036: Mike Vowels: A World Class Skier’s Return To Paradise

February 9, 2018

FYS 036 | Return to Paradise

There is no expiration date to do great things in our lives. The first step is to have a goal and work hard to achieve that goal. Mike Vowels has been hitting all his goals since he was nineteen, driving a Porsche 914 after winning one ski tournament after another. But it was clear to him that he would not be an acrobat skier forever, so when it was his time to step away he graciously did so. But skiing was part of his life, even when he hit a tree in 1985 that got him paralyzed the waist down. He didn’t throw in the towel and instead started inspiring people with his life’s journey. One day these people that he inspired returned the favor and inspired him to go back to the hill and ski once more. Mike shares his skier’s journey and his return to paradise.

We’ve got on the pod Mike Vowels. Mike was a guy who back in the day in the ‘70s, he was a champion acrobatic skier. He’d be flying down the mountain and they go off these crazy jumps, fly around in the air, do Daffy’s, helicopter, flips. All the stuff with these twists and there’d be competitions and he was very good. He was one of the top guys in the Northwest and competed internationally, placed in the top five. After a few years of doing all this stuff he said, “It’s time to move on.” He did enjoying life. One day he was skiing at a local hill outside of Seattle, Washington called Alpental going down a very tight chute. He accidentally hit a tree and tragically, he lost all feeling in his legs. He’s paralyzed from the waist down. We go back and we talk about all that stuff. The thing about this that makes Mike such a great dude to talk to is his resiliency of coming back. There was a big event in Sun Valley, Idaho. A lot of his old mates were going to be there and they invited him to go. He went back. He trained for this thing. He learned how to ski on something called a mono ski and got all the guys back together. They ski from the top to the bottom and it was a big event. It was great to hear and recount the stories, how he got there. Now he’s serving in an inspirational way to many others about overcoming their adversity. It was great to get caught up with him. Also a longtime buddy, Joe Flick, stopped by. He used to ski with Mike back in the day doing these crazy flips. They set a world record which we talked about. A bunch of guys getting together and flipping upside down, landing successfully, set the world Guinness Book of Records. We go through that. Let’s get on to Mike.

Listen to the podcast here:

Mike Vowels, A World Class Skier’s Return To Paradise

I’m very, very honored to be in the presence of Mr. Mike Vowels. Mike, how are you doing?

Awesome, Mark. Thanks for having me here. I’m about as excited as you are.

This episode is Finding Your Summit and it’s all about overcoming adversity and finding your way in life. You’ve got such a dynamic story that I want to get into. Unfortunately in your life, a lot of us go through a lot of things but you had a tragic accident many, many years ago and it ended up where you are now paralyzed from the waist down.

From the sternum level down just about chest level.

You’re this world class skier doing these crazy acrobat moves up in the air. You and I both grew up in roughly the city of Seattle and I grew up near by the University of Washington. You’re on the east side. Where did you start skiing? These different sports that you play, there must have been something leading up to all this.

FYS 36 | Return To Paradise

Return To Paradise: Successes as a skier weren’t driven as much by natural athleticism. It was work effort.

I got introduced to snow skiing through my stepfather. I started skiing relatively late in life compared to a lot of people but I started to do structured ski lessons at age thirteen, took structured lessons again at age fourteen, the ninth grade. At tenth grade, I took that year off and I was a free skier. During that time I started playing around with acrobatic skiing and that was driven by the things I was seeing in the ski movies, the magazines and that kind of stuff.

I’m putting a lot of the story to myself because this was part of my journey. I played football. I played basketball and some other sports in school but I love skiing. Probably, you are spending a lot of time in Alpental which is about 45 minutes outside of Seattle, Washington. Stevens Pass is about an hour and a half. I was taking ski buses and those types of things but I was also deeply involved in my school sports. Is that something that you were doing as well?

