CANMORE - Laying in a Japanese hospital bed, thousands of kilometres away from home, Cole Richardson’s life almost ended after a trick gone wrong on a ski trip.
The skilled freeride skier from Canmore landed in a large indent, which launched him into a tomahawk that abruptly stopped after he slammed into a tree, resulting in multiple life-threatening injuries.
“We had to give consent to the surgeons to do emergency surgery, which we gave, and then we were getting on the first available flight, and to be honest, it was scary,” said Richardson's father, Grant.
“We didn’t know if he was going to live or die.”
The 21 year-old skier was in bad shape in January of this year and had suffered from internal bleeding – the result of multiple lacerations to the liver and pancreas – and a shattered elbow, requiring eight screws and a plate to heal.
With additional nerve damage to his shoulders, resulting in him being unable to lift his arms, Richardson was glued to a hospital bed in a foreign country hooked into nine tubes feeding him and keeping him alive.
“It was like three months of not being able to move either my arms at all,” said Richardson. “They sent me to all these physios to try and move my arms and I was in extreme pain.”
The skier was told he was on a lengthy road to recovery, which was a dagger to the athlete, as neurologists and doctors couldn’t initially figure out why his arms weren’t working.
“They were just like straight up, ‘yeah, it’s gonna take like probably minimum three years, but could take eight years,’” said Richardson.
The paralysis in his shoulders was eventually determined to be a trauma response due to the shock he endured on that terrible day on a mountain in Japan.
“I was like, ‘if I can't move my arms, I definitely can’t be a professional skier.’ I was instantly trying to pivot and think of what else I’d like to do,” said Richardson.
Grant said his son remained positive and gravitated to other interests during his time in recovery.
“He was very stoic in what the situation was, he was making the most of it and he never let it get him down,” said Grant.
Fortunately for Richardson, his days shredding the mountains weren’t over yet as he began to get his arm movement back after about three months.
“I had the most insane recovery that I’ve ever heard about, and it was like one day woke up and one arm came back, and another day woke up and another arm came back and I started working out really hard in the gym and started getting a bunch of strength back,” said Richardson.
It only took three months before the skier was reunited with the mountains.
“I went heli-skiing here [in the Canadian Rockies] and then went to Europe the next day and went and skied for a month in Europe. … I was thinking I was at least committed to taking like two years off so to be back skiing three months later, it was insane,” Richardson said.
Growing up in ‘the centre of outdoor sports’
Richardson grew up in Canmore, with Lake Louise being his home mountain where he began ski racing. However, he knew that competitive racing wasn’t his goal.
“We live in the centre of outdoor sports,” said Richardson. “I’ve been travelling a ton and like there's no mountains like there is in Canmore, so [I’m] definitely thankful to grow up here.”
Coming from a competitive ski family, with both parents being racers, and his younger sister, Britt is currently on the alpine world cup tour, skiing was always in the plan for Richardson.
“[Cole] just said that at a young age, ‘I want to be a big mountain skier’ and he never wavered from that,” said Grant.
Living in the mountain town and seeing local freeride legends such as Chris Rubens and Eric Hjorleifson, the young Canmore skier wanted to follow in their footsteps.
“[I thought] if I ski race a bit around here, I could probably follow the same path as them,” said Richardson.
Richardson joined the Lake Louise big mountain program and eventually a slopestyle team at WinSport Canada Olympic Park, but he has since branched out to carve his own unique style.
“I was going back and forth to Calgary every day after school and training there,” said Richardson. “Once I graduated, I just decided to put it all into skiing.”
At 17, he won the Quicksilver Young Guns competition, which started on Instagram by freestyle ski icon Sammy Carlson and the Newschoolers, who would go through more than 1,000 video edits of ski tricks, which was then followed by a public vote of the top eight. Richardson pulled through earning him a spot in the finals, which took him and three others to Revelstoke to show off their best stuff for five days in front of the judges.
“I won that, which was definitely the biggest thing that kind of gave me a bit more exposure,” Richardson said. “[From there], I was just slowly starting to work my way into the film companies.”
Bigger opportunities and sponsors came knocking for the local skier and allowed him to pursue skiing full-time.
“I think really once I started filming for like movie companies like Matchstick Productions and Blank Collective … then a little bit more funding came with that to allow me to put the work away and put down the sledgehammers and stop the construction jobs,” said Richardson.
Richardson is featured in The Stomping Grounds, Anywhere From Here, Follow The Forecast and Yours Truly, a solo video with one of his sponsors, Arc’teryx. Along with filming for large ski productions, he’s been filming videos alongside his best friend and fellow skier, Reid Ferguson.
Ferguson and Richardson are third generation friends as their grandparents were friends in university as well as their parents.
“We just get to travel the world and film. It’s so much fun,” said Richardson.
Ferguson said that he originally picked up the camera for fun, but it has since evolved to the point where he’s able to do it full-time.
“The only reason why I'm able to do it right now, why I can actually film full-time is because of Cole,” he said.
Along with capturing big shots with his bud, Ferguson has filmed with pro skiers like Jesper Tjäder, Max Moffat and more. He was also filming for Yours Truly with CK9 Studios.
Moving forward, Richardson will be working on projects with sponsors and filming throughout the season.
“[I] got a lot of projects in the line and now it's just figuring out how I'm gonna find the time to do it all,” said Richardson.
He also released a pro model ski, the Oblivion, with Head.
“Which is so cool to be riding for them since I was 13. They haven't released a pro model in like 20 years,” said Richardson.