E.R. Physician Terry O’Connor Pursues his Passion for Mountains and Medicine
By Adam Tanous
When St. Luke’s Wood River Medical Center E.R. physician Terry O’Connor tells you that he likes to “dabble in things,” as he told me this fall, keep in mind his definition of dabble might differ a little from yours.
I came to find out that for his 40th birthday this past summer his present to himself was an entry in the Leadville Silver Rush competition—a 50-mile run followed by a 50-mile mountain bike race. Then there was the Standhope 60-kilometer running race through the Pioneer Mountains with over 11,000 feet of vertical climb. Finally, the IMTUF100 competition took O’Connor over 100 miles through the Salmon River Mountains near McCall. Somehow amidst all these endurance events and working full time in the E.R., he also managed this year to climb the Grand Teton, twice.
To most, this may sound like the summer of pain. But for O’Connor, these types of challenges motivate him. He likened his experiences in ultra-running to the culture that surrounded him in his medical training—at the University of California San Francisco Medical School and then Oregon Health Sciences University for his residency—during which he routinely worked 80 to 90 hour weeks. “You get used to continually having to perform in the most adverse of conditions, and you take pride in that,” O’Connor said. “It’s the same philosophy of why you want to do an ultra-endurance race. You do it to push yourself to a limit, to maximize what you’re capable of doing.”
If there is a guiding principle as to the way O’Connor’s life has unfurled, it is that he has continually followed his passions—one passion has led to another. Growing up in Berkeley, Calif., O’Connor pursued life in the outdoors, climbing in Yosemite—he has summited El Capitan a number of times—and ski patrolling in Tahoe. While patrolling, O’Connor was recruited to become a climbing ranger on Mount Rainier in Washington, a job he loved because it combined his climbing experience with professional rescue work and his passion for helping people in trouble.
Then in 1999, O’Connor was invited by climbing friends from college to join a National Geographic expedition to study the growth rate of the Himalayan Mountains. He was basically a base camp manager, helping organize and move equipment up Mount Everest. Though he wasn’t on the summit permit, he did climb some of the upper routes, including the Khumbu Ice Fall. He also spent time with and was inspired by physicians volunteering in Nepalese clinics. It was a springboard of sorts into another passion: medicine.
After finishing medical school in 2004, one of O’Connor’s best friends introduced him to Russell Brice, founder of Himalayan Experience, a climbing and guiding service operating out of Nepal. As a post-medical school project, O’Connor wanted to look into starting a health clinic on the Tibetan side of Everest. He noted that while there were some health care resources on the Nepalese side, “In my conversations with people in Tibet, Red Cross workers and others, it [was clear] that there was pretty abysmal access to health care there.”
Brice, who O’Connor said became a close friend, “almost like a second father figure,” encouraged him to undertake the clinic project. In addition, Brice asked him to be the team doctor for an expedition and got him on the permit to climb up to 24,000 feet on the Tibet side of Everest.
The following year, 2006, O’Connor got a phone call from Brice inviting him to not only be the doctor on another Everest expedition, but to attempt to summit. The Discovery Channel wanted to film one of Brice’s expeditions for a reality TV series, so O’Connor’s way was fully paid. Remarkably, he got permission to take a break from his medical residency to pursue a summit bid.
While there was plenty of drama on the Discovery series, O’Connor’s trip to the top—he summited May 14, 2006—was relatively smooth. He did not get altitude sickness. As he told me, he was eating “oysters and chili at 26,000 feet.” He added, though, “Some of that is good genes, some of it is luck. It’s not like I’m immune. I’ve had altitude illness trying to push too fast at lower altitudes. It’s just that I acclimatized well on that particular trip.”
Other people don’t do so well. O’Connor said that there is a cumulative process that takes place in serial fashion beginning with hypoxia (oxygen deficiency in the tissues). “Once that happens, then your appetite gets off, then you’re nauseated, so you don’t eat well, don’t drink well, then you become dehydrated and malnourished, then you don’t sleep well and get sleep deprived and you start having lapses of concentration because of your lack of sleep, plus your brain is starved for oxygen.”
The physical challenges notwithstanding, O’Connor said that the “human factor is probably 50 percent of the risk on that mountain.” He explained this is due partly to the sheer numbers of people up there, but also to bad decisions. “Bad decisions based on ego, bad decisions because of their incapacity to make decisions at altitude. Then you have constricted routes and high-risk terrain where a simple fall is potentially lethal and has huge impacts on everybody else up there. So, selfishness up there really has repercussions well beyond you.”
O’Connor came to St. Luke’s hospital over three years ago from Providence Portland Medical Center. He always thought he would end up in a mountain town like Ketchum, just not this early in his career. But he couldn’t be happier. He said since moving here, he’s been so much more motivated at work, inspired to improve emergency medical services (EMS)here (O’Connor is the medical director for all EMS in Camas, Blaine and Custer Counties), and to get back to doing more international aid work, as well as some personal projects, like working with the Sawtooth Avalanche Center.