In school sports, I played high school football. I became good at high school football but early on for me, sports didn’t seem to be something that I was good at. The good thing about my personality is I continued to show up for the game. I continued to turnout for basketball. The seventh grade, I was cut; baseball in the eighth grade, I was cut. By the time I got to junior high in the ninth grade, the bus was big enough, I didn’t get cut. I got to be the third, fourth string guy and it was between my sophomore year and my junior year of high school where a light bulb went off and all of a sudden it became my time to step up, change my game, change my mindset and I ended up playing that first-string both ways my junior and senior year of high school. That’s when I started to come into my athletic bean and during that same time, I was starting to become recognized as the kid in Redmond High School that seemed to be the skier.

That surprises me a little bit because I’ve seen some of these movie clips of you in the air and you’re flipping upside down and doing these twists and around and that takes a very athletic guy to do. It surprises me that you weren’t that guy and also I know thirteen, fourteen, fifteen years old as you’re finding your way in these other sports like football and basketball.

I’m the one who tends to believe that the system that was in place back in my time, the cutting in early athletics, that’s got a drawback to it because there are some things that I might have become better at: basketball, baseball, being one of those things. People come into their own at different times, but for me I was a late bloomer. Football was something I became good at and skiing is something where it took off with me. My successes as a skier weren’t driven as much by natural athleticism. It was work effort. It was really having a dogged determination to get better. There are a lot of guys that I eventually got better at through dogged determination.

I’ve said a lot of times to people, “It’s not where you start. It’s where you end.” There’s a guy that I played with in high school and in college at the University of Washington, Hugh Millen. He was a big local star up here now doing a lot of the broadcast for Huskies as well as Seahawk broadcast but he ended up playing ten years in the NFL. In high school, he was my back-up quarterback. I didn’t play quarterback in college. You never know. It took him a period of time for him to grow into his big feet and his big hands and he became a better NFL player than I was as an NFL player. You doubled the length of the career. You never know how these things all play out. You’re in high school and you’re doing high school sports. You’re playing football but you’re also skiing. Where did this whole thing come and really kick in? You said you’re starting to watch movies with Warren Miller. Was that kicked in yet?

Everybody knows who Warren Miller is if you first skied in your life. He was the guy where every year we go to his films toward the end of high school. We’d always go to his films and it was when I had a film and it wasn’t a Warren Miller film but a film was brought to our high school to promote the ski school to try and bring kids into the ski school. That’s where I saw Stein Eriksen doing a front somersault and that was something that triggered me, just that image on the screen. I started following these guys in the magazines, in the ski movies and so forth and started to want to be like them. I turned out to be a ski instructor at age fifteen and the intent was to become an apprentice ski instructor and I got promoted right to the front of the line and also I’m a full-fledged ski instructor. That was something that gave me a big boost. All of a sudden, I’m this kid that’s recognized as being more than I was showing up to do. That helped me a great deal and I started competing in the local competitions that were sponsored by Rainier Beer and I was out chasing ski boots and clock radios and goofy little things like that. There were those awards that would be given out but I was never the top contender but I was the guy that kept trying to get there.

Now, we have Mr. Joe Flick.

Hi, Mark.

Joe Flick is a guy who skied with Mike back in the day. You were competing either against each other or with each other or part of that whole dynamic? How did that play out?

Joe was a year younger than me in high school. There would have been times when he was at Interlake and I was in Redmond, we were on the football field at the same time without knowing that yet. I met Joe on the ski hill and then it turns out we’re playing football together same time and so forth. I can remember my senior year in high school. Joe and I, different cars and stuff but we both made it down to Heavenly Valley, California to compete with the big guys. Joe’s a junior in high school and I’m a senior in high school. We’re pretending we’re 18 years old and can be in this competition and so forth. I started getting around Joe at that point in time.

[Tweet “It’s not where you start. It’s where you end.”]

How did that go? You’re starting to go to these different competitions and at this time. I’m sure you’re doing these crazy flips and twists and everything else.

