Four years ago, while riding his skateboard down a hill, Mike Brown’s body collided with a car. His spine snapped. His life changed forever. This accident, crashing into the middle of a life full of surfing and sailing and mountain climbing, seemed like the end. But a broken back wouldn’t keep Mike down for long. The same tenacious determination that got him across oceans and up mountains saw Mike complete the New York Marathon and paddle out for a set again. He’s learned new ways to be a father for his son and a husband to his wife. He’s made it back to the mountains – a sit ski giving him the rare freedom of speed and independence. And he gets way more face shots than the rest of us.
“I like to think of a Big Break as an opportunity for growth, awareness, and success. I’ve come to understand that the next Big Break is always there waiting for us, but is often disguised by fear or discomfort. To discover the great things that lie ahead we must take that first step into the unknown, or simply look at things from a different angle.”
KW: Can you remember the first time you saw snow?
MB: I reckon the first time I saw snow was on the Desert Road, as a kid travelling to Tauranga to see my grandparents. I remember being stopped in Waiuru and there was snow all around and we were throwing snowballs. I think the road might have been blocked so we were sent back to Taihape to stay the night. That was in Datsun 180B days – not super good heating.
How old do you think you would have been?
At a guess – 5, 6, 7 – something like that.
So that was your first snow experience?
I think that was the first time I’d touched snow but you’d see snow on the Tararua ranges north of Wellington in winter. Maybe the Orangorangos too, across from where we lived. In the house we grew up in, we could see the Kaikouras – Tapuaenuku. On a clear Southerly day it was just there, a big imposing peak. It’s alluring, right?
Did you grow up loving the outdoors?
I think growing up in Wellington you are quite exposed to the elements. You’re always in the wind and the wind has a sort of power to it, so on a big Southerly storm you couldn’t escape. You always felt like you were in the outdoors whether you wanted to be or not and I think growing up in New Zealand, you are in the outdoors, it’s quite a raw sort of feeling so that was ingrained in me and in a lot of Kiwis because it’s all around us.
I grew up in a sailing family. You were was sent out into Wellington Harbour in 30 knots and pretty much left to fend for yourself to learn how to handle a boat and get back in and if you capsized, you had to get back up. So I was used to the cold and thrill of the elements. So skiing was kind of a natural extension to that – being in a mountain environment as opposed to the sea.
“I remember driving up the ski field road and for the first time seeing trees heavy with snow. There’s something mystical about this.”
When did you start skiing?
I didn’t start skiing until I was 12.
There was something magical about driving up. That’s a really solid memory for me, driving up the ski field road from Ohakune and for the first time seeing trees heavy with snow. There’s something mystical about this. Going from a young child, driving through the Desert Road, seeing this mountain in the distance and then fast forward five years and bringing it into a sort of micro level and seeing the detail of how the snow sits on the trees and the road dozers with snow flying off the end of the snowplow. There was this fear aspect as you’d feel the car slide around the corner and you’d see a car off the road and a dozer with pads trying to push a car back onto the road. It was a real adventure, not just when you were skiing, but actually just getting there was kind of epic.
I was drawn to that sort of thing, so I was kind of hooked after that.
What was your first day skiing like?
It was terrible conditions and it was like a white out and I just remember finding skiing ridiculously hard. I couldn’t keep my legs together and then going up the ski lift in a complete white out was like an amusement park ride, but it was unlike anything I’d ever experienced before. It was everything. I was cold. There was a certain intensity to it. There’s a speed aspect, there’s a flow aspect, once you get going, it was like ‘woahhhhhh, this is awesome’.
And would you say you grew up from there to become an adrenaline junkie?
I don’t like that term so much, but maybe it’s true. I like that feeling of adrenaline. Definitely.
What was the ultimate of that feeling for you? The best you ever got of it?
Mountain climbing, for sure. I remember the first real mountain I climbed was Mt Dampier, close to Mt Cook. I think it’s the third highest peak in New Zealand. I remember climbing up this face and I felt well out of my depth. I remember getting up to the top of the ridgeline and at that moment you could see down into the West Coast and into the Balfour area and the exposure was so terrifying. I had vertigo. I was gripped. I couldn’t move. I was so scared. The shot of adrenaline after that was just incredible.
