Like any other ski day, Tim Burr was thinking about the snow conditions. It never crossed his mind just how much his life would change that day.
“I was upset because I knew the upcoming ski season was probably in trouble but I didn’t realize that I probably was never going to ski again,” Tim Burr said.
Nov.18th, 2014 was supposed to be like any other early winter day for Tim Burr – a quick, one-run ski trip with a college buddy in the backcountry near Crested Butte on a random Tuesday during the fall semester of his sophomore year at Western in Gunnison.
“It wasn’t meant to be a big day or anything; I had work in the afternoon,” Burr said.
The two hiked to the top of a mountain before skiing down when Burr hit a small feature under the snow sending him head over heels. The new helmet he was wearing showed no evidence of an impact- no scratches or dents that would have indicated he hit something.
“Something happened under the snow and I broke my neck right then at the C5 vertebrae,” Burr said. “I was immediately paralyzed from the chest down.”
“We managed to get a 911 call out and they sent out search and rescue,” he said. “I was conscious all the way until they put me onto the sled.”
Fighting to survive
He was airlifted to St. Mary’s Hospital in Grand Junction where he spent the next two weeks fighting for his life.
“I was borderline not being able to breathe on my own and dealing with pneumonia because of a paralyzed diaphragm,” Burr said. “The two weeks at St. Mary’s was just surviving.”
Once out of intensive care, Burr was transferred to Craig Hospital in Denver, which specializes in spinal cord and traumatic brain injury rehabilitation. He worked daily learning how to do normal everyday activities often taken for granted.
“There is more science to it than I would be able to mention but the way to get the most out of a spinal cord injury recovery is by putting in the time early,” Burr said.
With tons of support from the Glenwood Springs and Roaring Fork Valley communities, Burr was able to return home and begin the next step in his recovery process.
There were multiple fundraisers and donations to help Burr and his family, who were well known in the recreation world throughout the valley. He was a ski instructor at Sunlight for many years and participated in multiple skiing events.
“When I got home I had to move back into my parents house and they didn’t have any bedrooms or bathrooms on the main floor that I could access,” Burr said. “I had to live in the living room until they put an addition onto the back of the house which was only possible with a ton of community help.”
Return to recreation
Once a patient nears the end of their stay at Craig Hospital the rehabilitation focuses on transportation. How they will get home and once home how they will get around.
“It was about a year after my original injury that I was able to start the process of adaptive driving and I managed to use a system that was put into a Toyota Tundra,” Burr said.
Backtracking to the days when Burr was still in intensive care, a program called the High Fives Foundation was already fundraising and working out ways to get Burr back out doing the things he loved – outdoor recreation.
The High Fives Foundation is a nonprofit program that offers support and healing through adaptive camps and activities to people that have dealt with life changing injuries.
Through the High Fives Foundation, Burr was later able to do things like adaptive fly-fishing in Montana and sit skiing near Lake Tahoe, things he otherwise may have never been able to enjoy again.
“I got to try all of these things through them and was so blessed to have all those opportunities,” Burr said. “Just seeing what it had done to myself, my mental state and my new found friends; seeing the benefits of having access to these activities was eye opening.”
After that, the wheels started spinning for Burr – both literally and figuratively.
“Adaptive driving is a freeing activity,” Burr said. “Knowing that it was possible, knowing that adaptive activities are something that needed to be given… it seemed only right to do that.”
With the help of those who originally helped Burr through his recovery, he was able to start making Return to Dirt his own adaptive reality in 2018.
He enlisted a group of friends and family familiar with the different aspects of spinal cord injuries and paralysis when getting back into adaptive activities.
“I involved all of those people who helped me in starting Return to Dirt because they were the ones that were going to know how to do it for others,” Burr said.
This year, Return to Dirt was adopted into the High Fives Foundation’s program. After partnering for years, the two non-profits decided it was the right time to start collaborating to get as many adaptive athletes back out enjoying the dirt.
Return to Dirt does over 30 trips a year in multiple locations across the West including Colorado, Utah and California and has accumulated over 5,000 UTV miles.
“We are doing once-a-week, life- changing experiences in the summertime,” Burr said.
The mission of the program is to return people to the places they once loved. Whether it’s the remote high mountains with endless fields of wildflowers or rolling mounds of sand dunes in the desert,– the trips are planned according to what the athlete wants to experience.
“I like meeting these people that we are going out with and trying to find that thing that is really going to light their soul up,” Burr said. “So far we’ve been able to find that thing for everybody so on that note it’s a huge success.”
Ajay Shenoy was connected with Burr and the Return to Dirt crew through the High Fives Foundation this summer at a camp in the Lake Tahoe area.
Wheelchair bound after breaking his neck diving into a creek, Shenoy also spent time rehabilitating at the Craig Hospital in Denver where he learned of the High Fives Foundation.
“I thought it was great, especially from a disability standpoint. You’re kind of stuck with paved roads – when the sidewalk ends, your adventure ends,” Shenoy said. “Some things are just not passable. Finally getting behind the wheel of one of these things, the terrain is kind of an afterthought. It’s liberating to say the least.”
The vehicles that Burr and his crew at Return to Dirt use are adapted Can-AM Maverick X3 all terrain vehicles.
They are modified to allow the driver to control the gas and brake by hand and have a steering wheel orthotic that can be switched out with different grips to accommodate drivers with limited hand movements or amputations. The steering wheel is removable, making it easier for the driver to get in and out.
The vehicles have electric power steering for those with limited arm or torso strength as well as adaptive harnesses and straps for stabilization.
Burr’s Return to Dirt crew includes longtime friends Brandon Martinez and Dylan Hagen – both of whomwhich helped him make his own return to dirt experience after his injury. Volunteers are also a huge part of the crew, including Burr’s dad Tim.
Burr has an endless list of special moments and trips that come to mind when he thinks back on the last couple of years in the dirt. Throughout it all he thoroughly enjoys giving people the opportunity to once again experience the thrill of the backcountry after a life altering injury.
“I love this. Sharing experiences in general is my favorite aspect of life and sharing an experience with somebody that they never thought would’ve been possible as often as I do… it’s a dream come true, or whatever cliché you want to put there,” Burr said. “I feel like I’m so lucky to be with people and open their eyes to something that they didn’t think was possible and maybe wouldn’t have been possible without our team and equipment.”
Visual Journalist Chelsea Self can be reached at 970-384-9108 or firstname.lastname@example.org.