At that point in time, it was still such an experimental pioneering sport that it was the Wild Wild West of this sport that has evolved into an Olympic level game where it’s amazing what these guys are doing these days. At this point in time, it was the Wild Wild West. And it took me a couple of years after that before I started getting dialed in and doing some incredible things and being able to stick these jumps over and over again flawlessly but in the beginning it was go and throw.

According to the Pacific Northwest legends, there is something that you invented called a Vowels-a-Copter. What is the story about the Vowels-a-Copter?

The Vowels-a-Copter is a 360-degree spin which people call a helicopter. Ultimately after figuring out how to do a helicopter, I started then figuring out how to do what was called the daffy, which is spreading your legs like a Daffy Duck. It was this helicopter with this different spin to it and it was something that was very electrifying to watch but it was something that technically wasn’t exactly what it is that I said I was trying to do but it was an absolute jaw dropper. I brought this jump to Sun Valley, Idaho for a competition in 1974 and at that time, inverted aerials were prohibited due to some injuries that took place. I was in a great position to do well in the jumping competition and I performed well but I ended up getting 24th place. I went to the judges afterwards and I talked to one of these guys. I said, “What’s the deal? I’m doing this thing that crowd reacts to it.” I wasn’t doing exactly what I said I was doing. With that being said the next competition, I went to Jackson Hole, Wyoming competing against the same group of guys and I said, “I’m doing a Vowels-a-Copter,” that way nobody got to say anything about, “What’s that?” “It’s a Vowels-a-Copter.” I went to sixth place. I went from 24th place to sixth place doing the same thing. That became my signature jump, the Vowels-a-Copter.

You must have been doing something right because in 1976, you’ve won twelve competitions.

Combined between ‘74 and ‘75, I won twelve aerial competitions collectively in the Pacific Northwest.

You went nationally and you won another five.

On national level, I was good enough to place the top five. I got to a second place once when I was off in the East Coast in Quebec, Canada. I got a fourth place in Colorado. That was to this day is a big deal to me that I did that well against some serious competition.

What do you get when you win one of these things or you place high?

It started out in high school where we were chasing clock radios and black and white television sets. It was trinkets. Later on, you’d have the ability to get some cash but it was pocket cash but it seemed like a big deal at the time. For me, my big thing that I accomplished was right out of high school at age eighteen and nineteen; I ended up driving a Porsche 914 for two years in a row. That was a year’s lease that I won. I’m a kid out of high school and I’m not a kid from any family of big means by any stretch. I’m the kid driving a Porsche 914. I was definitely living the dream.

Here’s the Joe Flick story and it was classic. Apparently, there’s a group out of maybe Wyoming or some place called the Flying Coyotes who had perfected this eight-man flip all at one time and set the Guinness World Record. Mr. Joe Flick, according to this article, was sounding like he was the energy behind this thing. He wanted to break this.

Joe was absolutely the energy behind this and Joe is a guy that I would say early on was a dealmaker. A guy that would put stuff together, a guy that could make things happen and still is. Joe goes out and brings Warren Miller to the table and he brings Warren Miller himself to Ski Acres. I was fortunate enough to be invited to participate in this. We’re attempting to do an eighteen-man back flip. We’re having troubles pulling this off and you got eighteen guys trying to do back flips, when you crash, it’s like watching the racecars where it’s a figure eight track. It’s a pretty gnarly stuff. We’re having these crashes taking place and then Joe has to take on the assignment of finding the guys in the middle of this thing that we’re screwing it up. He isolated about eight people and made these guys jump in front of the rest of us to find out, “Who’s the weak link?” and that being the key link because we’re holding hands. It’s like a chain and Joe had the difficult task. He’s like a football coach of making the cut. A couple of guys didn’t get to stay and it was an amazing thing to be involved with because it was so big back in that time. It was an eclectic group of guys because it was some super talented guys in that chain. There were some guys that were barely invited and it was something else but we pulled that off with sixteen.

According to my research and Joe flick, he tried to recruit 24 jumpers but confessed, “We found that was an unworkable number. Our camera is crashing into each other and everything else.” I can only imagine how crazy that might have been. A world record now stands at sixteen or eighteen?

