On her black Subaru Forester, Sherene Ricci’s license plate reads “LVLIF” right beside a blue handicapped symbol. She says it can mean live life, or love life. That’s up to you.
In her Subaru, we drive through the full parking lot and take a spot at the very front. Then Sherene asks for her boot, her ski, and her outrigger ski crutches.
Within minutes of pulling our ski gear on, we trek up to Lost Trail Powder Mountain’s first chairlift. Sherene makes her way, swinging her outriggers ahead of her, then following with her left leg. She lost her right leg to cancer 12 years ago.
Eleven months after her amputation, she started skiing again.
We load onto the chairlift without incident, but surrounded by curious glances. She’s happy and talkative, excited to be on the mountain again. It’s a bluebird day at LT, sunny, but windy and bitterly cold. She’s already been skiing a handful of times this season.
If she takes a little bit longer to get up the stairs or to the chairlift, she makes up for it in the little time she takes to fly down the runs. I have trouble keeping up with her. She looks at me, smiles, and kicks up snow on each smooth turn. She leaves a narrow, almost straight line barely weaving through the corduroy. When I can get close to her, I hear the wind whistling through the small skis on the ends of her outriggers.
“I like it hard and fast, hard and fast,” Sherene says at the bottom. She smiles. “Skiing, I mean.”
I am amazed.
And so are many other people on the mountain. We stand in another lift line and as she gets on the chair, a skier beside her claps their poles together.
“‘You warm our hearts.’ That’s what that lady said to me last time,” Sherene tells me, motioning towards the woman in line. She says she sometimes feels overwhelmed and embarrassed by the amount of attention she gets on the mountain.
“I hope if anyone up here ever finds themselves in the same situation I found myself in, they remember me and they see it is possible to keep living,” Sherene says.
“Oh come on,” I tell her. “All these people probably think you lost your leg in some crazy badass skiing accident.” She laughs.
Throughout the day, I sit on chairs with other skiers. One woman tells me she is astonished by Sherene’s skill. “I’ve been watching her all day,” she says. She tells me about a friend of a friend who recently underwent a similar amputation. “I wish he could see her. I think it would help him a lot.”
Riders yell from the chairlift as she cruises down black diamonds. I stop half way down one run to catch my breath, and another skier near me says, “Wow, she really rips.”
She leans forward and sways rhythmically while she rocks from edge to edge on her K2 racing ski. She got the ski when a friend of her’s broke the other one and could no longer use the pair.
On the long lift up the Saddle Mountain chair, we look over the incredible view, white peaks in every direction, US 93 winding through them. Sherene tells me about her other favorite places to ski, like Lookout Pass and Discovery, and she says it’s her goal to ski at every resort in Montana.
“When I had both legs, skiing was just something I did. It was something to do,” she says as the wind around us calms and the sun warms our faces. “Now, it’s a spiritual experience.”
Sherene had a tumor in her leg when she was 14. She went through chemotherapy and surgery and doctors believed she was in remission, but the tumor came back while she studied at the University of Montana. The tumor, she says, was extremely painful. So painful, she quit skiing for three years.
“Then I made a choice,” Sherene says. “I gave up my leg so I could live my life.”
Sherene discovered First Descents -- a program for cancer patients and survivors to experience high-adventure outdoor activities -- a few years ago. She took a kayaking trip with them in North Carolina and another outside of Columbia Falls. She says she felt drawn to kayaking because when she sits in a kayak, no one knows she only has one leg.
“Up here, everyone notices. But no one can tell when I’m in a kayak. It’s like my own little secret,” she says.
There’s another reason why she took on the whitewater sport.
“I spent so long fearing something I couldn’t see or understand, something that was growing inside of me. It made me feel alive to fear something I can conceptualize, like flipping over in a kayak and smacking a rock,” she says. “Does that make sense? It became a new challenge.”
Sherene has also been involved with Eagle Mount, a program out of Bozeman similar to First Descents, but for people with disabilities and younger cancer patients.
“When I help out there, I think parents look at me and they think, this is what their kids could be doing someday, that they can get through this and still live awesome lives,” she says.
We ski all day, from ten AM to four PM, only taking a short lunch in the middle. Sherene can’t stop smiling and laughing at the end of the day, hooting about how great the day was.
“This is my medicine,” she says as we drive back to Missoula. “I’m not gonna take pain killers every day. This is all I need.”
Sherene says she feels lucky to have this bright of an outlook on life. And I feel lucky to have gotten to ski with (or rather, behind) her all day long.
Jessica Murri is the web editor for Montana Headwall. This an installment of her winter series of trip reports, in which she searches for the most interesting people skiing and snowboarding in Montana. If you know anyone who blows your mind, please contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.