I actually had to say to my climbing partner who was more experienced, ‘Man, you’ve got to lead the rest of this way because I’m peaking’. I remember that moment so vividly. I remember thinking, ‘I’m never going to do this again. I’ve overstepped the mark.’ But I guess you push through it and you learn from that.
“I remember thinking, ‘I’m never going to do this again. I’ve overstepped the mark.’ But I guess you push through it and you learn from that.”
I think adrenaline and fear is a mind thing more than anything. It’s about having those experiences. And that particular experience pushed me way, way, way out of my comfort zone – probably into a dangerous zone – whereas a safer zone to be but also a zone where you can learn is probably just slightly out of your comfort zone. But the fact is, we climbed that peak, I got through that and I know what that feeling’s like now.
Like any first time, in anything you do, it can be intense – whether you’re fearful or you’re nervous or whatever it is – but once you’ve done that, it’s not so bad. With skiing it was the same thing. I didn’t know what it was like. I was kind of nervous. Maybe embarrassed because I was falling over all the time. I remember these pretty girls going past and I was just flayed on the ground like a squashed possum but then the next time you kind of know what you’re in for so you just build on that.
You started skiing from 12. Was it a part of your life after that?
My family wasn’t into skiing so I went with friends. When we could drive, we would do trips to Ruapehu, but we didn’t have much money so we’d sleep in the car or pitch a tent or later on, I’d dig a snow cave and we’d sleep in a snow cave. We’d get up early in the morning and tour up and we’d have an old lift ticket on our ski jacket and before anything opened we’d tour up past the first lifts and then we’d take our jacket off and put a different jacket on, still with an old ticket and then we’d ride the top lifts. They didn’t check your ticket, so we’d ride all day and then we’d skin up or climb up to the top of ruapehu once the ski area had totally closed for the day and watch the sun set and then we’d ski back down to the car or to our snow cave and it was just …. phewwww …. euphoric. It was beating the system and also getting that last run of the day with no crowds, no people. That was really appealing.
And then I dove into climbing in a big way and the skiing sort of took a back seat. I learned to snowboard in Canada but I found it in some ways limiting, not being able to traverse that well, so I went back to skiing.
“I remember thinking, ‘Why haven’t I been doing this every winter instead of mountaineering.’”
When I got back to Christchurch, my friends were into skiing but I’d rather be climbing. Eventually, someone hooked me up with some skis – they were way to big for me. They were stiff as, and I wasn’t a good skier and I remember going skiing, BR or somewhere, and I remember thinking, ‘Why haven’t I been doing this every winter instead of mountaineering.’
It was just so much fun. Mountaineering was hard. It was a grovel. Heavy packs, wading through knee to waist-deep snow. There was so much danger. This was being out there with your mates, having a laugh. I just remember thinking, ‘this is fun’. So I just started skiing more and doing a bit of touring as well.
One really vivid moment was the guys coaxing me into dropping into this line on Allan’s Basin on these big skis. You kind of just had to straightline this little chute then there was a 15-foot drop. My friend Mike Inder went first and he stomped it. And then it was my turn and not wanting to chicken out I just committed and straight lined, not realising it was this big drop and landed it but landed too far back and thought I was going to pull it off but I didn’t, I sort of rag-dolled and got up and laughed it off but thought ‘I’ve got to get better at skiing, this is awesome.’ I remember looking back and seeing Alex Herbert just naturally land it and rip these big turns and he was one some big fat skis and he was just ripping these big arcs down the basin and I was like, ‘That’s what skiing’s about.’
So I guess that brings us to the sit ski. What does skiing mean to you now?
So, yeah, I broke my back.
And I thank Alex so much for sending me a video of Josh Dueck two weeks in. That was honestly such a mind-changing thing when I’m lying in hospital thinking I’m never going to do any of these things.