I’ve actually seen something on YouTube video where some guys in Japan where there are 100 guys. It was the craziest thing. I couldn’t believe it but it’s been done in numbers that far exceed what we did but I’m sure we held our number for quite a while.

FYS 36 | Return To Paradise

Return To Paradise: The more you could be vulnerable with other people, the more life had so many more gifts and blessings coming back towards you.

In 1977, you decided to stop competitively skiing, correct?

Yeah. In 1977, it was two things that brought an end to my short skiing career which was a three-year window. One of the things was we had a snow drought that winter and it’s all across the US. It’s just not snowing in any place. My ski sponsors at the time had been given me cash per event to go to these events. They just said, “We’re not selling skis, we just can’t do that for you.” I also had an economic consideration because I was living hand-to-mouth as a skier. I pulled it off but I was living hand-to-mouth. The next component was things were really starting to escalate as far as the level of skill and talent these new guys were bringing into the game because I was a skier that learned to do acrobatic stunts. These were gymnast learning how to ski and doing things of unimaginable proportion. It was pretty clear and obvious to me that I wasn’t going to be doing anything, where I was going to be bringing home the goods any more than I had been. It was my time to step away and say, “I did pretty good at that.” It was my time to call it. I didn’t throw in the towel. I just called it.

I got thrown out of the NFL. I’d like to say I retired but that’s really the way it happened. My time came.

I peaked and I knew I had peaked.

Let’s talk about 1985 and your accident. The reason why I want to talk about this is because of what an amazing story it is about where you sit today. Not so much about what happened but the bottom line it happened to you.

It was spring in 1985, Sunday, March 24th.I wasn’t scheduled to be on the ski hill on this given day. I was starting the process of building my log home out in Duvall and I was supposed to have a guy come out with a portable sawmill. We’re going to be sawing logs and lumber. The guy called the night before and said, “We’ve got rain in the forecast so we need to cancel.” Then I get a call from my buddy, Dennis McCormick, my lifetime best friend, he said, “You want to go skiing?” I said, “Sure. I just had something cancelled. Let’s go skiing.” On a day that I wasn’t even expected to be on the hill, I went up. Probably before noon that day, I ended up striking a tree and suffered a spinal cord injury. That took me off the hill in 1985 and as a result of that, I didn’t ski for another 28 years. I pretty much rode it off and said that’s not something. The sit skiing was starting to show up but in a real crude form compared to nowadays where they’ve got some pretty high tech stuff that I’m sitting on now. Back then, it’s something where I couldn’t see myself skiing any differently than the way I had been. I just said, “No. I’m closing this chapter in my life reserving it for being just perfect.” I get to reflect back on it like it was, “This is golden. I’m going forward and doing other things but I’m not going to be a skier anymore.”

This is your story not mine but we’re very similar. Joe too, also very similar in that we grew up as very athletic kids. Between your football and basketball and baseball whatever level you’re at and then moving into skiing and becoming this champion, the bottom line is you’re used to being very active. You had this accident and that cuts off a lot of what you can do. Life isn’t perfect. It’s got to be the new, new. What was that like for you to go through? You’re laying there in bed and you’re breaking the news.

The news broke into me. It’s interesting because when you’re in that position, anybody can tell you any kind of story but you’re going to believe the story that is your story and my story that I was going to stay that way, that wasn’t going to be how it’s going to work for me. The doctor said, “You’ve got 1 in 500 chance of ever walking again.” I said, “Thanks, appreciate those odds. You’re a good man.”He said, “You’ve got a 1 in 500.” He was being generous to me. It wouldn’t matter if he said, “You don’t have any chance.” I spent hard years grinding out hard therapy. This was during the time I had returned to work and so forth in the construction industry but I spent four years just grinding and out doing everything I could to attempt to walk again. The path that I took rather than just listen to what was being told to me, I took a run at it and that was good because I had four years to burn it out of my system and come to the conclusion that I can’t beat this. I came to that conclusion by being unable to beat it but by trying so hard working and so hard. My transition through it was better than if I simply sat back and said, “Okay,” and then went about the rest of my business and get my life set up again for work and family and all that stuff. I faced it fiercely and that helped me survive it because I fought it for four years, but I fought it with doing a task going to my therapy and so forth. It wasn’t like I was sitting around, throwing the blanket over my head and praying it was going to go away. That wasn’t the case. It’s not the norm but it’s what I had to do.

