Super Subcultures

The Rocky Mountain Wonderland for Athletes with Disabilities

When the powder falls in Bozeman, champion skiers and kids with autism alike make the pilgrimage to Eagle Mount to perform at their peak.

The Rocky Mountain Wonderland for Athletes with Disabilities

Lying in the snow on a blazingly bright winter day, Tristin Lowe chats softly with her charge, James “Jed” Harvey, who is splayed out on his stomach, refusing to move. Attempts to stand him up result in a wet-noodle slump back onto the groomed corduroy at the top of the ski slope. Jed, who has Down syndrome, insists that he doesn’t want to ski. Problem is, he’s at the top of the lift and needs to get back to the bottom.

After half an hour in the cold, Tristin and her teaching partner, Ewout VanderWende, relent and allow Jed to remove his skis. Luckily, a mid-mountain lodge is nearby. After a break beside the fieldstone fireplace, the trio pull on their jackets, gloves, and helmets and head back out. A snowball fight ensues, and soon Jed is back in skis and flying down the mountain after Tristin, both shouting joyously with outstretched arms. When they arrive at the bottom, Jed pulls Tristin and Ewout in for a side-by-side hug, then they head to the Eagle Mount hut for a hot cocoa.

Jed Harvey gets into a snowball fight with volunteers Tristin Lowe and Ewout VanderWende before skiing down the mountain.

Jed is one of thousands of people who benefit from the programs of Eagle Mount, a Bozeman, Montana–based nonprofit that provides recreational opportunities for people with special needs — all ages, any limitation — cognitive, physical or both. Founded as a downhill ski program in 1982 by retired Air Force General Robert C. Mathis and his wife, Greta, who was a special-education teacher, Eagle Mount is best known for its skiing and equestrian programs — it is Montana, after all. Using specialized adaptive equipment and techniques, Eagle Mount also offers swimming, snowshoeing, ice skating, rock climbing, cycling, family support and other programs for people with “so-called disabilities” — so-called because one of the key tenets of the organization is its focus on people’s abilities, not their disabilities, says Jen Hedrick, executive director of Eagle Mount.

Today, the nonprofit owns 19 acres of property that include a horseback-riding arena, an indoor pool, a specialized gym for people with spinal cord injuries, a greenhouse, a sensory garden, a trail system and an adaptive playground. When the weather warms up, they plan to host live performances in a newly constructed outdoor amphitheater. Hedrick says the idea is to make the grounds a place that everybody can enjoy. “When you see kids playing on the adaptive playground, they’re having a blast and they don’t even see their differences,” she says.

The nonprofit, which serves more than 2,000 people annually, is primarily donor funded. The programming is powered by thousands of volunteers who learn to work with athletes with cognitive or visual impairments and those who use adaptive equipment like ski legs (a walker-like apparatus with skis attached), stand-up tethering (tethers attached to an ambulatory skier’s climbing harness or ski tips), or mono- and bi-skis (tethered or independently maneuvered sit skis). Many of these volunteers return year after year — I am on my eighth. They speak of the joy they see on participants’ faces and the deep friendships they’ve developed with them and each other.

“I can’t really imagine a winter without Eagle Mount,” says Ben Moore, who has been volunteering for four years. “I do it for the participants, but I really do it for me. I get so much out of it. Some days I leave with such a mix of joy and exhaustion and gratitude.”

That kind of joy is a common sentiment among Eagle Mount’s many return volunteers.

Volunteers practice using ski legs on a pre-season training day.

Miya, who has autism, was learning to ski when I met her. She doesn’t speak much — a word here or there (“happy, happy, happy” or “ski”), but full sentences are extremely rare. My co-instructor, Marcus, and I learned to discern Miya’s needs through her behaviors and sounds. When impatient, Miya stamps her feet and screams. Happiness is expressed through singing, humming or a sustained high-pitched note. On one particularly sunny day, while Marcus controlled Miya’s speed with tethers, I skied beside her, shouting encouragement. Other skiers and instructors cheered and waved from the lift above. Miya raised her face to the wind and pronounced, “I’m so happy.”

I’d never been more so myself.

On a late January morning, the blue light atop Bozeman’s historic Baxter Hotel is flashing — a beacon alerting locals that there’s fresh snow at Bridger Bowl Ski Area. After several weeks of relative drought, Bridger is swarming with powder-starved snow hounds hungry to make turns in the cold smoke, as it’s called here. A long line of vehicles slithers up Bridger Canyon Road to the ski area’s tumultuous parking lot — a scene mirroring the commotion inside the Eagle Mount hut, where the cacophony crescendos as athletes, staff and volunteers arrive, exchanging greetings over accumulating gear. Along with their progeny, parents drop off doughnuts and freshly baked sticky buns. Nearly every inch of the 930-square-foot room is crammed with skis, boots, helmets, bins of warm clothing, adaptive ski equipment, wheelchairs, crutches — not to mention people of all shapes and sizes.

Participants, family members and volunteers arrive at the hut for the first Saturday of the Eagle Mount ski program.

Many of the volunteers, staff and participants haven’t seen each other since the final ski day last year — a.k.a. Crazy-Hat Day, during which everyone duct tapes wacky headgear to their helmets. There are reunions, hugs, handshakes and laughter. New volunteers are seemingly shell-shocked by the hubbub, until they spot the metal turquoise desk that seems to be the place to check in — which, in fact, it is. They wade through the gear and bodies and are welcomed by volunteer “Hut Mom” Kathy Weaver, as well as Trevor Olson, program assistant, and Vasu Sojitra, adaptive sports director.

