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On a cold, sunny morning in mid-April, 24-year-old Santiago Vega completed the first-known disabled descent of the Grand Teton alongside IFMGA Guide Mark Smiley and local guide Tim Cohn.
Vega was born with Fibular Hemimelia on his right leg and Poly-syndactyly on his right hand. When he was 5 months old, his family relocated from Santiago, Chile to Salt Lake City for medical treatment at Shriners Hospital. It was in the Wasatch mountains that Santi started ski racing at age 14, and he went on to compete in the Olympics for Chile at 16. After the 2014 Sochi games, Santi discovered backcountry skiing and sought out a custom prosthetic he could use for ski mountaineering.
Vega had connected with Smiley previously through his online ski mountaineering course and reached out to him this spring to see if he wanted to be involved in Vega’s attempt to ski the Grand. “Having a chance to be part of an accomplishment like this does not come around very often,” says Smiley, who immediately jumped at the chance.
Skiing from the summit of the Grand Teton is an accomplishment that many skiers dream of. Climbing and skiing the Ford Stettner route requires over 7,000 feet of vertical gain, ice climbing, exposed 50-degree skiing, and technical rappelling. The alpine expertise required in places the 13,776-foot peak as a lofty goal for all but the most experienced ski mountaineers.
Vega remembers seeing the Grand Teton for the first time on a winter road trip while he was just 7 years old. In 2017, he summited the Grand via the Owen Spalding route in the summer, and on the long walk down, all he could think about was how much better it would be to get to ski it. “I was backcountry skiing some at the time, so I looked into it when I got home and realized this was a pretty full on ski descent. There was a big checklist I needed to be ready for. I started collecting more experience, but each year I always had some excuse for why I shouldn’t do it.”
Last December, Vega decided it was time to pull the trigger and give it a shot.
Before skiing the Grand, Vega and Smiley skied the Apocalypse Couloir, a steep, technical line in Grand Teton National Park and another first-known disabled descent. “The Apocalypse was a great test run,” says Smiley. “It has technical components, steep skiing, often some really challenging conditions, exposure. Everything the Grand has but on a smaller scale.”
Satisfied with their work as a team, Smiley, Vega, and Cohn left the Bradley Taggart trailhead a week later to make history. The Ford Stettner route involves ice climbing up the Chevy Couloir, which skiers rappel on the way back down. While some years the Chevy is filled in enough to feel more like steep snow climbing, the lack of spring storms this year made the ice pitches as technical as they could get. Regardless, Vega says he was amazed at how smoothly everything went.
“I had all these worries,” says Vega. “I tend to get into this spiral of thinking about everything that could go wrong. But my stump did way better than it dreamed it could have. We all felt strong, the skiing was good by Grand standards. It felt like a normal day in the mountains with friends.”
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For Vega, skiing the Grand Teton was a personal goal, but it was also a way to change the narrative of what’s possible for Adaptive athletes.
“This accomplishment is huge in reframing what being disabled means,” says Vasu Sojitra, who completed the first disabled descent of the Skillet on Mount Moran in March. “Sharing narratives like this can help break down those stigmas with our world and empower the Disability community to gain more visibility in being human, especially when we are provided access to resources and opportunities to find our own summits in life.”
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When Vega started backcountry skiing, there was no framework for him to follow or learn how to use a prosthetic in the backcountry. After all his own trial and error, he hopes his story will help show other Adaptive athletes how to make their dreams possible, sharing information he wished he’d had as a kid.
“Watching Vasu ski the Skillet and seeing Trevor Kennison send Corbet’s—those things change the narrative,” he says. “If there are kids out there that we can help give a head start, just think about what’s possible. I want them to know if you can think about it, you can do it.”