Impaired skiers and guides for Ski for Light

Rocky mountain high

impaired skiers

Photo courtesy of Ski for Light
Nancy McKinney Milsteadt and Marie Huston guide Jennifer Fitz-Roy of Boston, Mass., in sit ski across the finish line in third place in the Olav Pedersen 5-km Mobility Impaired race.

Andrea Goddard
Ski for Light

Nestled high up in the Colorado Rockies, the YMCA’s Snow Mountain Ranch at Winter Park in Granby, Colo., made the perfect place for the 44th annual gathering of Ski for Light Jan. 27 through Feb. 3.

A whopping 271 skiers, guides, and non-skiing volunteers descended on the resort for what many call “the experience of a lifetime.” Some came with dog guides or white canes, some came in wheelchairs, some came nervous at the prospect of skiing or of guiding a mobility impaired or blind skier for the first time. Everyone came with a spirit of adventure that brought people from places as close as Winter Park, and from as far away as China and Norway. Whether the week felt like coming home or like getting away in the best possible sense, it promised camaraderie, fun, and learning for all.

Veteran blind skier (VIP for “visually impaired participant” in SFL lingo) Peter Slatin, from New York City, says the event was: “yet another special week for me. That can be a hard trick, because I first attended Ski for Light in 1997 and have missed only four weeks since. Not only was it wonderful to see old friends and make new ones, but the ski conditions and the trails themselves were beautiful, and the grooming of the tracks was superb. The trails were breathtaking, but it is also the warm and welcoming staff that cements the experience for me each time.”

impaired skiers

Photo courtesy of Ski for Light
Photo courtesy of Ski for Light
Guide Leslie Maclin (left) celebrates with Peter Slatin of New York City after the Olav Pedersen 10-km Male Totally Blind, ages 56+ race.

I asked Slatin if he recalled his original motivation to attend in 1997. His response captured the sentiments of many first-timers: “A chance to spend a week with a whole lot of blind people I had never met, in a place I had never been, doing something I had never done before, and knew nothing about! I knew I would come away with a fresh perspective on blindness and the world and my place in it. I knew I would meet people from whom I could learn something new and exciting.”

At an elevation of 8,700 feet, the resort has been a favorite venue for 11 of SFL’s ski weeks, not just because of the near certainty of abundant, fresh powder, but because there really is something magical—and initially rather exhausting—about skiing at altitude in the Rockies. Of course, there was no need to wait until our skis were pushing powder to get invigorated. Walking or taking the resort’s shuttle to the dining commons each morning did the job nicely, as early daytime temperatures were often in the single digits!

Along with the need for our guides to tell us about upcoming turns in the trail and changes in terrain, they also had to be alert for up-close moose sightings. The large mammals were roaming around, so excitement and caution were both in the air. In a Jan. 26 article in the Sky-Hi News, blind skier Melinda Hollands described how her guide “showed me tracks in the snow where there had been a moose, so I got off the trail and knelt down to feel how big they were. That’s stuff that we might miss otherwise.”

I was living and laughing it up in my sit ski with my two guides one day, when we had to curtail our afternoon ski about halfway down the 5-km trail, because several moose were ahead on the tracks and weren’t showing signs of going anywhere fast!

The days were full of exertion and laughter and shouted greetings as we passed one another on the trails, and the evenings were filled with dances, good-natured bidding wars at our annual silent auction, and special-interest sessions led by those who wished to share everything from ski-waxing tips to mindfulness meditation. Slatin remembers: “It was also really special to participate in a popular Trivia Night (the first I remember at SFL). A longtime guide clearly spent long hours coming up with a remarkable array of challenging questions. He was rewarded with a full house and plenty of friendly discussion about the correct answers.”

We were also treated to evenings of heartwarming music as many of us gathered to fill the lobby of one of the lodging facilities we occupied with the euphony of many voices raised in song, weaving harmonies around the familiar strains of “Michael Row the Boat Ashore,” “Here Comes the Sun,” and more timeless favorites.

Along with the chance to ski and to shoot an audio-guided laser rifle, a “first” happened the day before the culminating race—a 5-km guide race. Slatin observed: “This informal contest saw some guides push themselves and others hang back, participating not to win, but just to show that they could, like what happens during our race/rally. I’d say that a larger percentage of skiers tend to do their level best on that day, including some skiers who have to work hard not to leave their guides in the dust!”

impaired skiers

Photo courtesy of Ski for Light
Harald Vik, 75, came from Norway to participate in Ski for Light. He was fourth, with guide Ivar Wigard, in the Olav Pedersen 5-km Male Totally Blind age 59+ race to culminate the week.

Race day brimmed with its typical excitement, and it found yours truly in brand-new ski pants and jacket, allowing for notably more freedom of movement in my sit ski than I’d ever experienced wearing my more constricting bibs. In the effort to capture the thrill that pervades this Olav Pedersen Race/Rally, Slatin sums it up well: “I am always surprised that a course that takes forever to complete during the week suddenly is finished all too soon during the race. It doesn’t really matter that I can barely breathe at this point—the sense of achievement and pride I feel on being welcomed by cowbells, shouts, and hugs inevitably brings me to tears. Of course, these are tears of joy, but also of wonder at my great fortune at being part of this group.”

On departure day, I boarded the bus for the two-and-a-half-hour ride down the mountain to the Denver airport. The night before, I’d rocked out on the dance floor with a hired band and spent precious time with my guides. Now, as we pulled away from Snow Mountain Ranch, the strains of a John Denver classic reached my ears. My guide had pulled up the song on her phone, as she knew I’d been hoping to hear it. “The Colorado Rocky Mountain high, I’ve seen it rainin’ fire in the sky.” I sang along quietly with a lump in my throat. Someday, I thought, when all that is left is love and memories, it is these shining moments that I will carry with me.

Sons of Norway has been a key supporter of Ski for Light financially, in people power, and logistically. If you’d like to be part of our next annual skiing adventure slated for Casper, Wyo., in 2020, SFL is always seeking intermediate/advanced cross-country skiers to join as guides. If you have a love of the sport and a passion for coaching, and if you’re curious to see how life-changing a single week can be, visit www.sfl.org.

This article originally appeared in the March 8, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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