Ski For Light allows visually- and mobility-impaired skiers to hit the Nordic trails
If it weren’t for an accident that put him in a wheelchair, Jason McKinney probably never would have tried Nordic skiing.
A self-proclaimed “adrenaline junkie,” McKinney was a snowboarder and alpine skier, feeding off the thrill of speed on the slopes. “Almost nobody I knew was a cross-country skier,” he says. “I probably wouldn’t ever have tried it.”
But after his accident, and once he was “in the chair,” McKinney got involved with Ski for Light and discovered “the beauty, tranquility and calm” of Nordic skiing. Despite his earlier skepticism about the appeal of the sport, McKinney was hooked.
McKinney, who is from Seattle, was part of a group of 11 skiers and 19 guides participating in the Methow Valley’s annual Ski for Light program in Mazama last week. The program allows visually- and mobility-impaired skiers to ski alongside their sighted and able-bodied guides.
Created in Norway in 1975, Ski for Light is an all-volunteer nonprofit international organization whose mission it is to “enhance the quality of life and independence of visually- or mobility-impaired adults through a program of cross-country skiing.”
Ironically, or perhaps serendipitously, McKinney says that when he was “out of the chair,” he used to watch skiers on Sit Skis (adaptive equipment consisting of a bucket seat on a single ski and poles with short ski runners instead of tips) at alpine ski areas and think “That’s so cool. They go to all this extra hassle just to get out skiing.”
When McKinney later found himself in a wheelchair looking for ways to get active, that memory inspired him. “Having the knowledge that adaptive skiing was an option — that certainly helped me get out on the slopes. I knew it was available and I just had to figure out how to do it,” he says.
McKinney got involved with an organization called Outdoors for All, and was able to resume trips to Stevens Pass. “I have to manage the adrenaline,” he admits, “I’m this big tank going down the hill really fast. I tip over all the time.”
When he’s Nordic skiing — in a Nordic Sit Ski that runs on two skis and with conventional poles — McKinney says that he still tips over a lot, and this is where his Ski for Light volunteer guide comes in handy, as someone needs to tip him back upright again.
This year, Zack Gurney, who calls himself McKinney’s “caddie,” rather than his “guide,” says that he got involved with Ski for Light because it seemed like a great chance to hang out with cool people, a group that McKinney would undeniably be classified in.
“We do stuff other than ski,” says Gurney of the five days that McKinney and the other Ski for Light participants spent in the Methow Valley. “After going on long skis, we tour the valley a bit, eat dinner at great restaurants.”
Deng Kong, a visually-impaired skier from Seattle, echoes McKinney’s enthusiasm for Nordic skiing and for the Ski for Light program and community. “It’s a tremendous social scene,” Kong says, “and the skiing allows me to enjoy nature while getting exercise.” Also, Kong notes, the hot tub at the Mazama Country Inn, which hosts Ski for Light, feels great at the end of the day.
Kong, who is the president of the Puget Sound chapter of Ski for Light, learned to ski in 1985, when she was at an independent living training center for adults in Seattle. Coincidentally, her skiing teacher was Jason McKinney’s grandmother.
Kong came to the United States from Laos in 1978 and had never experienced snow before, let alone navigated it on two skinny boards. But she learned to ski, got involved with Ski for Light, joined the board, and eventually found herself president of her local chapter, where she has been providing leadership since 2012.
Kong talks about the trust involved in the Ski for Light program, which for visually-impaired skiers involves skiing beside a sighted skier in a double set of tracks, which Methow Trails grooms specially for the Ski for Light week. “You have to surrender,” Kong says, “and listen to what the guide is telling you about the terrain.”
“You also need to use common sense,” Kong adds, and she and her guide, Tracey Weise, share a giggle. Weise, who has been guiding with Ski for Light for three years, expresses appreciation to Kong for trusting her. “Deng taught me how to guide,” she says. “This is really a very mutually beneficial relationship.”