Josh Dueck is a competitive skier who broke his back in a ski accident. He was doing a back-flip and he landed nose heavy and he snapped his spine. His is a really similar injury to mine – a T10 or T12 paraplegic. Anyway, he was determined to get back on a sit ski – and I didn’t know a sit ski existed but basically it’s a bucket seat that you can strap into with a single ski and a suspension mechanism that you can load into a ski lift independently. You’ve got an outrigger on each arm that doubles as a ski pole and a small ski that can help you maneuver.
Anyway, this video of josh, he’s a Salomon sponsored athlete and he’s the first guy to do a backflip on a sit ski but probably more impactful was the footage of him skiing in the backcountry and skiing powder and, I mean, that’s what we all love, right. And I was thinking, I’m never going to be able to do that, but he was just totally shredding in the backcountry, hucking 20-30 foot cliffs, skiing through trees. He looked like he was having the best time. When I saw that 2-3 weeks in, suddenly there was hope. I felt so much better. All the possibilities started coming to mind, rather than just thinking ‘I’m screwed.’
“When I saw Josh Dueck shredding in the back country on a sit ski, suddenly there was hope. All the possibilities started coming to mind, rather than just thinking ‘I’m screwed.’”
So I managed to get a sit ski and there’s a bit of a story behind that. They’re expensive. They’re around $8-10 grand. Everything’s expensive. My wheelchair’s $8 grand. So I got this campaign going. I got all my friends who ski to get a sign to say ‘Mike, where are you? You’re missing out. We wish you were up here skiing with us.’ From all over the world, people sent these photos in so I could lobby ACC to say, socially, I’m missing out. In the winter, I used to go skiing with all my friends and I can’t now. I need this piece of equipment. So with all that they agreed to fund it. How could they not?
So I got this sit ski. It’s an awesome sit ski. I’d say half the pros use it in the paralympics. And then it was a matter of trying to find the right ski. Kingswood gave me a ski that they had lying around and I busted it the first or second day out. It just wasn’t designed for a sit skier. I did a bit of research and figured out what we needed to do and Alex, he’s a master, he just knew. And so we built this ski and it was the best ski. It made all the difference. It was versatile. I could ski in reasonably deep powder and it’s really strong where it needs to be, behind the binding. I’ve had three seasons now. Last season was awesome. It just all came together. I think I skied seven or eight ski fields and had a crack at Mt Olympus on the rope tows…to be continued…
I’m loving it. It’s hugely important. It means I can ski with my family, right, which is really cool. I took my son up on Monday. I’m independent. You just throw your ski out of the back of the car, hop in and onto the lift and you’re ripping around, wherever you want to go.
So it’s freedom?
Seriously good freedom.
Is it the same feeling?
I’d say it’s the same feeling. It’s that sort of energy transfer when you’re turning. If anything, I get more face shots, because I’m lower to the ground. (Laughs) And I don’t get sore knees. But it’s pretty taxing on the upper body, for sure.
“I get more face shots. And I don’t get sore knees.”
How was the learning curve?
I picked it up pretty quickly. I’m not sure why. Maybe being a skier before helped. Just that commitment to turning on a steep slope. If you don’t commit to the turn, then you’re going to come to grief. I was skiing from the top of the Six at Mt Hutt on day three, but it was a season and a half before I was really comfortable. I was slamming everywhere – I still do – if you push it. But last season, the third season, it all just came together. It’s like anything, the more you do, the better you get. I’d love to do 100 days. I’ve never done 100 days in a season but one day perhaps…
Where’s your progression? Where’s it going?
People say, ‘you should race’ but for me it’s about skiing in the hills with my family. It’s that sort of free ride thing that I like and chasing those powder days. I mean, if I was a single guy and I had all the time in the world, then I might chase the ski racing thing, but no, I’m just happy cruising. I’d like to travel. I’d like to go to Canada and ski there again on some big hills. Sam’s been talking about Japan. So it opens up the possibility to travel and explore new places. There’s Europe. And so, really, I’ve got a lifetime ahead of skiing.
Read more about Mike’s journey since becoming paraplegic at Mike’s Big Break.
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