Sunday Profile: Outdoor misadventure leads photographer to 5Point
The accident may have set off the chain of events that brought Jim Harris to his current role as creative director of the 5Point Film Festival, but it was not the beginning of his story and he’s determined not to let it be the end.
Harris, 34, brings years of enthusiasm and experience as an outdoor photographer and videographer to the event, which takes place in Carbondale this week. While he’s not yet ready to return to some of the more heart-pounding outdoor sports depicted in the adventure filmfest, he’s a lot closer than he was in November 2014, when a snowkite mishap left him partially paralyzed.
“Rather than dwell on what I can’t do right now, I’m taking the steps to do them again,” Harris said. “I could be really upset, but I don’t even know what I’ve lost and I won’t know for another year or two or five. Nerves are one of the slowest growing tissues in the body. In Western medicine, they expect recovery for about 24 months. Anecdotally, it lasts a really long time.”
It’s the kind of optimism you might expect from a man who titled his website “Perpetual Weekend,” part of a philosophy that began when he was growing up in Cincinnati.
“I had a very outdoorsy family by Midwestern standards, but not really by Carbondale standards,” he recalled.
He learned to ski at 14 in what was “literally a cow pasture in the summer” and later got into backcountry skiing with used telemark equipment. He later paid his way through a series of outdoor courses by mowing lawns.
“I think I gained a lot of self reliance and kind of had this epiphany that I was pretty good at reading maps, and that was a skill that meant I could travel anywhere back when we didn’t all have phones that geolocate,” he observed. “That was a really empowering idea.”
When college rolled around, he moved to Missoula, Montana, to study biology and fine art. It was the first of many times Harris, who had the grades to attend an Ivy League school, would put lifestyle first.
“There’s a different vibe in the West,” he said. “I recognized that I like the sense of community that comes with being somewhere others share your interests.”
The University of Montana provided numerous opportunities for growth. It continued to fuel an interest in natural history – Harris had been a sort of junior zookeeper as a kid – and provided new creative outlets. His main artistic focus was woodcut printmaking, but he also took the opportunity to graduate from his dad’s old film camera to his first digital point and shoot. He doesn’t see his combination of majors as contradictory.
“I think where the art and science overlap is the creativity you need to set up research,” he said.
“Research is 80 percent logistics and precision and 20 percent creativity, and art is the inverse of that.”
GRADUATE SKI BUM
That turned out to be the limit of his formal education, however.
“After college I decided I wanted to be a ski bum for a year before grad school,” he said. “That turned into a second season and a third, and a decade later I still haven’t made it.”
He took a job tuning skis in Crested Butte, then spent a couple years in Utah.
Although he sometimes imagined being a professional photographer, he considered it a pipe dream. Still, he brought his camera along on a backpacking trip through Alaska’s Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve in 2009 and later posted a lengthy trip report online.
“It fully went viral,” he said. “It crashed the server.”
Harris attributes the popularity of the piece to its authenticity.
“It was an unsponsored trip by people that had no name recognition,” he explained. “There was no intent from the outset for it to be done for the attention, and I think that comes through in a way that resonates.”
It proved to be his big break. He was soon invited on a skiing trip in the Revelation Mountains, his record of which was later published in Powder Magazine. The next thing he knew, he was following a group of skiers and snowboarders to Bolivia for Sweetgrass Productions and traversing Mongolia with wolverine biologists for National Geographic.
“One thing led to the next and doors started opening.” he recalled. “I’d been waiting tables and tuning skis and all of the sudden I got the biggest check I’d ever got in my life.”
“There are certainly photographers and videographers that are more artistic or precise, but I think I had a combination of skills not many people had – athleticism to keep up, wilderness skills to look out for myself and an outdoorsman’s perspective,” he added.
In need of a website of his own, he registered perpetualweekend.com partially because all the variations he could think of for his name were taken, and partially because it summed up his philosophy.
