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Some say that life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react to it.
Sure, it’s become a cliché, but when it comes to Pierre Bergman, it’s also 100% true.
“You’re grateful for the things you can do,” Bergman said, sitting in his adapted mountain bike on a recent Thursday at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. “You try not to focus on the things you can’t do. This kind of gets you nowhere. I tell people, ‘I’m doing exactly what I was doing before the injury.’ I operate a [snow]cat in winter. I build bike paths in the summer. I cycle and ski.
The 30-year-old resort worker returned to work last winter after a life-changing spinal cord injury on June 15, 2020, while mountain biking over Teton Pass. Bergman suffered a “clean dislocation” of the T7 and T8 vertebrae in his thoracic spine, causing paralysis below the waist.
“One of my goals was to bring Pierre back,” said Ranyon d’Arge, the resort’s mountain design manager, who hired Bergman a few years ago as part of the track team at the station. “People were like, ‘Don’t hope. We never had a para[plegic] cat operator,” d’Arge said, referring to the Prinoth Bison X snow groomer that Bergman uses in the winter.
But Bergman isn’t just mountain biking anymore, he’s racing. He finished second in the adaptive downhill at the Sea Otter Classic in Monterey, Calif., in April on the one-mile-long black diamond course. On Friday, he’ll head out to the prestigious Crankworx Whistler Mountain Bike Festival at Whistler Bike Park in British Columbia, where he’ll compete in the dual slalom event early next week.
“I think I can win,” Bergman said.
Pierre Bergman was born in the south of France, in the port city of Marseille, in 1992.
His family moved to San Diego when he was around 18 months old. But he didn’t grow up surfing: “I didn’t like the water,” he laughs.
While on a family vacation in France, he learned to ski with cousins when he was around 10 years old.
“I was the worst by far,” he said.
He didn’t ski again until he was in high school, when he rode Big Bear Mountain Resort, east of Los Angeles. This is where Bergman discovered snowboarding, “and I got pretty good at it.”
He moved to Dallas to work after high school, and in his early twenties accepted an offer from his younger brother, Max, to ski and snowboard in Aspen, Colorado and Jackson Hole.
On the way back to the Denver airport, Bergman thought to himself, “I could ski every day.
Her mother’s boyfriend at the time had a house in Jackson Hole, and Bergman contacted him to find accommodation.
“I was in it,” he recalls.
Bergman got a job as a chairlift operator and worked at the station ticket office. During the summer he hired the bike park team and began his working relationship with d’Arge in the summer of 2019.
Bergman’s passion for mountain biking then caught fire. He first rode a mountain bike when he was around 18, but having access to Jackson Hole Bike Park every day was too tempting. He bought a used bike from the Hub. He started riding after work with colleagues, developing a love for speed and the thrill of the sport.
“I started getting better and better,” he said.
Sometimes after work, instead of riding the bike park, the team would head to Teton Pass and ride some of the tougher trails.
It was during his second summer working for the bike park team that this happened.
It was a perfect day for riding. The high temperature on that June day was 67 degrees in Jackson Hole.
Bergman and a few others headed to Old Pass Road near Wilson, then onto Fuzzy Bunny, an expert-only trail on the south side of Highway 22. Bergman had hiked the trail a few times. It’s raw, full of turns and plenty of opportunities to get some fresh air.
“When I saw it coming, I was like, ‘Oh, no, no, no…'” Bergman recalled. “I just thought I was going to throw the bike away and clumsily run away. It was very weird the way it happened. I still don’t understand why I endured the way I did.
In mountain biking parlance, “endo” means turning the handlebars around.
Bergman had come a “gap jump” into the track. It was maybe 20 to 25 feet long. He was wearing all the usual protective gear, full face helmet, neck brace, “the whole thing”, he said.
He never lost consciousness. Part of him wishes he had. The pain was excruciating. He immediately knew something was wrong.
“You try to pull yourself together, and you can’t move certain things.” says Bergman. “My back hurt so badly. It was the biggest pain I’ve ever felt.
One of his colleagues was there, telling him not to move or to take off his helmet.
“And I’m writhing in pain,” Bergman said.
He not only took off his helmet, he collapsed like a fish out of water. Anything to try to dull the incredible pain.
Someone called 911. He doesn’t remember who. Maybe it was a biker with another group. They came quickly – doctors from Jackson Hole Fire/EMS and Teton County Search and Rescue rushed him to St. John’s Health in Jackson. They had an MRI. It didn’t look good. He had to go to Idaho Falls. They could do surgery there. A medical helicopter transported him.
The emergency operation took place in the middle of the night.
