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Injured boarder still can groom

It would take more than a broken leg to keep Kevin Schilling away from Mount Ashland.

Things were going great for Schilling at mid-winter. He'd been hired to drive one of the grooming machines at the ski area. He'd work all night, shaping and smoothing the trails for skiers and snowboarders, and when his work was done, he'd grab his snowboard and head for the slopes. It was almost like getting paid to play.

"I was definitely happy," he recalls. "I had no problem falling asleep after working all night and boarding in the morning."

One day the ski area lost power when a falling tree came down across a transmission line. With an extra day off, Schilling and some friends loaded their snowboards and headed for Mount Shasta.

"I went for the normal tricks I do," he recalls. "I'd just landed a couple of backside 540s (one and a half turns in the air). I went back for a seven (two full turns) but I overshot the landing. I landed flat and snapped my fibula (the smaller of the two lower-leg bones).

"I've broken enough bones I could tell something was majorly wrong," he says. "I knew I was in deep trouble."

The good news was that he could still drive the groomer. The bad news was that he had to hang up his snowboard while the bone knitted, and he's been suffering from major withdrawal ever since the accident.

"I figure it's in my best interest to let it heal completely," he says, "but it's almost torture being an injured groomer who snowboards. It tests your patience."

Even though he can't ride theses days, Schilling has stayed active in Mount Ashland's snowboard community. He's served as announcer for snowboard events, and helped organize high-school competitions.

"I brought a lawn chair up and watched kids ride for hours," he says. "It's definitely better than feeling sorry for myself."

He's also been working in the ski area's shop, welding new features for the terrain park and building a starting gate for boardercross, an event where snowboarders race downslope against each other.

"It keeps me on the mountain so I'm not so bummed out," he says.

Schilling has been a familiar face on the mountain for nearly half his 20 years. He started snowboarding in fifth grade.

"I just got into it," he says. "A family friend convinced me to go up, and I was hooked after that. I borrowed money and worked for my dad to get money to go up there.

"I think what drew me to it was the rate you can progress," he says "By the third time I was up there, I started jumping and trying to do tricks."

He signed up for all the volunteer programs the ski area offers to local kids. One summer he enrolled in the youth summer service program, where middle-school kids work on erosion control projects and learn about the alpine environment while they earn $100 credit toward a season pass.

Later he joined the 7,500 Foot Crew, a work-experience program for youths ages 14 to 18. Kids who are selected work on Saturday or Sunday mornings, and then ski or snowboard in the afternoon. Most days, Schilling hung around the terrain park, an area set aside for snowboarders to practice spins and jumps and ride down slender steel rails.

He worked part-time through high school, and joined the terrain park crew last winter. Along the way, he started riding with the groomer operators at night to give them a snowboarder's perspective on how to manage the snow. In the off-season he worked with a logging outfit, getting experience operating heavy equipment.

Last fall he decided he was ready to try for a job as a groomer. His years of experience finally paid off.

"Since I'd come up as a volunteer and watched how everything worked, I had a little better perspective than anyone else who applied," he says.

Schilling spends his nights steering a quarter-million-dollar piece of machinery up and down the ski trails in every kind of weather. Groomers work at night to produce a fresh, smooth, uniform surface for the next day's skiers and boarders. The machines chew up the snow, then compress it into a regular surface with shallow ridges, known as "corduroy" because of its resemblance to the fabric of the same name.

"It can get pretty hairy in whiteout conditions," he says. "You learn where obstacles are and where you can turn around."

John Heinz, who manages the ski area's grooming program, says he likes to hire younger groomers like Schilling.

"He's not the first one I've hired," Heinz says. "It's good to catch them early so they don't have any bad habits. We can mold them into what we want them to be."

Schilling says he's just happy to be on the mountain, even with a broken leg. "I'm really thankful they can trust me with their equipment."

Bill Kettler is a freelance writer living in Rogue River. Reach him at bdkettler@gmail.com.

Kevin Schilling drives a groomer at Mt. Ashland Ski Area as he waits for a broken leg to heal. - Photo courtesy of Mt. Ashland