A skiing accident left Greg Mallory paralyzed. And though he lost the use of his legs, he did not lose his sense of adventure. Greg found new life on the river in kayaking—and the loyal friends who help him do it. He also returned to skiing and has competed in the Paraolympics twice.
Right now Greg is on a two-year road trip from Oregon to Patagonia with a bunch of friends. Their caravan consists of four luxe Sprinter vans with kitchens, queen-size beds, solar powers, outdoor showers, and, of course, kayaks.
Below Greg shares how he reinvented his life and has no regrets.
Adventure: Can you tell us about your life-altering accident? Maybe there’s a lesson our readers could benefit from?
Greg Mallory: No problem, I’m certainly not shy about it. I broke my back in 1994 while jumping off a rock outcropping at Mount Hood Meadows. I had been off the outcrop many times before, but that day I just didn’t get my hip into the hill and that was it—too much impact and it shattered my L1 vertebrae into tiny pieces. Another factor was that the wind had swept away most of the 8″ of new snow, unbeknownst to me. Since I remained conscious, I was aware that I was paralyzed pretty quickly. Ski patrol was on me quick and did a great job of getting me down and into the mountain clinic. After putting a tube down me to pump my stomach and shooting me full of steroids to keep the swelling down, they got me to Welches by ambulance (bad weather on the mountain) and from there I was choppered to Legacy Emanuel in Portland, Oregon. After a back surgery and three weeks in rehab, the result was that I was completely paralyzed below my belt line due to a bruised spinal cord.
Lessons for your readers … hmmm. At the time I was in my third year of law school and had skipped class that Friday to go skiing. So one lesson is don’t skip class! It’s hard for me to come up with a more serious lesson because I think it gets into the whole risk-reward debate, and everybody has to come to their own conclusion on that.
Adventure: You go over a waterfall in the film—clearly you are not just taking it easy paddling. You still have a need for adrenaline?
G.M.: Well, to start with, some of my favorite paddling is Class 3 eddy hopping, so I certainly don’t need to scare myself to have fun. However, I was 25 when I got hurt and started kayaking, and my kayaking buddies were young too so maybe there was some need mixed in back then. We were all learning to kayak together, and they were athletic types that wanted to push things. I just figured I would keep up until I couldn’t. I thought at some point my disability would be a limiting factor, but before too long we were running a lot of the same stuff that the A-team was running. So I guess the harder water sort of snuck up on me.
As far as waterfalls, I don’t really like running the bigger ones. Partly because I don’t have the back muscles to support myself when I land and partly because they’re just scary when you can’t scout before you run them. That said, one of the things I love about kayaking is that it takes you to stunning places and the most stunning places tend to be in remote and steep river canyons that have waterfalls.
A: What happens when you get tossed from your boat in the river? Is that when the teamwork comes into play?
G.M.: Swimming whitewater was my biggest concern when I started. I didn’t know what to do with my legs or how well I could get to shore with just my arms. Because of that, I spent a lot of time in the pool practicing my roll in order to postpone the inevitable first swim. I made it to my fifth river trip before I had a pretty benign swim where I got to shore quickly.
The real test came on my second swim. We screwed up the guidebook description (by “we,” I mean my two buddies, of course) and put in too high for the intended run. It turned out to be a Class 4+ walled-in gorge, and we had no business being there since we all had less than ten river trips under our belts at that point. All three of us swam immediately. I stuck close to one of my buddies and we swam about a half mile through some pretty scary stuff. Luckily, my buddy somehow kept a hold of his boat and he got me in it towards the end of the gorge and then rode on the back. After swearing at myself for being so stupid, I decided the good news was that I could swim fairly hard whitewater without getting too beat up and that gave me the confidence to keep going.
That was also the first time where teamwork saved my ass. Another time a buddy gave me his boat and hiked out because I had lost my boat in a swim and there was no way to get me out of the canyon. Yet another time a group of boaters put me at the front of a long line waiting to portage a rapid, with night about to fall, in order to make sure I got off the river even though it meant they didn’t get off until about midnight (oh yeah, it was also snowing). And there have been countless times where my buddies have hauled me into, around, and out of very difficult places where it would have been much easier for them to just “forget” to call me to kayak that day.
A: How do you relate differently to kayaking than you did to skiing?
G.M.: A big difference is that I used to ski by myself all the time, and I still do on occasion. I never kayak by myself because it’s not really feasible, and I think it increases the risks too much for me. So I guess kayaking has a much stronger social or reliance aspect for me. You are relying on your buddies to get on the river and off the river.
A: So you still ski?
G.M.: I do. I was hurt in February and the following winter I went to Sun Valley to take alpine skiing lessons from Marc Mast at Wood River Adaptive Program. I have skied in a mono ski ever since, but certainly not as much as I used to because ski season is also kayak season in the Pacific Northwest. In addition, I was craving ways to get aerobic exercise after my injury and wanted to try cross-country skiing (which I had never tried before my accident). Marc Mast from Sun Valley invited me to a cross-country development camp and I ended up racing on the U.S. Ski Team for eight years and competed in two Paralympics (Torino ’06 and Vancouver ’10).
A: Do you have any regrets?
G.M.: None so far. I guess the question might be about whether I regret jumping off that cliff. Well, of course I wish I hadn’t jumped that day. However, I don’t regret taking chances when I skied and the same goes with kayaking. I don’t take chances outside of my personal comfort zone, and I think that’s the best you can do if you want to enjoy the benefits that sports like skiing or kayaking offer.
A: Tell us about the road trip? What are you all doing while you make your way to Patagonia? What are some of the highlights?
G.M.: Well, I’m typing these replies inside my Sprinter van on the shore of Lake Atitlan in Guatemala. We’re a little over four months into a two-year road trip to Patagonia.
I’ve sort of had this trip in my head for a long time and in July 2010, seven of us committed to go—a friend since high school and his wife, a law school friend and his wife, and my sister and her husband. We were originally going to do it in seven months (and keep our jobs) but that started to seem ridiculously short for all the places we wanted to see so we ended up quitting our jobs (well, except for one – we’re still working on her).
We’re traveling in four Sprinter vans that we converted for the trip. My van has a kitchen, refrigerator, bench, queen-size bed, solar power, outdoor shower and room to spare. I rented out my house before I left, and I’m not missing a thing about it.
We came down through Baja from Oregon and then ferried over to mainland Mexico and followed the coast south until heading to the Yucatan. I brought a surf-specific kayak with me and had a blast surfing the breaks in Mexico. I’ve also got two whitewater boats with me. In Belize, I got one whitewater run in and saw some great country. We’ve now been in Guatemala for almost three weeks and so far I’ve loved it – the ruins at Tikal, the lakes, two whitewater runs in really remote places with a German kayaker I met on the road, and the people of Guatemala.
The whitewater will pick up as we move south but there will also be more great surfing. I’ve paddled in Patagonia twice before so I know that will be a highlight of the trip for me – especially with lots of time to get to new rivers. Otherwise, the highlights have been traveling with close friends (including my sister) and meeting lots of interesting people on the road.