His girlfriend, May Gezzi of Jackson, was there. His mother, Ahita, is from Colorado and his father, Philippe, is from California. A close friend created a GoFundMe page. He raised around $120,000. And his health insurance through BlueCross BlueShield of Wyoming covered almost 100% of his medical expenses.
“It could have been worse, that’s for sure,” Bergman said. He could have been a quadriplegic. “It was just, like, a clean dislocation” of the T7 and T8 vertebrae. “We are almost sure [the spinal cord] is sectioned, but you can’t tell that in SCI [spinal-cord injury] community because you don’t know. Severed spinal cords are extremely rare.
But there wasn’t much for him to do at the Eastern Idaho Regional Medical Center beyond surgery. After 10 days, Bergman was transferred to Craig Hospital in Denver, a world-renowned rehabilitation hospital. He will stay there for 40 days. Gezzi moved to Denver.
Bergman proposed on the bridge of a hospital room, his physical therapist clinging to him for support.
She said yes. They plan to marry in 2023.
They stayed in Denver, where Bergman’s mother and brother live, for more than a year. They have an apartment downtown. She went to school to become a hairdresser.
But learning to live without the use of his legs before his 30th birthday? It seemed unfair. Cruel.
The first time he tried sit-skiing, an activity he has improved at and now enjoys, Bergman thought it would never happen.
“It was super tough,” he said. “My first year was really difficult. I was really wondering if it would be a fun day and if I could do it independently.
But Pierre Bergman had already faced adversity.
News&Guide readers were first introduced to Bergman in January 2019 in an article titled: “Doubtful Survival, Boarder on Hike.”
Snowboarding in Jackson Hole with two buddies on a Thursday afternoon that month, Bergman broke up and found himself alone in the backcountry during a whiteout. He spent 19 hours in 7 degree temperatures and 40 mph winds, digging himself into a snow pit that night before deciding he might freeze to death, then hike until the rescuers found him at 9 a.m.
“I learned a lot of lessons,” he told News&Guide at the time. “The hinterland is an animal. These are not inbounds. I have to be a little more careful there.
But Bergman’s need for adventure would continue. Mountain biking is a dangerous sport. Last month, Teton County Search and Rescue found mountain bikers tied with hikers, at six calls each, for rescue calls this summer. Three of those calls were for injured bikers on Teton Pass, including one on Fuzzy Bunny.
“Helping to shape the future”
Twenty-six months after his accident on Teton Pass, Bergman now helps build and maintain trails at Jackson Hole Bike Park, including those that opened last summer, like Deepest Darkest and Dirty Hairy. Both trails have warning signs about the inherent risks of downhill mountain biking, but the park builds trails for families and guests of all skill levels, including beginners and adaptive riders, and you won’t find any jumps like the one Bergman got injured on, said Eric Seymour, the station’s director of communications and brand content.
Bergman recently noticed that some of the bike park trails had bridges that were too narrow, making them less safe. So he worked all summer to enlarge them.
“I’m personally thrilled to have him up there doing what he does,” said Bergman’s friend Joe Stone, mission director at Teton Adaptive Sports. “He now has this different lens to look through.”
Stone, 37, knows what it’s like to lose the ability to walk. In 2010, he broke eight vertebrae in his neck and back in a speed-gliding accident in Missoula, Montana. Last year, Stone moved from Montana to Jackson to take up his current position, where he promotes, supports and develops outdoor sports and recreational opportunities for people with disabilities in Teton County.
Bergman and Stone were linked when Bergman was still in Denver.
“I just assured him that if he came back to Jackson he would have fun,” Stone said.
He told Bergman about the High Fives Foundation, a California-based nonprofit that supports injured athletes. Bergman was able to purchase an $18,000 adaptive electric mountain bike from Bowhead largely through grants provided by High Fives.
Bergman reminds d’Arge of Trevor Kennison, an adaptive skier who was crippled in 2014 while snowboarding in Colorado. Kennison, who jumped from the Corbet lane in 2019, became the first adapted athlete to jump from the Big Air jump at last winter’s X Games in Aspen.
“It’s been huge for his confidence and everything,” d’Arge said of Bergman’s success in adaptive mountain biking and returning to work to help create new opportunities for adaptive athletes like himself. “I’m so proud of him. He really opened up my experience to a lot of things.
Added Stone, who is also an adapted mountain bike racer: “Representing adapted athletes is really important to us, and so they’re thrilled to have him there. [racing]. Whether he realizes it or not, he is helping shape the future of adaptive mountain biking.
“It could have been worse, that’s for sure.” —Pierre Bergman talks about his accident
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