Weise, whose family medical history includes glaucoma, participated in a training with Ski for Light that involves, among other things, wearing a blindfold while skiing. “It makes you aware of what information is useful when you’re skiing with someone who has a visual impairment,” she says. “And it really makes you realize how your sight affects your balance.”
Weise’s husband, new guide Bruce Carter, says that he is “right-left challenged,” and that guiding for Ski for Light this year has taught him to manage that, since precise instructions are critical to a visually-impaired skier.
Patrick McManus, another guide, says “I close my eyes for 30 seconds on the trail and I think ‘this is really hard!’ It’s difficult to imagine the challenges these skiers are facing.”
As visually-impaired skiers and guides establish a working relationship, they navigate their own communication methods. Some skiers appreciate a running commentary from their guides: “Now we’re just going along flat for a little while, then we’ll curve to the right under a stand of pine trees.” Others just want basic information: “Curve left, small downhill, long runout.” All agree that the sudden command “Sit!” is always to be heeded.
The group discussing the language of guiding visually-impaired skiers includes native English-speaking guides Weise and Carter; Deng, who is Laotian; and guide Marie Tracy, a native French speaker.
Methow Valley Ski for Light organizers Nancy McKinney Milsteadt and Rich Milsteadt — who are also aunt and uncle to Jason McKinney — say that the local Ski for Light program would not be possible without the tremendous support of Methow Trails. “When I ask Methow Trails about grooming the double tracks, they say ‘Absolutely! What dates?’” McKinney Milsteadt says.
The skiers, too, make their appreciation for trail support clear. “Thanks to Methow Trails for the wonderful grooming,” Kong says. This custom grooming is just one of the reasons that Ski for Light participants’ ski tours each day are not just rinky-dink outings; they’re sizeable day trips, such as the 20-kilometer loop from Mazama out to the end of Jack’s Trail.
Methow Trails Executive Director James Desalvo expresses the organization’s commitment to accessible skiing, saying “Methow Trails has been working to make our trails more accessible for our community year-round. Internally we have referred to this as our access program and in this case our partnership with Ski for Light is providing better opportunities for visually impaired and mobility-impaired people to experience cross-country skiing. We would like to connect as many community members as possible on trails to enjoy the benefits of getting out in nature as part of their daily routines.” Methow Trails owns three Sit Skis and lends them at no cost to mobility-impaired skiers, who can pick up the Sit Skis at Winthrop Mountain Sports and Methow Valley Ski School in Mazama.
McKinney Milsteadt began working with visually-impaired skiers when she was just 18, and has been involved ever since. Her aunt got her involved guiding at a Ski for Light regional event at Stampede Pass in 1981 and McKinney Milsteadt has been attending Ski for Light international events since 1989. She got her husband, Rich Milsteadt, involved as a guide along the way as well. Now a Director Emeritus, McKinney Milsteadt has served in guide, planning committee and executive committee roles.
McKinney Milsteadt emphasizes that Ski for Light ensures that everyone — participants and guides — is involved in different capacities at the organization, from high-level decisions to event planning. “This is not just sighted people running a program for disabled skiers,” she says. Also, “It’s unique in that there is no paid staff. The Ski for Light president and executive committee do a lot of work that staff members would typically perform.”
Skiers and guides all agree that two of the biggest benefits to the Ski for Light program are the potential lifestyles it introduces and the meaningful relationships it cultivates. “It opens minds to possibilities,” Kong says. “The camaraderie is incredible,” says Carter.
“It’s so important to have this program available,” Jason McKinney echoes. “It fosters these meaningful relationships and gives people with mobility and sight issues a way to engage with the outdoors in winter.” Marie Tracy sums it up: “Ski for Light benefits everybody.”
And in a statement that all winter recreationalists would heartily endorse, Kong concludes: “Ski poles are much better than the end of a cane.”
For more information about the Methow Valley Ski for Light annual program, visit skiforlightpugetsound.azurewebsites.net.