November 29, 2021

Greek Peak Adaptive Snowsports

Getting people with disabilities on the mountain

Katie Keyser/living and leisure editor

David Ayers of Newark Valley, left, a blind skier, with his instructor, Mark Friebel of Conklin, on Jan. 18 in the Greek Peak Adaptive Snowsports building. The two have been skiing together for 25 years.

David Ayers said yes, he has a “little issue” with his ability to see.

“I don’t have any eyesight — that’s an issue,” said the Newark Valley man.

But that doesn’t stop the computer programmer from downhill skiing. In fact he’s been skiing blind for 25 years, through the Greek Peak Adaptive Snowsports program in Virgil.

“Do we see it as an issue?” said his coach, Mark Friebel of Conklin, a Tompkins County environmental health and safety coordinator. “Not here.”

The two marveled at skiing that long together, as they prepped to go out of the club house on a 10-degree day Jan. 18.

“Wow,” Ayers said. “We say that, too.”

“We haven’t killed each other either,” said the Ayers, 51, who works for Tioga County.

The Greek Peak Adaptive Snowsports program has worked since 1974 to get people with disabilities out on the slopes. Volunteers are trained, 12 hours a season, and teach blind skiers, paraplegics, quadriplegics, amputees, people with autism and Down syndrome how to ski.

The program began in January and will run weekends through mid-March.

“I have two skis, two poles, what the normal person has,” Ayers said. “I ski normally, but someone skies behind me, usually Mark, who gets me down the hill, ‘left turn, right turn.’”

“When we get to the bottom, I take his arm and we ski up to the ski lift. They get you lined up … get you where you are supposed to be. They count down, ‘three, two, one — sit.’” Ayers said. “I have been doing it so long, we forget that step and I just sit.”

The pair use motorcycle radios in their helmets to communicate.

Aaron Baier, executive director at Access to Independence of Cortland County, participated in a snow program years ago, 2001-2002.

“I went on a group training with a blind youth group,” said Baier, who is legally blind. “I tried snowboarding then.”

At that point, they used beepers and the sighted skier/snowboarder would emit beeps and the blind person would follow the sound.

“I wasn’t good at it,” he said. But one of his classmates, who had no sight at all, loved it.

“Skiing, snowboarding, whatever your recreation activity is, there are ways to do it. You have to be creative and find ways to do the things you like to do,” Baier said.

Friebel said his top priority is Ayers’ safety. He keeps Ayers in the center of the trail with few people around them.

The two have had potential accidents through the years, but assess the situation so they don’t encounter it again, Friebel said.

The 12 hours of volunteer training is a minimum, said Ronnie Wade of Virgil, who is looking at her third year as a volunteer. She put in a year at Arise and Ski at Toggenburg, which also has an adaptive ski program.

When volunteers are plentiful, there are clinics through the season: loading and unloading of mono and bi skis, stand-up/sit-down, tethering and more, Wade said.

She loves the program. “Prepare to be amazed,” she said.

“No one lands here,” said Kristy Gault, president of the board of directors for the program. Having a disability gets a person in the door, but then it’s a matter of learning to ski.

“We have about 110 volunteers. We are probably at about 50 participants,” Gault said.

Participants need their doctor’s approval to participate. Details and forms can be found at gpadaptive.org.

Organizers need to know what the disability is, when skiers are coming so they can prepare equipment, like a mono ski for amputees, for instance. Skiers are matched with coaches.

Participants pay a day pass of $65 that includes the lift ticket, coaching and rentals. Volunteers get a break on passes.

Kalindi Naslund, 27, of Binghamton has been a volunteer instructor for 14 years. “I started this when I was pretty young. I learned to ski on one leg to help an amputee.”

She said if she ever acquired a disability: “I would be able to do things. It’s given me perspective.”

Kelly Chapman of Cortlandville, has been a volunteer trainer for five years.

“I was here showing my friend how to ski. I saw a blind snowboarder go out with her trainer. I thought it was amazing.”

She joined the program and accompanied a trainer to a Special Olympics. She saw how it made people light up. “Getting autistic kids, getting them to smile!” Chapman said.

She refers people to the program all the time and 99 percent of the people “don’t know we exist.” Most come from Broome and Tompkins counties, she said.

Robyn King of Norwich, an adaptive instructor, focuses on amputees. She skis on one ski and is looking for amputees to work with. She’s had all ages, as old as 71, when a fellow came 125 miles from Rochester to ski.

Katie Keyser/living and leisure editor

Kevin King’s life took a dramatic turn when he started skiing in the Greek Peak Adaptive Snowsports Program.

“In 2000, my oldest son was hit by a car at 14. He lost his left leg. He went from an outgoing, extroverted kid to a couch potato,” she said. “He thought he was a cripple.”

She remembers skiing at Greek Peak in 1986, and remembers seeing the adaptive ski program. She brought her son to the program on a freezing cold day in January.

“He met ‘One-Legged John’ — that’s what everyone called him. He’s passed away,” she said.

One-Legged John, John Solowiej, worked with her son. She saw him fall, stand up, fall, stand up. He came back into the lodge sweating.

“It’s the first time I saw him smile in a long time,” King said.

Solowiej wanted her son to take part in the Winter Park Colorado’s Disabled Racing Team. He did. Within two years, he was No. 2 in the country at the junior level for downhill skiing, she said.

That first day in the Greek Peak Adaptive Snowsports program was pivotal.

“It was a flip of a light switch,” King said. “He never looked back.”

Michelle Woods of Owego is mom of Ryan, 9, who has cerebral palsy and uses a walker. But he skis.

Katie Keyser/living and leisure editor

Instructors, from left, Rachel Baker, Tommy Sorber and Michael Roden with Ryan Woods who is using a “slider” to help him ski at the Greek Peak Adaptive Snowsports Program in Virgil this month.

“This is our second year,” she said. “He was able to support muscles independently for five seconds last week.”

The program is amazing, she said. “Any time I ask a question about how they will achieve a goal, I am confident with their answer.”

Her son eagerly waits for the ski season and uses the slider to go downhill, strapped into a brace upright with skis attached.

He came back into the lodge after a session outdoors.

“I thought I did pretty good,” he said.“It’s sort of weird getting down hill. I like it.”

His favorite part: “Going fast.”