It was almost fourteen years ago that I recognized I needed an excuse to get to the mountain.  The kids had outgrown skiing with dad, and my wife never took to the sport.  It would be far too easy to look out the window on a Saturday morning, decide it was too cold, too gray or not enough snow, and roll over and go back to sleep.  Nobody was pulling on me to get up and drive to the slopes.  But, it was at that point I made one of the very best decisions of my life – participating in Vermont Adaptive (VASS), assisting on the slopes of Sugarbush.

Over the years as a volunteer lead instructor and trainer for VASS,  I’ve had the opportunity to play with a spectrum of persons with disabilities and special challenges – Downs syndrome athletes, autistic skiers, amputees, Wounded Warriors, sight and/or hearing-impaired persons, wheelchair bound folks, traumatic brain injured adults, behavioral challenged high school students, persons with Cerebral Palsy…you get the picture. And I don’t do this alone. The program has some of the finest people I’ve ever had the pleasure to be around – other volunteers, the staff, the care givers, and the keepers of Sugarbush, right down to the lifties.

Each day that I get to spend with VASS clients teaches me something new.  There has not been a single time that I haven’t slid off my ski boots, sat back on the bench and just soaked it all in—with the biggest damn smile on my face.  There is no greater satisfaction for me than being with a person who is challenged by disabilities, and getting to experience that those issues magically disappear when we’re on the mountain together.  People constantly tell me what a great thing it is that I do.  But I immediately turn that around and say, “No.  In fact it is totally self-serving.  I get more out of this program than the people I am with riding down the slopes.”

I could share endless stories about the people I’ve grown to know and love through VASS.  One story I regularly tell pertains to a group of about 30 kids from “Kids of Courage” a non-profit organization that “specializes in medically supervised trips for children and young adults with serious medical diagnoses.” The January day they came to Mount Ellen (aka Sugarbush North; aka Glen Ellen) was a somewhat typical gray day, albeit with fresh snow, and a high temperature of 15 degrees…if that. 

My charge was to work with two other instructors (VASS never goes out without a minimum of two volunteers) on getting a quadriplegic out on the hill.  To further increase the challenge, this young man was essentially on a ventilator 24/7.  Because his disability prevented him from recognizing the cold, we wrapped our excited friend in two down-filled sleeping bags. From there, we proceeded to duct tape (you will start to see a theme here) practically every inch of his body to his sit-ski, from his helmet to his feet. Perhaps the most duct tape was used to secure his ventilator to his chest.  Despite all this, his attitude was off the charts.  He told us he’d done this once before in his life, and he wanted to go down “black diamond” trails.  This is not a feat we would typically try on any VASS lesson, nonetheless with a quadriplegic!

We succeeded in getting our student on and off the lift without a hitch, and we made one run down a novice slope so that all four of us could get accustomed to one another.  Considering how long this process took and the air temperature, we decided to go in to make certain that our student’s body was not too cold.  After a significant break,  we realized we’d only have time for one more run, given the amount of time it took to get our student in and out of the sit-ski.

After taking the lift to the top of Mount Ellen, the lead instructor decided he’d really give this young man a ride to remember.  Speeding down the mountain, he steered the ski around and over moguls, catching a good foot or two of air on many. Our rider was having the time of his life. That is until we careened over one very large mogul, and I noticed that a light was blinking on his ventilator.  The impact of the landing and the incredibly chilly air had cracked the plastic windpipe that went from the ventilator to our student!  

As fate would have, and to Sugarbush’s incredible credit, there were loads of ski patrol on the hill that day—all of whom carry…DUCT TAPE!  There were two such pros standing only about fifty yards from our spot on the side of the slope. Each came over well equipped.  We taped the windpipe with more duct tape so that we could make it safely down the hill.  The entire time our student was smiling and laughing and at one point “assured us” that he could easily survive a good 30 minutes without the ventilator (which was not exactly what I wanted to hear!).  We made it down the mountain, all of us completely wiped out, and enjoyed some great laughter in the lodge while we unstrapped our incredible athlete.  He vowed that he’d be back again in the future and that he wanted all three of us to be his team. 

Most lessons are not quite that exciting but all have their unique stories. There is, however, one common theme.  The opportunity to be on the hill helping people of all kinds, ages, shapes, colors, challenges, etc., is one that cannot be duplicated.  The sheer thrill of watching a parent break into tears when their autistic son thrusts his arms above his head in triumph, or watching an incredible young woman who slowly lost the use of her legs through a birth defect master a sit-ski and fly down a black diamond with the best of them, or to communicate with a deaf man merely via smiles and laughter—that is why I cannot wait to get out of bed in the morning and race to the mountain.  Who cares what the skies look like, what the temperature is, or if there is new snow?  We ADAPT.  And that has made it so incredibly worthwhile (and, yes, I now do carry duct tape with me regularly).

Vermont Adaptive Ski & Sports is the largest non-profit in the state of Vermont to provide year-round adaptive sports and recreation to people of all (dis)abilities – physical, cognitive, behavioral, and developmental. For more information – Vermont Adaptive

Tony is a flatlander who moved to Vermont to attend the University of Vermont in 1971 and has never left!  He is a lover of the outdoors and an avid skier in the winter and kayaker in the other 6 months and has been volunteering at Vermont Adaptive Ski & Sports for 14 years.