His legs were shaky, and his skis didn't go very fast. However, Sipapu ski shop employee and Las Trampas native Frank Lopez made one extraordinary trip down the mountain at Sipapu this season.
Frank Lopez had always been an athlete. Growing up, he participated in every sport available in his small Las Trampas community, especially skiing. He was introduced to the sport as a third grader when some friends invited him to try it at Sipapu. The third grader fell in love with the sport immediately and spent many, many winters on the slopes at Sipapu. He eventually became a rental shop employee and ski school instructor before moving to the City to become a 'grown-up'.
Frank's day started like any other Jan. 2, 2007: He went to his job in Boston and during his lunch hour, he worked out at the gym. But then, just 20 minutes after his workout, Frank felt a wrenching pain in his spine. Shortly after came memory loss. His hands and legs started convulsing, and he was quickly losing feeling in his limbs.
"I knew something was wrong," Frank said. "I thought it was a stroke, so I left the office and went straight to the subway." By the time he reached his subway stop, Frank couldn't walk and couldn't feel anything below his waist. Frank managed to get a cab and dial 9-1-1. By 6 p.m. that evening - less than six hours after his workout - Frank was paralyzed from the neck down.
Countless doctors told him he'd never walk again.
On January 5 - Frank's 36th birthday - his doctor said he likely had a blood clot in his spinal cord, which could only be treated by placing a shunt in his spine.
The shunt would cause permanent paralysis. Doing nothing would mean death, most likely within days. "Paralysis or death: those were my two options that morning," Frank said. Frank agreed to have surgery. Eight hours later, he awoke and learned the good news- and the bad news: he did not have a blood clot in his spine and he was still paralyzed. He was a quadriplegic, and no one could tell him why. In spite of his uncertain prognosis, Frank never gave up.
"I never believed I would be paralyzed for the rest of my life, not for one minute," he said. "For days, I sat there in the hospital and tried to move my body." And finally, less than a week after his paralysis, Frank moved his left toe.
Frank returned to Las Trampas using just a cane to aid his steps after months of exhaustive rehabilitation. His body continued to heal. He regained some feeling in his legs - a sensation that doctors said he would never experience again. His next goal was to ski Sipapu again.
This season, three years after the incident, Frank returned to work in the Sipapu ski shop, helping guests sign up for lessons or rent skis and snowboards. His goal was to ski on his 39th birthday, Jan. 5, 2010 -- three years to the day that doctors said he would never walk again.
Bruce Bolander, the son of Sipapu founders Lloyd and Olive Bolander, and his wife, Winonah, knew of Frank's goal. "I went up to Frank that morning and said, we're going on the slopes in 30 minutes!" Bruce said.
"Most people are supportive, but Bruce and Winonah actually got in there and helped me achieve my goal," Frank said. "They really cared about it as much as I did."
So, on the morning of January 5, Frank stepped into his skis and stood in the lift line "shaking like a leaf." But with Bruce's aid, he started skiing.
"I knew what to do," he said. "It just took a lot of effort to make it happen. My legs were trembling from years of atrophy, but I was mostly in control. I was doing these wide, long turns. I felt the whoosh of the skis. I felt the breeze. And when I finished, all I could think of was three words: I DID IT!"
Physicians continue to have more questions than answers to Frank's mysterious paralysis. While it's painfully difficult to not know why he was paralyzed - and how or if he will ever completely recover - Frank continues to make big goals for himself. His next endeavor is to bike the Boston Marathon.
Until then, he's happy to be back at Sipapu, inspiring those who are in a bed with little or no hope.
"Lots of people told me I'd never walk again," he said. "I took it two steps further - I decided I would not only walk again, but I'd ski, too. If someone says you can't do something, it doesn't mean it's true."