Veterans Ski and Ride Day at Gore Mountain
For skiers and snowboarders, the joys of their sport are obvious and unforgettable. It’s not always easy, of course, but they know the experience is worth every obstacle they overcome. So, it’s natural to want to help others conquer the mountain and experience these joys, too.
At the Olympic Authority, we believe skiing and snowboarding are sports that can be enjoyed by everyone. That includes people with disabilities for whom a day on the mountain presents, one might think, insurmountable challenges. But skiing and snowboarding offer a sense of freedom not found in other sports. And that’s why all our mountains – Belleayre, Gore, and Whiteface – offer adaptive programs and specialized equipment to help people with disabilities discover the joys of skiing and snowboarding.
Though our programs are designed for people of all ages and types of disabilities, there is one day at Gore Mountain set aside each year for a particular group. Veterans Ski and Ride Day – held this year on Thursday, March 2nd – is an annual event that brings together disabled people who have served in the military. They come with physical and mental disabilities of all types, including some with multiple or invisible disabilities, such as debilitating pain, fatigue, weakness, cognitive dysfunctions, brain injuries, and more. Some who attend are regular skiers who simply enjoy a day on the mountain with others who understand them, and many others only rarely get a chance to ski and ride or are there for their first time.
“I don’t get here often,” says Tom Nesmith. “Only once a year. This is a special experience. I’ll be traveling up the mountain today,” he says with a big smile on his face. “This is important because the Veterans are my family.”
Like many others attending this day, Tom uses a sit ski, which is a wide alpine monoski and chair paired with what are called outriggers, ski poles with short skis on the end instead of a spike. While someone who’s lost a leg can use a monoski with a ski boot, Tom’s comes with a seat attached at a low center of gravity (a foot or less off the snow) that allows a wheelchair bound person to steer through turns. The seat can elevate when needed to make a transition from the snow onto a chair lift. Sit skis like this can be used by independent skiers without aid, and they may also come equipped with a short handle and straps for skiers who require some assistance on the slopes. Teaching ski techniques and how to use the equipment is all part of the program.
“This is my third time here,” says William Ward. “Today is extra special because I finally got my own ski, so this is a first for me. Watching them put it all together, I can’t wait. It’s going to feel good to be on my own ski.”
Born and raised in Florida, William went most of his life without having ever skied, at least not until he landed in upstate New York. “Once I got started, it was coming out here with all the other Veterans that kept me skiing. My first time I fell down in my sit ski, and along came a Veteran who was blind skiing down the mountain. Someone was in front of him ringing a bell in the direction he needed to ski, and it was right then I said to myself, ‘If that guy can do it, I can do it.’”
Everyone brings different experiences, yet they all come for similar reasons. “Number one, it keeps me from being alone and lonely,” says Layna Roth. She appreciates Veterans Ski and Ride Day because it’s not only for those who are physically disabled but also those with invisible disabilities. “Most of the time I’m home with my cats. Now I get to be out here with people who understand. If I don’t act like everyone else, they get it. They’re good with us.”
Self-proclaimed ski bum Greg Wilk’s been skiing at Gore since 1973 and sees similar benefits. “This means I get out. I don’t have to sit inside with my PTSD. I’m around other Veterans, and there’s just good energy here. I want to say thanks to the Olympic Authority because I have an adaptive pass, and I can ski Gore and Belleayre for free. It’s paradise here, and that’s the only way to describe it. Being up on the mountain where everything is right and everything is beautiful is really positive, and I’m grateful to the Olympic Authority.”
The adaptive pass Greg refers to is for eligible New York State residents with permanent disabilities. The Olympic Authority makes skiing and riding more accessible for people with disabilities by offering complimentary lift tickets and season passes to anyone with a NY Access Pass. Details are available here: https://orda.org/nys-access-pass/
Some, like Jason Pollack, have a little extra incentive to come out and ski. He comes several times a year with his son Colvin, who is a regular. Says Jason, “It’s really rewarding for me. I see him go skiing by himself all the time, and there are only a few opportunities I get to go with him. It’s always great to hear him tell me I’m doing a great job.”
Colvin appreciates it, too. “I get to hang out with my dad and ski with him on the same mountain,” says Colvin. “I think it’s really great. Now we get to ski together at the same level.” Beyond the fun, Colvin is also getting positive learning experiences watching the Gore Mountain adaptive instructors and volunteer support staff helping his dad and others. At 12, he sees the full range of assistance his dad needs to have good, safe, fun skiing, and he’s getting involved in helping. It won’t be long, and Colvin will be leading the way and getting his dad out on the slopes more regularly.
The Veteran Ski and Ride program is an ongoing collaboration between Gore Mountain and the Veterans Administration (VA) Medical Center in Albany. Bruce Tubbs is a Ski Pro and Supervisor of Mountain Adventure Programs at Gore Mountain. He works with Michele Ferrauilo, a Recreation Therapist for 33 years who first initiated the program at the VA. “Just because one may have a disability, they don’t need to be sitting on the couch,” acknowledges Michele. “Every time I see these folks out there on the slopes, I get choked up like it’s for the first time. It’s so meaningful just to see them overcome their challenges and barriers and do what they do.”
Asked what they’d tell others about Veterans Ski and Ride Day, every participant echoes William’s comments. “If you have the opportunity to do this, don’t turn it down. At least try it once. Getting out here on the mountain is so much fun because we’re all together. Everybody falls, but it’s all about getting back up.”
The event is made possible with the help of many staff and dedicated volunteers as well as the support of its sponsors, Epoch Eyewear and Alpine House in Saratoga.