You’re obviously a warrior. I can certainly see and understand that. Were any of those times you ever get bummed about in your situation?

Yeah. One of the things that I became very good at was making sure nobody knew how bad my suffering was. That was my way of trying to protect everybody else around me to mitigate the suffering. Everybody in my world, everybody’s heart was broken and so that my presence was always Iron Man. That’s how I handled it in front of everybody trying to make everybody else be as comfortable as they could with my new path forward. That was the nature of my character at that time. Since that time I have, but it’s taken a long time, learned to disclose more of hardships and so forth and knowing that it’s okay. Everybody else is going to survive along with me but I never did throw the blanket over my head. I never did go there. I had a good successful career in the construction industry. Twelve weeks after I got out of the hospital, I was back working. I never did anything but have in my nose to the grindstone. I never spent any time crying over spilt milk.

[Tweet “It certainly comes with age but more so with your experiences.”]

Joe Flick and I have been through a lot with our kids. About eight years ago, I now moved back down to California and I was going through this rough period of time with my now ex wife. My escape was to go down to Africa and start climbing these crazy mountains. I started with Tanzania in Mt. Kilimanjaro. One of the things I came off after overcoming trying to get to the top and running out of energy and didn’t think I could do it and I overcame it was this whole idea about the more that I could be vulnerable with other people not just myself, the more life had so many more gifts and blessings coming back towards me. You’re a big, strong, tall dude as Joe is and I. I don’t have to be somebody I’m not. Your feelings are what they are in going through these different things. Sometimes you need to reach out and go, “Joe, I’m going through a rough period of time. I need your help. Here’s what’s going on,” versus hiding everything. Not projecting that on anybody else other than what I had to go to through and it’s been a blessing for me starting five years ago to make it through my situation with my now ex, but also with other people and relationships I have.

It certainly comes with age but more so with your experiences, things that you’ve experienced. It’s a lot easier to throw that stuff out in the table now than it was when I was younger with the whole pain and suffering thing. Joe wants to say something.

Mike was such an inspiration to all of us when you were skiing. Mike is one of my heroes. He certainly was on the ski hill but it was the Mike Vowels after being paralyzed from the waist down that got me to respect him more than I did before. Mike has done a lot of things that people aren’t aware of. This is a guy that had gone out and saw veterans that were disabled or paralyzed and made big differences in their lives. I recall the home that you had built or at least modified to ADA Standards for a tank commander out of Iraq. You’ve got your hands full. We all do in our day-to-day lives but to be in a chair and to take on something like that, that was just a beautiful thing. Mike, all your friends look at you as this hard driving guy. You’ve been a great friend of mine and I appreciated that relationship. We had a ski relationship for a long time and what I’m most impressed by is what you’ve accomplished not on the hill but off the hill.

Thanks for that, Joe. One thing I want to mention too because Joe is bringing something up that happened in 2004 where we had the war going on in Iraq. It was something where I got involved in helping a family with a military husband that came back from the war as a quadriplegic. One thing I found out through that experience, it was great for me to immerse myself in somebody else’s trouble, in somebody else’s problem. I continue to do that to this day and anytime anybody has a chance to help somebody else out. It helps put your own troubles behind you. It makes them look less significant. If I’m trying to help somebody else with their problem and that’s been a great learning experience for me when I get a chance to do that and I’m pursuing that going forward. It makes my life better if I can help somebody whose problem might seem bigger than mine and even if it seems lesser than mine.

