Jim Harris: from Mountain Peaks to Hospital Beds

Story by: Monique Morrison

Imagine spending everyday of your entire life doing the one thing that you love most. Then, when you set out to accomplish one of the most exciting adventures of your career everything gets wiped away from you in a matter of seconds. This is essentially what happened to Jim Harris.

Harris is a professional photographer, a mountaineer, an educator and an all-around outdoor enthusiast. He has shot expeditions everywhere from the mountains in Alaska to the Himalayas, has worked for for National Geographic and has been on the cover of Powder magazine. He started as a mountain guide, taking people on tours through some of the most extreme regions in North America. At first, photography was just a hobby, but with the creation of his blog “Perpetual Weekend”, his photos gained immense popularity.

Perhaps Harris’ most challenging and memorable expedition yet was in November 2014, when he and two other men set off on a 30-day journey through the ice caps of Patagonia, Chile. The trip was sponsored by Polartec, a fabric manufacturer, who asked Harris to test out their new outerwear, while skiing and rafting.

Just before the expedition, Harris was testing out the kite that would help him traverse this 330-mile journey. As soon as he clipped into the kite, a sudden gust of wind scooped him up and launched his body about three feet. After slamming into the ground and bouncing a few times Harris was knocked out. When he came to he quickly realized he had no feeling in his legs and was paralyzed from the waist down.

Discouraged and disoriented, Harris’ expedition crew rushed for help. A few days after the accident, he was flown to the University of Cincinnati Medical Center where his broken back and neck were operated on.

After the operation it was still unclear whether Harris would ever gain his mobility back; he just had to wait and see if his nerves would start firing again It wasn’t until a month after surgery he saw his first glimmer hope. Harris remembers sitting in his hospital bed, mentally screaming at his legs to move when finally his big toe bent about one centimeter. This was his first sign of recovery, and after that everything began to go uphill.

Harris says “the loss of being able to use my body in the way I used to still feels like its temporary,” — and sure enough, it is. Today, about one year and four months after the accident, Harris is back on skis, riding mountain bikes and going for trail-runs. So how did he get here?

Harris was in the hospital for a total of seven months, and bedridden for five months before he was able to walk again. Prior to the accident Harris spent about three months a year travelling and shooting expeditions, so being pent up in a hospital was quite a different experience.

However, Harris says he is treating his recovery like he would any expedition — he sets goals, looks to the future with hope and views obstacles as opportunities for progress.

Exactly one year after his accident, Harris was back on the ski slopes. At first he was confined to the bunny hills but everyday saw major progress. He looked to the outdoors as an opportunity for recovery and soon began cross-country skiing. He would time himself going up the mountain as a way to measure progress and was improving his time by 15 seconds each week.

Though Harris is back in the mountains and gaining mobility he knows he is not as strong as he used to be. He says that even if he isn’t ever the athlete that he once was, being able to go outside and reconnect with everything he loves is enough to make him happy.

In hindsight, Harris still doesn’t know why he, of all the people who suffer spinal injuries, was able to gain his mobility back. But he looks at this as accident not as something to be mourned, but as another adventure. Health is now the focus of his journey and healing gives him something more to work towards.