Monday, March 17, 2008

Utah Ski Vacation kicks off at Snowbasin

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 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.

Monday afternoon we had flown 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 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.

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. 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!

Article written by Connie Lawn. See more of her articles at

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