Always attentive and spirited with participants, for Crazy-Hat Day one year, Vasu donned a flashy pink one-piece ski suit. Skiing with a flying-saucer sled strapped to his back, he would heave himself onto the sled to slide on his back, then pop back up, eliciting cheers, stares and giggles from onlookers. A mountaineer, backcountry skier and skateboarder, Vasu achieves feats many would deem extraordinary. He’s accustomed to the stares as he does it all on one leg, having lost the other well above the knee to an infection as an infant.

Vasu says disability is a myth. He gets around on crutches and is a three-track skier, meaning he rides the snow on a single ski and two outrigger crutches with skis on his arms. He is the first adaptive athlete to be sponsored by The North Face, and he advocates for better access to and participation in outdoor pursuits for underrepresented and underserved populations.

Last season, Vasu injured his only knee landing a jump in extreme ski terrain and was temporarily relegated to a wheelchair. That didn’t stop him from skiing though. He rode one of Eagle Mount’s monoskis as we bounced together through the bumps on Bronco, a run near the top of Bridger’s 8,700-foot mountain. Now that he’s healed, I don’t even try to keep up with him.

The Eagle Mount community includes many elite adaptive skiers like Vasu, several of whom compete in the Paralympics, X Games and run triathlons. They participate with Eagle Mount, not only for the training but also, more importantly, to be part of the community.

A skier steers a bi-ski down the mountain with the aid of two volunteers.

Dave “Madman” Poole is paralyzed “from the nipples down,” as he puts it, from a spinal cord injury. An avid downhill cyclist and ice climber who fabricates and adapts many of the devices he uses to pursue these extreme sports, Dave is on Eagle Mount’s teaching team, helping others learn the ins and outs of downhill sit-skiing.

Born without legs, Kevin Michael Connolly notes he is “3 feet, 1 inch tall” and gets around primarily on a skateboard. He started skiing with Eagle Mount at age 10 and went on to win two medals at the Winter X Games. He gained national attention with his Rolling Exhibition photographs, which chronicled his travels through Europe and New Zealand and inspired his book Double Take.

Jacob Jorgenson has cerebral palsy, which inhibits his ability to walk and use his hands effectively. “Walking is overrated,” he says. The 22-year-old loves to ski and has been doing so since he was 5. He enjoys the chill wind in his face and Montana’s bluebird skies and soul-warming sunshine. He revels in the camaraderie of the people who help him ski. “Most kids with my brand of needs don’t get to do all the things I get to do,” he says.

“We joke that he’s the most active member of the family,” his father, Jeff Jorgenson, adds. Aided by two volunteers, Jacob uses his upper body to steer a bi-ski down the hill. One volunteer tethers it from behind while a second, called the boot, skis alongside and grabs the handles to help control the apparatus when things might otherwise get sketchy.

A student at Montana State University, Jacob is majoring in English literature and attends classes twice weekly. Jeff accompanies him as an aid. The two have a wicked sense of humor and a “mutual mocking relationship,” Jacob says. His slightly slurred speech is mostly intelligible, and he says that when he graduates he wants to be a writer or perhaps a comedian. His smirk makes it difficult to tell when he’s being serious. But both men are clearly earnest when they say that the people they’ve met through Eagle Mount have become their second family.

Eagle Mount participant Michael Kneeland (in bi-ski) meets a school friend at the top of the lift at Bridger Bowl. Michael,13, was adopted from China this past summer so this was his first time skiing.

My first year with Eagle Mount, I was assigned to ski with Lucile Brunswick, a Bozeman High School junior with Down syndrome. Her family moved to Bozeman in part because of Eagle Mount.

Lucile arrived via carpool each Saturday with a cohort of special-needs friends. The perennial social butterfly, she would spend at least 10 minutes flitting around the hut giving and receiving hugs. Thus, gearing her up to ski proved challenging, and we were usually among the last out the door. No big deal. This was her time. Eagle Mount abides by three simple rules: Be safe, have fun, learn something — in that order. So, I figured if Lucile preferred to socialize, that was her prerogative. Eagle Mount stresses that independence and appropriate socialization are also important skills to be learned through their programs.

Back then, Lucile could sometimes be difficult to motivate. On the first day, I tried to learn more about her, and she told me she was a princess. For our next lesson, I brought self-sticking rhinestones to affix to her helmet. Each week, when we’d meet in the hut, I’d ask Lucile how many gems she wanted and what she was going to do to earn them — things like learning how to ski with poles, holding them while getting onto the chairlift, linking several turns in a row, or making a certain number of runs in each lesson. I can’t recall how many gems she netted over those eight weeks, but her helmet definitely sparkled by the last day.

Now 25, Lucile is one of many people I met during that first year who are currently working and living independently. She takes Galavan Transit, a donation-based bus service, to work at Rosauers, a local grocery store, and to swim at Eagle Mount’s pool. Warm and open, she makes friends easily. When we met at Rosauers recently, she came prepared with a sheaf of handwritten notes about the important people in her life, including her sister (also her best friend, she noted), the cardio-dance instructors at the gym where she works out, some of her co-workers, and the volunteer swim coach at Eagle Mount.

The day we met at her job, Lucile was returning after a few weeks on medical leave, and her co-workers welcomed her back with broad smiles. They embraced her and inquired about her health. Lucile’s mother, Betsy Brunswick, says Eagle Mount plays a big part in her daughter’s success.

“There’s no other community that has an Eagle Mount,” she says. “It brings awareness about people with special needs. The fact that they use so many volunteers helps build compassion and understanding. Finding her a place to belong has just meant the world to us.”