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Firsthand Report: Ski Utah Ability Awareness Trip
By Connie Lawn, DCSki Columnist
March 15, 2008

Thanks to Jessica Kunzer and Ski Utah, we had another magical week in Utah - a state which produces some of the best snow conditions and most majestic, towering, and steep mountains in the world! Thanks also for a tour which shows us how far Utah has progressed, and will continue to progress, to help adaptive, disabled athletes and wounded warriors.

We had a wonderful whirlwind tour, which included Park City, Snowbasin, Snowbird, and Sundance (which Charles and I visited on our own). Everyone has their own preference, but Charles and I loved the long, wide, perfectly groomed slopes of Snowbasin, as well as the panoramic views. We love the comparative solitude and the assurance we are not going to be crashed into from behind or above. We were once told there are an average of 2,000 acres to a skier on a weekday. We also love the fact that people remember us and call us by name, even though we had not been there for several years.

Snowbasin also has the incredibly luxurious day lodges, which are dripping with marble, fine carpets, crystal lamps, and beautiful art. It is nice to rest on a plush couch, in front of the fireplace, when you are relaxing from the rigors of the slopes. The day lodges also have gourmet meals and numerous community events for visitors and nearby residents.

Snowbasin is opening up more programs for adaptive skiers and boarders, including those with sight and hearing problems. We watched with amazement as a blind skier repeatedly whizzed down the mountain, while a world class sit ski champion went through his paces. Both men warm up on runs like the two Olympic Downhill courses at Snowbasin, and then think nothing of spending the rest of the day on steep, narrow double black diamonds.

Paul Schaeffer, right, at Earl’s Lodge. Photo provided by Charles Sneiderman.

Paul Schaeffer is a blind skier who lives in Virginia and works at the State Department. He flies in alone from the Washington DC area, takes a bus to Ogden and then shuttle buses to Snowbasin. There his guides and ski companions help him out. But, since he skis better than most of them, they have to work hard to stay ahead of him! Paralympian Chris Waddell was also a guest at Snowbasin that day; he has won top medals in monoski competitions around the world. We were honored to meet athletes of this character and caliber.

Paralympian Chris Waddell. Photo provided by Charles Sneiderman.

There is so much to cover in a week like this, it is impossible to do justice to it all, so we will try to pick out the highlights. We will try to do so in chronological order.

Monday afternoon we flew into Salt Lake City from Reno. We were met at the busy airport by our hostess, Ski Utah’s Jessica Kunzer who had already met the other two journalists on our tour. Jessica and Ski Utah have to be some of the busiest ski representatives in the industry. She conducts about 5 such tours a year, and they require enormous work and expense. As if she were not busy enough, Jessica told us she was up at 4 in the morning to hike up a mountain with friends. Then they skied down at sunrise. She personifies much of the best of the West, where people combine the love of nature with dedication to intense physical exercise. Don’t mess with these women - you may not live to tell the story!

Two members of our group, including me, had intense lung congestion, which caused us pain and breathing difficulties throughout the week. That was no fun, and can be dangerous, especially at that altitude. I learned that lesson the next day - more on that later.

We checked into a modern Holiday Inn hotel and then went directly to the famous National Ability Center at Park City. It is one of the most amazing of all the centers for adaptive sports people in this country. The sprawling, modern center receives donations from many people, but the largest grant came from the generous Bronfman Family. The Bronfman Recreation Center and Ranch proudly carries their name. The center has many adaptive programs, including hippo or equestrian therapy, swimming, biking, and the wide range of winter and summer programs. The programs are the brainchild of Meeche White, who has devoted the last 30 years to creating them and raising funds. She claims she plans to semi-retire, but I doubt she can ever be replaced. She is now assisted by a terrific partner - Ryan Jensen, the Marketing Manager.

Adaptive skiing at Park City. Photo provided by Charles Sneiderman.

That night we had dinner at the National Ability Center Ranch with 10 soldiers and Marines from San Antonio sponsored by Operation Comfort. While they were recovering from their wounds, they were skiing and snowboarding. Some were still on active duty, and the others were working hard to begin the next phase of their lives. One handsome young soldier still has sand and shrapnel in his eyes, but is coping with his pain and is skiing. He masks his disabilities, and it is difficult to tell he has visual impairment. Charles and I enjoyed the opportunity to have long talks with the men and women over the relaxed meal. Often, there is a great rush at these wounded warrior events, and there is little time to get to know the soldiers and their stories, before we all head to the slopes together.

A Note about Altitude Sickness

Just a brief aside to warn flatlanders - take it easy in the wind, cold, and altitude. I love Park City - one of my favorite areas. I came down too fast a few times, and the wind grew stronger and colder. I was having trouble breathing in any case, with the chest congestion. On the second run, as I neared the bottom, I got dizzy, my heart pounded, and I fought for breath. Then everything went blurry, and I sank gently into the snow. It was so peaceful lying there. But, whenever I tried to get up, I did not have the strength to stand. Thank God Charles and other members of our party were there, and they stayed until the ski patrol came. Those wonderful men gave me oxygen, strapped me into their sled, and transported me down the rest of the mountain. It is so comforting to be cared for by professionals! Still, I was really angry at myself.

Ski patroller Brian House does paperwork on Connie after sleeding her down the mountain. Photo provided by Charles Sneiderman.

The condition cleared up in a short time, and I was well enough to ski Snowbasin the next day, if I took it easy and stopped frequently.