You and I talked about this a little bit. I was telling Mike, “Lucky me that I get to be on this side of the mic and I get to interview so many of these amazing stories and guys like you.” What it gets down through life is all about perspective and that’s what it is. That’s what you’re talking about. I’ve got my thing. It’s relative to me but somebody else got maybe something a little bit different. You’ve got something going on, Joe. We all have something that is relative to us that makes our world. If we can look out there, at least I’ve got my arms and legs and my mind and wits and people that love you. There’s a whole lot of stuff to be grateful for on that journey. 28 years later after this happens, in 2013, where did this whole idea come up about, “I want to ski again?”

I was committed to never skiing again and I’m a guy that when I commit I commit. I was committed. I’m never going to ski again. That’s just how it was. I had a situation where there were some series of epiphany but also the plan that started lining up and about three or four things happened to me. The first trigger was there was a reunion of freestyle skiers in Sun Valley, Idaho that Joe flick went to in 2012. I got invited to this reunion of the freestyle skiers that was coming for ski in heritage week in Sun Valley. One of our buddies in common, Todd Harps, gave me a call and said, “Mike, this hall of fame event is coming to Sun Valley. There’s going to be a big reunion of freestyle skiers from our time.”I had really done a good thorough job of putting skiing behind me. It was never a conversation in my mind rarely. Once in a while, it would be with the right old skiing buddies but otherwise it was never a conversation. Skiing was never in front of me and all of a sudden, I got put in my face when I’ve been invited to go to Sun Valley. I said to my buddy, Todd, “I can’t do that. I can’t go to a skiing town. I can’t. I’m not a skier. I can’t do that.” Graciously, Todd accepted what I had to say but it left me upset. I was very upset because all of a sudden skiing was in my head and it upset me.

That was one trigger then I had another trigger where a few months later, we got winter snows in Seattle. I’m trying to get into a town where I’m working at the time and I just about get there and I got to turn around and go back home and it was the snow. The snow pissed me off. The snow made me sad. The snow made me sad and angry. As a result of that, I wrote a poem about it that talked me off the ledge and so that was one. At the same time, I was dating a woman who took up skiing late in her life. All of a sudden, I’m dating somebody who is skiing and it’s like, “What’s up with that? I haven’t had this happen.” That was another trigger and then the big one is I started suffering depression and all these things were coming together at about the same time. I had never been depressed but I had lived my life for those 28 years so aggressively and so excessively in anything I undertook that it kept depression maybe five steps behind me but it never, never caught up with me. That’s my thinking but at the same time, depression might have been coming to my way because of my age because there are other reasons why that show up. It’s not always situational. I was experiencing the pu-pu platter. It was all loaded up and I’m going, “Who ordered the pu-pu platter? I didn’t.” There it was. I went into therapy and got a hold of a friend of mine, a therapist, Lorry Kaye. I’ve known her since our ninth grade and I said, “I need to see you. I’ve got some stuff going on here. I’ve got to figure out what’s up.” I was diagnosed as suffering from severe depression. I’m under a depression medication now and I’m fine. I’m great. Everything’s good. That was this trigger that got me into therapy and I was there doing psychological therapy for two and a half years. My therapist, Lorry, said, “Let’s talk about skiing.”

Sometimes too you need a goal. That goal is your tonic. All of a sudden, you’re overcoming this thing that you said you never do again. Now, you’ve got to go do it. With technology and everything else, they’d come up with this mono ski. How did you find yourself back on top of this mono ski?

FYS 36 | Return To Paradise

Return To Paradise: Sometimes you need a goal. That goal is your tonic.

First of all, it took some time through therapy before I could even get to the place where I’m even thinking about skiing again. I was in there putting out that laundry and airing it out. I finally came to a point where things were going well enough in therapy that skiing was something I’m talking about as well as a lot of other life factors. Through that process, that light bulb went off and all by myself, one night, I put together an email note and I sent it out to three different people. I said, “I’m coming back skiing. I’m going to do a documentary ski film to record this process.” It was out there. As we talked about the vision, I threw the big vision out there. Now it’s like, “How am I going to do that?” That was the beginning.

