PHOTOS: Tom Zuccareno
This story was first published in the November 2013 (43.3) issue of POWDER
It's a gray day on Buttermilk, the quiet ski area with immaculate groomers just outside of Aspen. Milling around beneath the Tiehack lift are numerous skiers in sit-skis with prosthetics. Retired Marine Sgt. Trey Humphrey is missing part of his right leg, the result of stepping on an improvised explosive device (IED) in Afghanistan in 2010. Josh Elliott, also a Marine Sgt., lost both of his legs and part of his left hand to another IED, also in Afghanistan. Heath Calhoun, the burly bearded guy who would later appear in those AT&T commercials during the Olympics, had both legs blown off by a rocket-propelled grenade in Iraq. Other athletes have visual impairments, spinal cord injuries, and birth defects. Each overcomes daily challenges most people can't fathom, yet here they are skiing fast and fluid down Buttermilk during the U.S. Adaptive National Championships.
Standing there with them is Chris Tatsuno: long-haired ski bum and weirdo. With Pit Viper sunglasses, Japanese-American heritage, and Fu Manchu sprouting wildly from the corners of a black balaclava, he stands out among the focused and stoic racers. As a coach with the Aspen Valley Ski Club's Adaptive Program, of which Humphrey, Elliott, and Calhoun are members, Tatsuno imparts his lifelong love affair with skiing on these athletes in a way that makes them smile.
It's a long way from where Tatsuno, 31, used to be living out of a beater Chevy van, his home for eight years as a traveling ski bum and occasional competitor on the Freeskiing World Tour. While he has recently made a name for himself for his low-key approach to keeping skiing lighthearted and strange (as in, not "progressing" it with death-defying stunts), he has quietly spent the last two winters on the slopes of Buttermilk with disabled athletes, doling out technique instruction, equipment maintenance, and course setup. "No matter who he's skiing with, he's having a good time," says his wife, Jamie. "He was born to spread the stoke of skiing."
On powder days, Tatsuno frequently takes a crew into his favorite stashes around Aspen.
"Chris brings a different dynamic to the race crew," says Humphrey. "He's such an all-around great skier, and he really incorporates freeskiing techniques into our race training and that makes us a helluva lot better skiers. He's really motivational, really upbeat, and always telling jokes and making sure everyone's having fun. It helps us remember that while ski racing is serious, it's still skiing."
As the racers prepare to drop in to the steep slalom course, Elliott asks for help adjusting the rebound in his sit-ski. Tatsuno kneels down and works a pozi driver to reduce the tension on the sit-ski's giant titanium spring, then helps Elliott back into his ski. He pats him on the shoulder, and other racers comment on how they need help with this or that. That's when Laurie Stephens, a World Cup champion and Paralympic gold medalist who was born with spina bifida, shouts, "He's gotta show me how to catch air!"
Tatsuno smiles his happy ninja smile and assures Stephens she needs no such help.
Born to a ski-instructor father and figure-skating mother, Tatsuno grew up in Ketchum, Idaho, where he was introduced to skiing at a young age. His parents split up when he was 20 months old, and his dad raised him with a strong emphasis on skiing, vans, and community. (Chris remains close with his mom, a retired teacher in California.) A third-generation Japanese-American and Sun Valley ski instructor since 1974, Rod Tatsuno instilled a live-and breathe-skiing ethic in his son.
"I was carrying him around the hill on my back when he was less than a year old," says Rod, a "flatland reject" who moved to Sun Valley in 1973. "We were always doing stuff together when he was a kid."
After Chris joined the Sun Valley race team at the age of 6, his dad would drive him to the races in an old VW bus. When Chris was in high school, the elder Tatsuno began taking his son on road trips to attend Shoshone Bannock and Blackfeet tribal ceremonies at various reservations in Idaho and Montana. Observing tribal dances and traditions shaped Tatsuno's worldview that mountains are to be revered and that a simple smile can open untold doors.