I think the wind, cold, and my congestion were the main problems - I do not generally have a problem with altitude. But, this is meant as a warning to my friends - don’t exert yourself too quickly in the big mountains - build up to it by skiing and boarding often, and don’t try to do too much in a day. Buy a half day lift ticket, get some rest, and enjoy spending part of the time sitting around in the sun, and eating the delicious foods at the resorts!

Tuesday we were at Park City; Wednesday at Snowbasin, (where we stayed at the handsome Lakeside Villages), so by Thursday, we must be a Snowbird. What a treat!! If you have never in your life stayed in the Cliff Lodge, you owe it to yourself to have at least one night there. The sheer, spectacular mountains can be seen from all the windows. The sunsets and sunrises are magnificent! The decor of the beautiful hotel is enhanced by displays of oriental carpets, antique Chinese robes, screens, and sculptures, and beautiful artwork and other fine items sold in the stores. There is a heated rooftop pool and hot tub, as well as a spa and health club. It is great to enjoy the pool, especially as the snow falls in your face, and the moon rises over the mountains. Our special thanks to Public Relations Director Laura Schaffer for her generous contribution to this part of the trip. Her parents are journalists in Washington so she understands what reporters like! We enjoyed dinner at the Lodge Bistro, a breakfast buffet at the Aerie, and Clif energy bars on the snow!

Sunset at Snowbird. Photo provided by Charles Sneiderman.

On Thursday, we took the Peruvian Express High Speed Chair to the top of Snowbird at 10,518 feet. Then we skied down Chips Run, a 2.5-mile blue trail but steep and challenging for us. As the natives say, “Snowbird is an intense mountain.” A new option is to buy a combined Snowbird-Alta lift ticket (only $10 extra) and take the new tunnel from the top of the Peruvian quad chair. The surface people mover is 600 feet long and 15 feet high. You can take the tunnel through to the panoramic Mineral Basin, take the Mt Baldy lift to go through the gates to Alta, ski back through Alta at the top of Little Cottonwood Canyon and return to Snowbird on the free shuttle bus. This new option can be especially helpful to intermediate skiers, and reduce traffic on the aerial tram and other chairs. We hope to return and check out the tunnel and more of the areas - there is so much territory, and so very much to cover!

A child with cerebral palsy enjoys biskiing at Snowbird. Video provided by Charles Sneiderman.

We were extremely pleased we had a great deal of time to spend with the Snowbird Adaptive skiers - the major part of our visit. The Adaptive sports center is run with compassion, skill, care, and dedication by Peter Mandler, the Executive Director, Laura Cantin, the Assistant Director, and numerous instructors and volunteers. They have all earned their places in Heaven! While we were there, two young children with cerebral palsy were being brought down the mountain on sit skis. It took a team of 3 or 4 people to help them ride the lift and whiz down, but how the children loved it! There is no additional charge for this - as in most adaptive programs, the funds come from donations and fund raising events. Later in the day, a doctor with a spinal cord injury also had a chance to celebrate his second anniversary on a monoski. Several of us had the chance to sit in his monoski; it is not at all easy and requires great upper body strength and coordination just to get in and out of it.

Sunset at Sundance - Our Final Day

We had long wanted to visit Sundance, and it did not disappoint. Robert Redford was wise to buy and develop the resort in such a magnificent location! It is quaint, rustic, and beautifully run and decorated with American cowboy and Indian motifs. Steep mountains and waterfalls surround the resort, but many of the slopes are wide and well groomed. There are the usual mixture of catwalks (which I find difficult and try to avoid) and bowls. From the front there is one very long chair, and you can download it at several points. If you stay on to the end, you can access another lift to a spectacular view of the Great Salt Lake. The residents say it is one of the smallest of the Utah resorts, and I tell them we would love to have such a resort back East. To me, it is huge, high, and challenging! The sharp peaks can make you very dizzy. It is a family resort, and it is wonderful to see so many children learning and singing as they ski or board. There were a number of Brigham Young college students, and they are respectful and well behaved. Everyone goes out of their way to be friendly! Special thanks to public relations manager Lucy Ridolphi, who does a terrific job and has produced a very handsome brochure of Sundance.

Charles Sneiderman at Sundance. Photo provided by Connie Lawn.

If you can get reservations at one of the lodges on the property, try to do so. But, you must book well in advance, especially if the timing coincides with the Sundance film festival (some of the events are held there, but most are in Park City). Sundance was voted the 6th top resort world wide by Conde Nast, and deserves the honor! If you can’t stay overnight, book lodging at one of the nearby cities and spend the day. You will have a terrific ski experience. Hopefully, no “raindrops will fall on your head” while you are there. Ouch! Hope that didn’t “make your day.”

Sadly, the next day was time to leave Utah. It was a long nine day trip, capped off by extremely rough flights for all travelers across the nation. After an enormous amount of turbulence, and wind gusts of 70 miles per hour, we had a rough landing at BWI. Every adult on the plane applauded, and most of us shook the hands of the Delta pilot and copilot as we left the plane. As we looked out the airport window, we saw a magnificent rainbow, which made it all worth while. It was another answer to our prayers, and a signal it was time to plan another trip!

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JimK
6 years ago
Great report Connie. Your travels are allowing you to meet some amazing adaptive athletes and their supporters. Glad you made a speedy recovery at Park City. Altitude can get any of us if not careful.
Once when I was a fit age 37 on my first day/first run in Snowmass, CO I rode a series of lifts to the highest point, then immediately skied a black diamond run. After 150 yards of bumps I came to abrupt stop when I realized my heart and lungs were still back at the top of the hill. I got my breath back in a few minutes, but that afternoon I felt quite altitude sick.
Connie Lawn
6 years ago
Thanks Jim - We are not getting any younger! Take care - yours, Connie
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