Erin Scala zooms down the mountain on her snowboard, carving left and right on her toes and heels, picking up speed whenever she can. With a brand new board, the 25-year-old is untouchable on the mountain and catches the attention of most skiers and riders as she passes.
Scala rarely falls while snowboarding, and it’s even more rare to see her without a smile on. A day at the mountain means nonstop laughter as soon as she gets on the lift. When she rides onto an open, powder-covered trail, there is nothing holding her back from picking up speed. But if it weren’t for the bright orange vest she wears, no one on the mountain would ever know she is blind.
“I love going fast,” Scala said. “I love just feeling it under the board that I’m cruising, and I’m like, ‘Ah, this is so cool!’ It’s like an adrenaline rush.”
Scala said the wind in her face produced by that speed also helps to tell her if she’s even moving.
Scala has a medical condition known as retinis pigmentosa, an inherited disease that causes a gradual decline in retinal degeneration, and now for Scala, near complete loss in her vision.
Her first introduction to snowboarding was when she found the Greek Peak Adaptive Snowsports program three years ago.
Interested in learning to snowboard, Scala searched Google for “blind snowboarding” and came across GPAS, a 37-year-old not-for-profit organization dedicated to giving people with both physical and mental disabilities the chance to enjoy all that winter has to offer at the mountain. She
Once in program, Scala met Megan-Mack Nicholson, professor of recreation and leisure studies at Ithaca College and Greek Peak instructor, who became Scala’s other half on the mountain.
“We’re like sisters,” Scala said. “Trust is a huge thing. We have to trust each other, and I have to trust her. We have that scary bond.”
As Scala rockets down the mountain each week, Nicholson follows close behind yelling “Heel,” “Toe” or the occasional “Skier ahead!” And while the two laugh about their close relationship, Nicholson said her role is anything but a joke because she becomes Scala’s eyes.
“It’s an amazing feeling to be out here donating your time,” Nicholson said. “That’s a very scary bond when your relying on someone to keep your life, and you’re trying to keep someone alive.”
The lesson, which has now become just another hang out session for Scala and Nicholson, is just one of many in the adaptive program.
From tri-track skiing to snowboarding, the program provides the more than 100 participants of all ages this year with a mountain experience. Thirteen-year-old Dallas Pace is one of those individuals.
After losing her left leg to cancer this past year, Pace has been learning to tri-track ski. Pace uses one ski and two adapted forearm crutches with ski tips to help her balance while going down the slopes.
“The people here are really easy to work with, and everyone is friendly here,” Pace said. “Before this I was a total coach potato.”
And every week when Pace hits the slopes, she gets to work with Robyn King, whose enthusiasm on the mountain gives Pace an added boost.
King has been working with the program for the past 10 years and has been volunteering as an instructor for the past five. King’s hope to get her 14-year-old son up and moving after he lost his leg in a car accident in 2001 was what brought her to the program.
She said teaching Pace reminds her a lot of her son’s introduction to Adaptive Snowsports.
“You see Dallas smile when she gets it,” she said. “That’s what it’s about. It’s about giving them something that they can do well and giving them that self-confidence back, especially with kids.”
Jim Cappellett, who is president of the organization’s board and an instructor, has been volunteering with the program for the past 15 years. More than 100 volunteers, like Nicholson and King, are teaching lessons at the mountain this year. Ranging from retired teachers to college students, every volunteer goes through both dry-land clinics and snow clinics beginning in November to prepare for the season’s lessons.
Cappellett said his involvement in the program is more than worth it.
“You get more out of it than you give — believe me,” he said. “For a lot of our clients, it develops an independence that they would not have if they were not skiing or riding.”
The program runs out of the Dr. Robert M. Lovejoy Adaptive Ski Center — named after the program’s first skier with total blindness — with funding from both grants and personal donations. The program is also a chapter of Disabled Sports USA, a national not-for-profit organization that offers sport rehabilitation programs to those with permanent disabilities.
King said, while the program has continued to be successful during the past few years, he noticed that in 2003 not as many people came for lessons. So King, in an effort to attract more people, helped create the program’s scholarship week, Winter Challenge Week.
In its eighth year, the scholarship week offers free, week-long ski and snowboard instruction for blind, paraplegic and amputee adults from all different backgrounds, fully sponsored by Greek Peak Adaptive Snowsports. More than 45 people have participated in the challenge week since it began, which has helped people recover from accidents or illness at their own pace, King said.
“Everyone has a different story,” he said. “The most important story, in my book, is always the story about recovery. How do they make it work for them, [and] how do they get over those obstacles?”
As Scala and Nicholson continue to goof off and chat on the lifts about their future plans to go to Colorado, Nicholson said, their relationship is irreplaceable.
“Greek Peak’s adaptive program is amazing,” Nicholson said. “It’s super rewarding. But it will be hard if Erin ever stops coming, it will be hard to find another bond.”