SANTA FE, N.M. — It’s been more than a decade since the sparkling life of Tessa Horan was snuffed out at the untimely age of 24 when a tiger shark ripped off her leg in the South Pacific waters off a beach on a Tonga archipelago, where she was a Peace Corps volunteer.
But her memory still looms large for those who knew her and have felt compelled to honor her life’s work with ongoing charitable events in her name.
On Saturday, the 10th annual Tessa’s Ascension will again celebrate the things she loved, said Cody Sheppard, the Ski Patrol director at Ski Santa Fe, where the competition will be held.
“The idea was to reflect the things that she found important in life,” Sheppard said. “She really wanted to help people. This combined the sporting end of things that she loved to do with the ability to raise money for a good cause.”
After graduating from high school in Santa Fe, Horan became an EMT and joined the ski patrol, re-acquainting herself with Sheppard, who had gotten to know her as a youngster on the local ski teams.
“I’ve been ski patrol director at the ski area for 30-some years,” he said. “She was on the ski race team up there. You get to know all the kids coming up.”
The acquaintance grew into much more as Horan went to work with Sheppard’s wife in her business. Then they started going on adventures together: rock climbing, triathlons, sailing.
Meanwhile, Horan earned a bachelor of arts degree from the College of Santa Fe in elementary education in 2003 and worked as a substitute for Santa Fe Public Schools for two years.
Feeling compelled to do more, Horan joined the Peace Corps and headed off to Tonga to teach and help the impoverished residents of that island nation.
Shortly before she was mauled, she had expressed to her friends in New Mexico and Colorado, where she also spent quite a bit of her youth, the need for a library in the area where she worked.
From the idea of helping that seed of an idea germinate into reality, Tessa’s Ascension was born, Sheppard said.
“She wanted to help people in so many ways,” he said. “We thought we would do something in her honor and also reflect some of the things she would like to do.”
It’s a different type of ski event, Sheppard said, in that participants must first climb the ski run with Randonee or Telemark gear with climbing skins, then ski down slalom style. Snowboarders and those on regular downhill Alpine gear can participate by using snowshoes for the uphill segment
“That was something she loved to do: climb the hills,” Sheppard said.
Several years ago, a longer course with two hill climbs sandwiched around a mogul ski and ending with a giant slalom was added, and has proven to be quite popular, particularly with the extreme fitness crowd, he said.
And while the event has grown to the point where a number of the participants do not know Horan, there’s still a core of folks who knew her and participate every year, Sheppard said.
“A lot of these people come back year after year,” he said. “It just kind of keeps it going. They talk up the event and bring a friend. And then they become another regular. It’s just a beautiful event.”
It starts after the ski area has closed to the general public so participants often can enjoy a sunset glow show, Sheppard said.
Also, participants are treated to a dinner provided by the ski area and local restaurants, and top finishers are awarded prizes donated by local sporting goods stores, he said.
But the real winners are the charities the event supports. It took two years to raise the money for the library and, thereafter, funds went to various other causes.
This year, money raised will go to the Cancer Foundation for New Mexico, which helps northern New Mexicans with cancer to access treatments in Santa Fe.
Previous organizations that have benefited include the Central Asia Institute, Warehouse 21, Assistance Dogs of the West and Santa Fe Habitat for Humanity.