When the body breaks, but the spirit survives

How one man rebuilt his life after an accident threatened to take it away

Harris has taken up mountain biking since a kite-skiing accident left him temporarily paralyzed two-and-a-half years ago.
Courtesy of Jim Harris

At 8:30 a.m. on the day Jim Harris turned 33, he was still lying in bed. It wasn’t how he imagined spending his birthday. Had things gone according to plan, he would have been skiing across the Patagonian ice cap, documenting a 30-day expedition. Instead, he was about to undergo surgery to decompress two of 10 fractured vertebrae.

For years, Harris had been making his living as an adventure photographer and writer, publishing photos of Mongolian reindeer warriors, rock towers in Antarctica, and France’s glaciers among the pages of National Geographic, POWDER Magazine and SKI Magazine. Now, still paralyzed three weeks after the freak accident in Patagonia, his life had been saved, but his livelihood — his future — was still up in the air with the ski-kite that had picked him up and slammed him back down, broken on the ground.

Brody Leven skis an obscure chute in the Wasatch Backcountry. JIm Harris, before the accident, took adventure photographs for magazines like POWDER, SKI and National Geographic. Courtesy of Jim Harris

The day following his surgery, unable to do anything but stare up at the textured foam ceiling, Harris pondered how the rest of his life might unfold. For someone who could no longer shoo a fly off his shin with a twitch of his ankle, walking or living independently again might have been substantial recovery goals. Harris envisioned those feats as no more than stepping stones. On Facebook that day, he wrote: “I bet it will be a beautiful, frustrating process to relearn how to edge skis or bike tires through a turn.”

The wild mountain’s elements had beaten his body, but Harris’ adventurous spirit survived unscathed. Brody Leven, a professional ski mountaineer and friend who helped in Harris’ recovery, says, “People like him and I, we are, or have become, mountain people. … For us, you get hurt in the mountains, and what do you do when you get better? You go back.”

Jim Harris was temporarily paralyzed after a kite-skiing accident. Courtesy of Jim Harris

Harris knew a lifetime of discipline and effort laid in the space between starting over and going back. Hours of pain and mounds of bills stood between him and the next summit of his life: finding a sense of purpose without the skill set that had previously given him all his pride and joy.

The seed for Harris’ identity as an outdoorsman was planted while growing up in Ohio, and nurtured at the University of Montana in Missoula. But it didn’t fully bloom until his post-college gig as an Outward Bound instructor in Colorado. It was learning to read maps, he says, that oriented the rest of his life toward the mountains. “Early on I had the realization that I could go anywhere in the world as long as I had a map, and I’d be able to stay found.”

His plans never included becoming a national magazine photographer, but when some photos he’d taken with a simple point-and-shoot camera on a trip to Alaska went viral, he realized he had nothing to lose by giving it a real shot. “I had no idea I could capture people’s imagination and attention that way.”

His mountaineering and glacier experience made him a prime candidate for adventure expeditions in need of photographers and videographers to document trips. Soon he was flying to South America, Asia and all over North America to capture, preserve and share the moments for which he was living: humans dancing among mammoth formations, delicately riding the edge of their element, tickling the sublime.

“I don’t know if I ever was an adrenaline junkie, but I was and am a flow-state junkie, which incurs a lot of other brain neurotransmitters besides just endorphins and adrenaline,” he says.

It was a series of successful outings that led Harris to dream up a trip like the one he’d planned in Patagonia. “When everything goes well on an expedition, you come back and think: Well that was really hard… can we do harder?” he says. “I was always looking further toward the edge of the map.”

In mountaineering, there’s a fine line between maximizing one’s potential and pushing the envelope too far. Aside from factors like fitness and technical skills such as map reading or proficient use of protection, myriad elements outside of direct human control play into the safety of an expedition. For many, the mountains are as equal a source of anguish as they are inspiration. Harris has lost more than one friend to the wrath of nature, thanks to unpredictable weather and freak accidents.

Yet, akin to the rolling thunder clouds and hurricane-force wind gusts that can appear without warning, the drive to constantly seek new perspectives in the mountains, Leven says, “Is not something we can control.”

Once the swelling had gone down along Harris’ spine, his neurotransmitters once again began to fire. Harris slowly regained feeling and then movement in his legs. He started intense physical therapy that, over the course of months, would gradually allow him to walk. Courtesy of Jim Harris

Leven visited Harris in the hospital, first in Cincinnati, and then again when Harris was transferred to Craig Hospital’s exercise-based neuro-rehabilitation center in Denver. Once the swelling had gone down along his spine, his neurotransmitters once again began to fire. Harris slowly regained feeling and then movement in his legs. He started intense physical therapy that, over the course of months, would gradually allow him to walk.

But early on, even with his premium medical insurance, Harris knew he’d run out of his therapy quota within a month. The High Fives foundation, a California-based nonprofit that provides resources to action-sports athletes who have suffered life-altering injuries, took immediate interest in Harris’ case. They not only saw his potential as an artist, but also as a future athlete, too. They’ve continued to sponsor his recovery progression to this day, more than two-and-a-half years later.

“Jim has resilience,” Roy Tuscany, executive director of High Fives says. “I think a really good way to describe Jim is he’s a powerful soul.”

Without a clear map to recovering the high-adventure life he once had, Harris, at first, felt lost. “So much of my understanding of who I am as a person was based on my accomplishments and skills,” he says. “It felt like I’d already peaked in life — and that’s not a very satisfying way to go about the rest.”

As Harris’ recovery progressed, he graduated to walking with help of trekking poles. Leven, who watched Harris’ dogged determination shine while simply trying to walk down a stair step, says, “Seeing the same amount of concentration and effort used for something other than a long mountain sufferfest was a pretty amazing thing to see.”

Though Harris still can’t run very well, he can walk wherever he needs to go. Instead of shredding on skis, Harris has tuned into mountain biking. As a Yeti bike ambassador, Tuscany says Harris is now “riding bikes on some of the most advanced trails in the United States… he never shuts off. He’s always moving, always doing something.”

On the one-year anniversary of the accident, November 14, 2015, Leven and Harris met in the parking lot of Utah’s Alta ski area. They slowly traveled up the bunny slope’s tow rope. On the way back down, Leven laughs remembering Harris trying to form a pizza shape with his skis, but being unable to really control his left leg. Regardless of style, they reached the bottom in good spirits; Harris made it through the frustration and found the beauty.

“[The accident] forced me to remake how I find satisfaction in life and how I understand myself,” Harris says. “I don’t feel like I have access to the same flow state in deep powder or watching a sunrise from atop a peak. … It all raises a question: will my life ever be as good as it was before?”

Jim Harris now lives in Carbondale, where he makes his living creating mountain-inspired art and helping orchestrate adventure film festivals. Courtesy of Jim Harris

Now Harris lives in Carbondale, where he makes his living creating mountain-inspired art and helping orchestrate adventure film festivals. He’ll get up, maybe bike some trails, break out his woodcut printing press or sketch detailed skylines of faraway, dreamy rock ridges until he heads to the gym for physical therapy.

“Before, when I was engaged with that accomplishment-based approval of myself, I felt like I had to earn feeling confident and happy,” Harris says. “Now I don’t feel like I have to earn those things.”

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