This article first appeared in the Winter/Spring 2003 Durango Magazine.
Mountains of Possibility
Like many visitors to Durango, Klaudia Birkner has visited Durango a number of times over the past 10 years. But she’s not a typical tourist. Because Birkner has been blind since she was 16 and has a rare disease that affects her spinal cord, she comes to ski with Durango’s Adaptive Sports Association, a group that strives “to give disability a possibility.”
Birkner had never skied when she could see, so in 1992, she learned to ski by following the voices of ASA volunteer instructors. She used poles with pontoons attached to the ends for extra support. Over the years, Birkner gained national success as an adaptive racer and was a medallist in the U.S. Disabled Alpine National Championships.
Birkner says her experiences as a skier with disabilities bolstered her self-confidence because when she used a wheelchair or a white cane, she was always attached to something or somebody. But when skiing with ASA, she was “only attached by voice.”
“It gave me freedom that I thought I would never have,” Birkner says. “Skiing opened up the world for me…every time I went to ski, I felt more confident. It poured over into every area of my life.”
Birkner isn’t alone: since its inception in 1983, thousands of people with disabilities have learned or relearned to ski with ASA. The mission of ASA is “to enhance the self-esteem and physical well-being of people with disabilities through participation in sports and outdoor recreational experiences regardless of individual financial limitations.”
ASA reaches that goal with the help of approximately 200 local volunteers who undergo extensive training before donating an average of 14,000 hours each year. Durango Mountain Resort pitches in with in-kind donations – such as lift tickets – that reach about $190,000 each year.
“I consider volunteers to be an essential element of what makes our program such a success,” says Tim Kroes, executive director of ASA. “People get involved because they truly care, and their passion shows in everything they do.”
ASA was co-founded by Dave Spencer, a traditional ski instructor at Durango Mountain Resort (then Purgatory) who lost a leg to cancer. As legend has it, a woman – who had recently had a leg of her own amputated – was sitting in the lodge at the base of the mountain when she spied Spencer skiing. She asked him to teach her to ski on one leg, and ASA was born.
Sadly, Spencer lost his battle with cancer, but his
organization – and his legend – lives on.
Spencer had hoped ASA would offer activities year-round, and in 1997, that dream was realized. ASA’s summer activities in Durango include kayaking, hiking, fishing, rafting and canoeing.
Mike Sammuli, a Californian who broke his neck in a car accident at 16, learned to ski with ASA. He says he likes the group so much that he has returned for seven years, not just in winter but also in summer, to try white-water rafting and ASA’s jeep trips. His taste for adaptive activities even led him to try extreme sports like skydiving.
“I realized the challenges aren’t as big anymore,” Sammuli says.
Like many ASA participants, Sammuli says one of the
best things about ASA is the people.
She says the group also knows how to have fun together. “People fall in their wheelchairs and they’re not hurt and we laugh and they love it.”
Volunteers are trained to learn about the different types of adaptive equipment students can use. For example, students with lower back injuries can sit in a “mono-ski” – a bucket-like chair mounted on one ski – and use short outriggers to help balance and turn. Students with disabilities such as cerebral palsy use a “bi-ski,” a chair mounted on two skis, which allows them to turn by moving their head. “Four-trackers,” or skiers who leave four tracks, ski upright while using poles with outriggers for added control. Additionally, some volunteers use tethers to help with speed control.
But the students agree that the gear available at the ASA is not what makes it special. Pam Albertson, who uses a wheelchair because of a spinal injury she sustained in a 1992 hiking accident in Arizona, says that when she has skied with other adaptive programs, the groups have approached the lessons “as a business.”
In contrast, she says, ASA volunteers spend the entire day with their students; eat lunch with them; and often “party” with them at night. In fact, some return students stay in the homes of volunteers, who drive them to the slopes.
“Everybody who comes here feels that ASA is a family,” Albertson says.
Volunteer Erica Pray agrees. “They come here
as students and come back as friends.”
Reservations for ASA programs are required, preferably 48 hours in advance. Skiing with ASA costs $80 for an adult, which includes a private lesson, equipment and a lift ticket, or $60 for children 12 and under. As for the summer activities, rafting is $20; canoeing is $20; sea kayaking is $20; hiking is $10; and fishing is $15.
But scholarships are available, and over half of ASA students receive financial assistance from ASA. Thanks to “generous community donations and support,” no student has ever been turned away due to financial restrictions, according to Kroes.
“It’s not just about sport – it’s a catalyst for people to discover what they’re capable of,” Leisle says.
For example, Birkner went on to become a public speaker and author. But what’s more, she used some of her own stem cells for eye surgery. As a result, she regained some of her vision; when she returned to Durango last season to ski with ASA, she was finally able to see the mountains and people she’d known for 10 years.
“I wish I could get more people to know they can do this,” Birkner says.
For more information, call 970-385-2149 or visit www.asadurango.org.