He got his first van, a 1989 Chevy G20 for $1,600 while he was a student at CU-Boulder. There, he joined a "drinking club with a skiing problem" and continued bashing gates. But as racing tends to do for a lot of skiers, it grew stale. He started honing his skills in the park and big mountain terrain. After he graduated with a business degree, he set out in his van and entered his first big mountain comp in 2004. In five years of competing, he never made the podium, but in 2006 he won the coveted Sickbird Award at Telluride. With a roving home base, he realized all he needed were a pair of skis and an email address, just to keep in touch. "With the van, it was the shell of my existence, this hermit crab where I could be anywhere I wanted," he says.
In 2006, he came to Snowmass to compete at a freeride stop. Due to whiteout conditions, the event was postponed and Tatsuno joined a small group of skiers for a day of skiing. There he met a local kid named Pat Sewell, whose appreciation for skiing's roots rivaled that of his own. At the time, each was living the life of a ski bum while pursuing a career as a pro skier: seeking sponsorships, photo shoots, and film parts. Though they gelled at that first meeting, it would take the tragic loss of a mutual friend two years later to bring them closer. When Aspen skier John Nicoletta died while competing at the U.S. Freeskiing World Championships in Alyeska, Alaska (a horrific accident Tatsuno witnessed), their perspective on what was important in skiing took a major turn. By 2010, Tatsuno's career as a competitive big mountain skier was over, and he and Sewell began crafting a new way forward, while spending summers as a river guide in Colorado. A few years later, Tatsuno met Jamie, got married this past summer, and moved into a house in Carbondale, 30 miles east of Aspen. Now, it's almost impossible to talk about Tatsuno without Sewell, as the moniker "Pat and Tats" has set the standard for how to have fun while skiing.
Skiing around Aspen Mountain with Sewell and Tatsuno is like hovering in a cloud of awesomeness. Sewell, who grew up in Aspen and whose father is the mountain manager of Snowmass, almost always enters a line first. Like a true native son, he knows where to find the best route and the best snow, any day of the week. "If you're gonna follow anyone at Aspen, follow Pat Sewell," says Tatsuno.
When there's a posse, and there usually is with these two, Tatsuno will wait to go last. He says he likes to observe how certain skiers' personalities shine through when they ski. But it's also a habit he has developed working with disabled athletes. Sometimes when a skier on a sit-ski wipes out, they might need assistance getting back upright. Always a student of the turn, he watches his pupils as he watches his friends.
The problem with Tatsuno going last is that everyone wants to watch him. As smooth and balanced as a feline, he uncannily rebounds off every little transition, even at full speed over a mogul field. His touch on the snow—controlled and delicate and powerful all at the same time—is something you cultivate over a lifetime of study and practice. Then, for good measure, he'll throw a slow, stylish three or shifty.
"He's the best skier on the planet," says Sewell, and he means it.
In 2010, the duo—both sponsored by Blizzard/Tecnica, Smith, Trew, and Aspen/Snowmass—went on the road to produce a web series titled "The Pat and Tats Show." They travel to various resorts and ski a lot of crappy snow inbounds, dress like penguins and chickens, sliding down the mountain on their stomachs, chugging beers out of the mouth of their plastic mascot Petey the Penguin, and basically proving that not all pro skiers are high-maintenance narcissists who only ski powder in Alaska. Even though they think that's pretty fun, too.
On the last day of the Adaptive Nationals, Tatsuno finally wraps up his work for the week. Medals have been handed out to the winners and the course crew has removed all the gates and netting from beneath Tiehack.
It's been a long week for everyone involved. Despite his duties on the course, Tatsuno has skied every day, and even snuck in an impromptu midnight cat-ski mission off the top of Aspen before rising the next morning at 6 a.m. It being his first job he's had in the winter since 2005, he finds inspiration in being around the adaptive athletes.
"Sometimes, I find myself thinking, 'Oh, my feet hurt because my boots don't fit right and I should probably go in.' Well, maybe. But there are worse things," he would say later. "To always have that in the back of your mind makes it all easier. You end up with a smile on your face."
As he heads out to the parking lot in the early afternoon, he realizes there are still plenty of hours left in the day. The happy ninja is ready to party. He looks up and says, "Hey, wanna go skiing?"