“It just demonstrates to me,” he said, “that when you truly follow your passions, it’s such a healthy environment to jump off and do other things.”
ATMOSPHERE AND TEMPERATURE
Curtis Bacca Prepares the World’s Elite for Competitive Gold
By Laurie Sammis
Curtis Bacca, the soft-spoken and ball-cap-adorned owner of The Waxroom in Ketchum, may work behind the scenes at his shop when he is in town, but this Ketchum local has a few surprises for those who think they know him well. First off: he’s a native Idahoan, born just down the road in Idaho Falls. Somewhat surprisingly, given his current vocation as professional wax technician for snowboarders Seth Wescott and Lindsey Jacobellis, Bacca played football in college. And prior to becoming entrenched in the ski industry, he was a beach bum, living in San Diego, surfing and considering pursuit of an MBA. He’s also extremely competitive.
“I want to win as badly as my athletes do,” said Bacca. “It’s so fun being out there competing. It’s like going into battle!”
Bacca, whose competitive drive may have earned him more podium medals than any other wax technician of his age in the world, knows what it takes to prepare for race day. He’s a five-time Olympic wax technician. This includes serving as the 2010 Vancouver and 2006 Torino Olympic gold medal wax technician for Seth Wescott, as well as 16-time X-Games gold medal wax technician for Lindsey Jacobellis, Daron Rahlves, Reggie and Zach Crist, Nate Holland and Peter Lind. That’s 18 gold medals!
Bacca also helped elite athletes such as Kyle Rasmussen, Tommy Moe, Tomas Kraus and Shaun Palmer clinch their World Cup victories. This is not to mention 10 years spent as wax tech for the U.S. Ski Team (Men’s Downhill/Super-G) before moving on to the realm of snowboarding. His current role as wax technician for world champions Seth Wescott and Lindsey Jacobellis of the U.S. Snowboarding Team was at the special request of both athletes. Rumor has it they threatened to form their own team if they didn’t get Bacca—he’s that good.
“It’s like the pit crew in NASCAR,” Wescott said. “He is that critical. It’s not that you couldn’t have the physical skill to go out and win an event, but if your boards are not properly cared for all the way through, you’re not giving yourself a chance. “
Wescott asserts that Bacca is the best in his field, which is quite an endorsement coming from a two-time Olympic gold medalist, four-time World Champion and four-time Winter X-Games medalist.
Bacca got into the business after moving to Sun Valley to ski and work nearly 30 years ago. He was working for HEAD Skis when he was assigned to the U.S. Alpine Ski Team in 1990 because he had what he calls a “basic” tuning background. His first real race was a top-15 finish in Val-d’Isère, France, that same year, which was a pretty big result at the time for the U.S. Ski Team in Europe.
“Maybe I got a little bit lucky with the wax or whatever,” Bacca said, “but my finish in that race opened the eyes of a lot of people in the industry, especially the Austrians.” Bacca added that the Austrians, in particular Heinz Haemmerle (who is currently Lindsey Vonn’s ski technician), took him under their wing and taught him what they knew. “They trusted me,” Bacca added, “which was very rare for an American.”
So Bacca learned. He took notes. He soaked up every detail. “I was a huge note taker and stat guy,” laughed Bacca, calling himself a stat geek. “I’m way into stats. I find it fascinating, and I took the most extensive stats and data of anybody on World Cup.”
The habit resulted in his filling massive five-inch binders with pages and pages of notes, as well as on-hill field notes, handwritten every day by Bacca. He was meticulous in his tests—testing equipment, testing wax, comparing training run times, anything he could record. This included stats about atmospheric temperature, snow conditions, crystal structure, wind speed, air temperature, sun angle, precise snow temperature at different locations, course conditions, humidity, static electricity and a myriad of other factors too detailed to list.
“I’m aware of everything out there,” Bacca said, adding that, “when you’re in your element and you’re really doing it right, you start gathering other senses.”
The binders produced results, and, within a few years, Bacca clinched one of the biggest wins for the Americans in Europe. In January 1995, Kyle Rasmussen pulled bib #1 at the famous Lauberhorn downhill in Wengen, Switzerland, which stands as the longest and most grueling World Cup downhill course in the world (2.78 miles). With Bacca as his ski tech, Rasmussen became the second American to have ever won a World Cup downhill there. Bacca’s career was cemented, and he became recognized as one of the top wax technicians in the world.
“If you are the top five in the world in any other profession, like an attorney or hedge fund owner,” joked Bacca, “you’d be a millionaire.”
He’s not. But that’s just fine with him. His job has taken him to Austria, Switzerland, Argentina, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, Japan, Russia and Korea, but always back home to his family in the Wood River Valley. He cherishes the relationships he has built with the athletes and coaches he has worked with over the years.
If you’re lucky, he just might be the tech working on your boards at The Waxroom next time you drop them off for a tune.
THE FREEDOM AND SOUL OF SKIING
Ben Verge Finds his Calling as a U.S. Freeskiing Coach
By Kira Tenney
“Yeah, let’s talk about me,” Ben Verge laughed, his smile wide and his body vibrating with self-effacing mirth. Then, suddenly, he lurched forward and gestured as if to stick his finger down his throat to vomit.
