laminated picture they keep tucked in the rocks. Depending on the depth, it can take up to an hour of shoveling, Sam said.

The plaque is located near where Sam and Max would push off to ski their favorite runs such as Outhouse and Mach V. Inevitably, the runs turned into races, and Max usually won.

It was chasing his older brother down these steep runs when Sam began to develop his skiing philosophy.

He’s not on a racing team, because he’d rather free-ride in the trees and huck himself off cliffs.

“Racing is like skiing on a track,” said Sam, who like most free skiers has a thing for steep powder. “I want to ski where I want, when I want and how I want.”

And, on this particular weekend, why he wants.

Skiing hard

Sam’s philosophy presented a quandary when a bit of controversy descended on the Vertical Challenge.

The tracking devices we wore to tabulate our vertical feet were programmed to prevent cheating, but the effect was that rides weren’t registered if we beat our chair back down the hill and took an earlier lift. As you can imagine, a six-minute lift ride to make a 45-second ski run makes for a lot of standing around in the cold.

Because of the glitch, some unknowing skiers and boarders weren’t getting credit for every run. Some teams were reporting that their slowest members were credited with the most vertical feet because their pace timed up better with the lifts.

Once word of the glitch got around, most participants started taking short breaks during each run in order to time their chair.

Sam, on the other hand, endured this the way he usually does when life is unfair. He kept going, and kept going hard.

“I figured if I skied hard for 24 hours, it would still be tough to catch me even if I had to ski twice as many runs as everybody else,” Sam said. “I’m not doing this to time lifts.”

And for most of the event it worked. Sam and I stayed out in front, but others were gaining fast.

The will to win

About 3:30 a.m., with my water supply frozen, I finally caved in and followed Derek to the Yakima Valley Ski Club House for a 20-minute break.

Inside, I saw other kids, many of whom had tried to keep up with Sam, passed out in sleeping bags on the floor. As I thawed my water, Sam took his break. His lasted about two minutes.

Derek gave me a tour, offered me a beer and, with a grin, confessed, “You know I’m trying to keep you in here as long as I can.”

“I know,” I said. “And you know, there is no way anybody is going to catch your son because he’s not going to stop.”

From 4 p.m. March 11 to 8:30 a.m. March 12, I skied 122 runs on the tiny 510-foot lighted hill. Sam skied even more.

And when the big 1,510-foot hill reopened, despite being weary and hungry, Sam kept ticking off runs in honor of Max.

At one point, he fell asleep on the lift.

When the competition ended, he walked into the lodge and was devastated by what he saw on the leader board.

No. 1, David Pfund, Tri-Cities. Sam was second.

“After 24 hours of skiing it doesn’t take much to draw emotions,” Derek said. “He was crushed.”

He remained that way for an hour as he ate a burger, wondering if he should have timed just a few lifts.

What he didn’t know was that event staff members were working to compensate participants impacted by the tracking glitch.

At the award ceremony, even after I was awarded a bar of goat milk soap for finishing third (167 runs and 121,000 vertical feet) and Pfund took second (169 runs, 122,500 feet), Sam was certain he’d come up short.

Then came the announcement. First place, with 170 runs for 124,000 vertical feet (the equivalent of skiing Mount Rainier more than eight and a half times), Sam LaFramboise.

“He was elated,” Derek said. “And so was I. It was like I watched him grow into a man. It takes a ton of physical stamina to ski for 24 hours. I couldn’t ski that much, that fast.”

Holding my bar of soap, I couldn’t help but smile as Sam got his medal.

An award for endurance. Nobody deserved it more.

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