‘ALREADY LIVING THE DREAM’
“I think our grandparents’ generation had a really strong sense of responsibility towards work, and that shifted a lot in the ‘60s and ‘70s. The career became about your own needs and interests,” he said. “Now, that expectation pervades more than just work life. I had made a lot of life decisions based on being able to experience new things. Without having thought it through, I think I was already living the dream.”
In 2014, Harris and a group of friends got a grant to traverse the Patagonian icecap. Rather than slog across it unaided, they decided to invest in snowkites to sail across. None of them had a lot of experience with the kites, so they took them out one windy day in November to practice.
“An exceptionally big gust picked me up and I got slammed down,” Harris recalled. “When I regained consciousness I was paralyzed from the sternum down.”
He ended up in a remote Chilean hospital, “a lot closer to Antarctica than the major cities in Chile.” Unaware that prompt surgery generally produces better outcomes in cases like his, Harris opted to postpone an operation until his expedition insurance could fly him back to a hospital in the United States.
“It was a difficult decision to make,” he said. “It’s not that easy to just call up a neurosurgeon and ask questions.”
He ended up getting in touch with Cincinnati’s Daniel Drake Center and, after more than a week and a 22-hour, much-interrupted flight, he arrived in his hometown on his 32nd birthday.
“That was a good present,” he said.
After the surgery, shorn up with metal rods and bolts and with several of his thoracic vertebrae entirely fused, Harris found a glimmer of hope.
“With all the thought power I could muster, I could get one toe wiggle,” he said. “I realized one day I could pick my foot off the bed and I was practically in tears.”
“My understanding is that my recovery is unusual because most brains don’t have the plasticity to rewire themselves,” he added. “People give me a lot of personal credit for it, and while I think I’ve had a good attitude, I’ve also been around enough other people with similar injuries that I know it’s not just about willpower. There’s an element of luck or grace of God or whatever you want to attribute it to.”
Harris also gives plenty of credit to Craig Hospital in Denver, where he began his recovery.
“They’ve really been the forerunners in embracing exercise-based rehab,” he explained. “In some ways it’s like strength training, only it’s not muscle mass it’s neuroconnections. I picture it in my own head as being like a bandwidth issue.”
Since being released from Craig a year ago, he has continued to do outpatient rehab thanks to the High Fives Foundation, as well as work on his own.
“My totally unsubstantiated theory is that not just exercising but doing things you find fun is better rehab,” he said. “I was a pretty active person before, and it seemed intuitive that the best way to recover was to be outdoors.”
When a friend suggested he apply for a job at 5Point, he knew of the area but hadn’t spent much time in Carbondale itself.
“Prior to moving here in September, I’d only come into town for grocery runs, but I was familiar with the mountains around it,” he said.
It also kept him connected with a community that supported him.
“A lot of people have had my back through this in a way I continue to be surprised at,” he said. “I’m incredibly grateful for that.”
Although the process of watching hundreds of adventure films to pick the final lineup was sometimes bittersweet, Harris found it helped more than hurt.
“It’s been really nice to focus on something external,” he said. “I feel like if I start comparing myself to other people, there’s not shortage of opportunity to do that.”
Meanwhile, he continues to make progress. He did some light skiing this winter, until he got a hairline fracture skinning up Sunlight. Now mostly recovered from that injury, he recently bought a new mountain bike and has made some spring trips to the canyon country.
“I feel like as soon as I stop pushing myself I’ll stop recovering, but I’m to be intentional about the risks I take,” he said. “It’s also not sustainable to keep breaking things.”
There are those who express surprise at his eagerness to return to the kind of activities that caused his accident in the first place, but Harris doesn’t see a lesson in the incident.
“I feel like people like to dismiss it as a product of a dangerous lifestyle, but it’s a rationalization. The majority of spine injuries in the U.S. are from auto accidents,” he said.
“One of the downsides of adventure filmmaking is that it’s really hard to show the risk analysis that goes into some of those extreme sports. The reason there’s not more accidents is that it’s more calculated than it comes across. There’s a lot of being aware of your situation and assessing it and making decisions to mitigate the hazard. I had a 99.99 percent safety record but that .01 percent sure caught up with me.”