Verge doesn’t like talking about himself. If we’re being honest, he’d much rather be skiing. It doesn’t matter that the hills are brown and gold with October leaves, he’s perfectly capable of finding a way to get on skis in any condition (snow, ice or dirt) and somehow slide or huck off of random bumps, rails or trees. The world is his playground, always has been, and perhaps that’s why he has come to hold a prestigious coaching position on the U.S. Freeskiing Team.
Verge was shredding Bald Mountain in his parents’ backpacks before he could walk; as soon as he could stand, he was flying down Dollar Mountain on his own two skis. “We had both our kids skiing at one and a half because that’s just what we did. They grew up in an atmosphere where we skied … it was kind of like eating,” said Judi Verge, Ben’s mom.
As soon as he could, Verge joined the Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation (SVSEF) alpine team and raced through high school and then some. He tried college, didn’t like it and returned to Ketchum to coach for the alpine team on which he learned to race.
After two years, Verge opted to leave coaching for a construction job and as much free skiing as possible. He was always flipping, twisting and turning off of anything. Verge’s skiing presence was noticed—not because he talked about it, but because one couldn’t ignore the sheer talent, technique, soul, fun and creativity that is so coolly wrapped up in his every carved turn and flight of fancy.
Skiing is “… my favorite thing in the world,” Verge beamed. “You can go fast, you can go slow. You’re outside, and that simply opens opportunities … I love everything about it; I love being freezing cold, I love skiing powder and skiing in the spring. The best is skiing with my friends in Sun Valley.”
Year after year, Andy Ware, program director of SVSEF Freestyle Skiing, repeatedly asked Verge if he would coach, and he repeatedly said no. It wasn’t until construction slowed and Verge got laid off in 2007 that he decided to work with Ware and start a freeskiing team.
At the time, Sun Valley Resort was, at least, a couple of years behind in its freeskiing facilities. While Dollar Mountain currently boasts a 22-foot superpipe, a family-cross course, and other features, at the birth of the freeski team, there was only a small halfpipe on Bald Mountain and a couple of rails.
“For training?” Verge said, “We didn’t do any tramps [trampolines] or water ramps in the beginning. We just went skiing a ton.” Verge was coaching a handful of go-getters with a wide range of abilities that had no interest in bumping moguls or hitting gates. They were all on the same page; they just wanted to go skiing.
Sun Valley local and U.S. Olympic team freeskier Wing Tai Barrymore was one of Verge’s original crew. The two still work together today as athlete and coach. “Ben is very professional and down to business when it’s coaching time, and we’re at events,” Barrymore said. “It’s a job, but at the same time, he’s one of my best friends. He has a unique way of being able to combine a professional level and a friendship with every athlete. At this level of skiing, it’s really important to have someone you can trust because you’re risking yourself.”
Verge’s career as a coach snowballed, and soon he was being asked to privately coach many of the nation’s stand-out freeskiing athletes, such as Maddie Bowman, who would later win the 2014 Olympic gold medal in women’s halfpipe. Verge claimed he “got lucky with a lot of good talent” in 2011 when the Olympic Committee approved freeskiing for the 2014 Sochi Olympics. Fortuitously, he had been privately coaching six of the 12 athletes invited to join the new U.S. team. So, it made sense that he be one of their coaches. However, word on the slopes was that many of the athletes demanded Verge be the U.S. coach.
The U.S. Freeskiing Team took Sochi by storm, with the U.S. Men sweeping the podium in slopestyle and taking a gold in halfpipe. The U.S. Women claimed a silver medal in slopestyle and a gold in halfpipe. “To be around people that motivated and that talented and to see them progress, do what they set out to do and achieve their goals—especially when they’re that big of goals—and to be a part of it all, I feel fortunate to do it,” Verge said.
During non-Olympic years, the freeskiing team athletes compete on a circuit that includes the X-Games, the Dew Tour, the Euro X-Games and the World Cup. For the past three years, U.S. Women have won the freeskiing events of the X-Games; the U.S. Men have done so for the past four.
On top of developing athletes’ trust and being able to convey the technical subtleties of the trade, there are, of course, challenges with training skiers to perform at this level. “Injury and fear are the biggest roadblocks,” Verge offered. “Freeskiers … have one of the highest injury rates of all the disciplines … The consequences are really high, and that might not enter the mind initially, but getting them back when they do get hurt, and motivated and happy to do it again, is a huge part of it. Every one of them has been put out for a year more than once.”
Verge has been put out, too, more times than he can count. He’s not a “stand-on-the-hill coach.” He’s a fellow ripper, an aerial and speed technician, someone who can’t wait to jump in an ice-rimmed lake to go waterskiing. He is someone who can, as Judi Verge said, “look at someone that doesn’t believe in themselves and make that person believe in themselves.”
But, at the heart of the matter, Verge is a skier. And now that he’s done talking about himself, it’s time for him to pack up to go skiing.