What were those steps? Where do you go? Living in Seattle, for people that don’t know, there are ski areas that you can be at within an hour of the city. Did you start to Sun Valley? How was that?

I did not do it in Seattle. I thought, “If I’m going to do this, I need to do a big get away. I need to go to a magical place.”That’s Sun Valley, Idaho because I thought, “I need to really get away from everything that I do and have this be a very remote thing that I go off and do but as much as I was doing it away from where I live and so forth.” With the help of Joe Flick and other friends, we put together 30 plus people that rendezvoused with us in Sun Valley and Joe and Drew Merklinghaus. They had this set up venue of all these different things we did day after day, night after night for this full week. My job was to take ski lessons every day and then go out and do the stuff. Take ski lessons, go out. Every day there was a different thing and a different event that Joe and drew put together. It all culminated with me after six days of skiing lessons on day seven. I skied everybody down from the top of the mountain with 30 plus people. It was something.

The film you’re referring to is called Return to Paradise.

The film is called Return to Paradise – A Skier’s Journey. Paradise has different meanings because a lot of people think, “Return to paradise.”You have a vision of something good happening and that is certainly true. Paradise is up with Mount Rainier. We went up to Paradise in Mount Rainier where years earlier, I had spent some time doing a film shoot for a book on freestyle skiing, where there was an aerialist at Paradise. I was returning to Paradise as the film is called. We spent nearly three years designing and building what’s called an ascent sled where my intent was to arm crank my way up to Camp Muir at 10,000 feet, starting at about 5,400. For the next four years, I threw this vision out there of getting up there and skiing down. I was learning to ski while we were also figuring out this ascent sled that we had to design because it had never been done in the way that we had done it.

Did you do this?

Yeah. It would have taken 4,000 vertical feet for us to do. We did a 1,000. We get shut down by the weather. Instead of it being an overnight trip, we did a day trip. We went up 1,000 feet and it’s in the film but the film records all of my learning how to ski again, all of my disastrous situations that were part of that, all of this training and design work that went into my ascent sled. It’s a film that covers four years. It’s hour and 10 minutes.

I saw some clips that you’re up around Paradise which is on Mount Rainier. I’ve been on Mt. Rainier many times. I’ve climbed to the top. I’ve been to Camp Muir probably five, six times. I’ve led a number of people up there. For people who have not done that, it is steep and even going to the first mile whatever you want to call it. I was up there with NFL Films and those guys were huffing and puffing on their way up. It’s not just a walk in the park. It’s tough. Powering your way up there by cranking your arms or your legs basically is you’re pedaling.

I’m pedaling. I’m cranking with my arms and my ascent sled was built with bicycle technology, ski technology and sailboat technology. We were literally climbing a rope. I was always winching up a rope. I was always following a rope that was put out in front of me about 300 feet at a time. One of the things that’s in the film, one of my buddies, Pete Greenstreet, was always going up to ascent in these peak points that I would then climb up to 300 feet at a time. In the film, Pete would look at me and just go, “How are you getting this done?” He’s a former EMT and he just says, “You’re talking in full sentences, Mike. I can barely talk,” and it was me muscling my way up. Before I set out to ski again, I spent about a solid year in the gym and got extremely fit for this effort. I want to leave no stones unturned. I was arm cranking my way up and Mother Nature shut us out. Don’t know how I might have done but we were successful in what we attempted, what we did and it was just as a team effort. These people I did it with, it was so, so special; just this team effort of going up there and making our attempt.

Was that before or after Sun Valley?

It was after Sun Valley because we finally went up in 2015. We kept planning the very next winter but we had variables such as designing this thing, testing this thing and then Mother Nature. We’re looking to do it the year before but the snow kept disappearing up on Mount Rainier as we were still trying to figure this thing out and get it all dialed in and testing places like Mount Baker. We went down to Timberline, Oregon. It took some time before we finally got to that point but at the same time, I needed to become a good enough skier to be skiing on track of groomed run which was pretty dicey all by itself because I was still learning how ski.

[Tweet “You set that vision out there but it’s what’s in between.”]

Where can people find this movie, Return to Paradise? It’s a great film. I watched it and I’m not just telling you this but I was captivated by the story, by the scenery, by other people involved, by the love of a lot of your pals like Joe in the movie talking about what you meant to them, about the inspiration and all the stuff.

It’s not something that is out there to buy. Myself, Mike Vowels-Skier, you can find me on Facebook. You can find me on LinkedIn. Anybody that wants to reach out to me, what we’re going to use the film for is I will bring that film to your gathering of people. If you want to produce something where you create revenue for a non-profit group, your group, whatever it is you want to do, I’ll come there. I just need my expenses to be paid if it’s out of town. My whole ambition here is to pay it forward. If I do something for somebody else, bring my film, they can do what they can to generate funds for it that goes to some good cause. I’m going to be there to do that. When I do the film myself and I draw my own crowd like we had the premiere, we generated about $6,200 after our expenses that went to the Higher Ground group in Sun Valley for their military people that have been injured during their service. It’s for recreational therapies. That is my passion to try and help that group and I’ll do that when I can. My film is meant to be a guest speaker, lecture film and I will come with the film. We’re now starting the process of marketing trying to get that out there and get that phone to start ringing.

Anything I can do to make that phone ring, I want to do for you and this is a must see film. I’ve got a lot of friends who would benefit by you coming and talking to them and seeing this film. It would be a fun night and raising money at the same time and paying forward.

What’s been good about this entire process for me is the more I open up and talk about my story through my film, I’m getting all that off my back. That’s been a wonderful therapeutic thing for me. I want to get out there and simply let people see what my story is. They’re going to get from it, what their take is going to be is going to be individualized. It’s me going out there are as a storyteller. I’ve got a story to tell and so far, people get pretty excited about it.

As I continue to learn and find my way, this thing is all about the journey not necessarily about the destination. I’ve been that guy that’s got the last second touchdown. I’ve been that guy that stood on top of these crazy mountains all over the world and it’s just not about that. It’s about all the nights I spent running up and down that nobody was there cheering me on about the preparation, about going up the mountain. Even when I get done with the mountain and even after I get done doing my seven summits, I’ve got more aspirations I want to get after. I know it’s going to keep me motivated about the things that I want to do in life.

It’s the process. It’s the journey. You set that vision out there but it’s what’s in between. It’s getting to whatever that vision is or as close as you can get to it. It’s about the part in between, that’s the part that is golden

I want to tell you how deeply appreciative I am of meeting you. Your story is inspirational to me and it’s about overcoming. You’ve got tremendous amount of grit and guys you have that, I have tremendous amount of respect for. I’m glad that you were able to share Joe Flick with me in my life. I’m very blessed for that.

[Tweet “There’s no expiration date on what we’re capable of.”]

It was great seeing Joe all of a sudden come in here. It was a surprise to me. One last thing I want to share is that the take away from my film is for me to let people know that there’s no expiration date on what we’re capable of. My whole thing is I set out for 28 years and I came back and did some pretty big stuff as a skier again. I started at age 57. I’m 62 now and my message to everybody is it doesn’t it matter where you’re at in life, what it is that might be that thing where you can reconsider or you reconsider your capabilities, your potential. You might say, “There’s just one thing that’s been nagging me that I need to take a run with that.”It could be anything but trying to help people not get locked into, “It’s too late. I’m too old. They’re better than me. I can’t compete.”I’m 62 now. In today’s marketplace, you’ve got your senior factor, those kinds of things. I’m not as young as these other guys. Whatever your thing might be, my deals, take a run at it. There’s no expiration date.

What you did is you reinvented yourself.

My life going forward, I am so jacked. I’ve led a good life by no means have I not been excited all my whole life. I got some stuff going on that’s pretty.

In my eyes, you stand tall and I mean that in every way and I appreciate it.



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