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A sit skier cruises down a run with grace with an Eagle Mount volunteer trailing behind. PHOTOS COURTESY OF EAGLE MOUNT

Local organization brings hundreds of volunteers to adaptive ski school

By Bella Butler EBS EDITORIAL ASSISTANT

BIG SKY  – For people with physical and cognitive challenges, prioritizing ability versus disability is a critical  motivation that serves as the foundation for their first independent turn on the slopes of Lone Mountain.

Eagle Mount, a non-profit with Bozeman roots, was established in 1982 with the mission of empowering people with disabilities through recreation and adventure. The organization presents a diverse menu of programs and camps year-round that take advantage of the unique offerings of southwest Montana to achieve this goal—one of these options is skiing, one of Eagle Mount’s largest initiatives.

The ski program materialized in Bozeman at Bridger Bowl, where Eagle Mount now offers an 8-week lesson series. Over 10 years ago, the organization launched a similar adaptive ski school at Big Sky Resort with a slightly different angle; to accommodate the larger tourist base, the Big Sky program is a destination program, meaning its students come from all corners of the nation and beyond to take part in the experience of learning how to ski.

“It’s all about empowering yourself,” Eagle Mount’s Big Sky director Sarah Wolf said. “Being able to do something that you otherwise didn’t think was possible.” Wolf found Eagle Mount somewhat serendipitously  upon moving to Big Sky roughly 11 years ago, and it is this sentiment that compels her to return each year with even more enthusiasm.

Eagle Mount is an adaptive ski school for people with cognitive and physical disabilities. Volunteers are trained to instruct using special resources, such as crutches, mono skis and tethers.

“Just to watch how far some of our skiers have come is magic,” she said, recalling stories of uplifting triumph. “[We get people] that have disabilities that won’t allow them to walk, and then the next thing you know they’re skiing standing up off tethers.”

Wolf believes it is, in part, this rewarding experience that calls so many volunteers back each season. This year, on Dec. 14 and 15, a record number of 237 volunteers signed up for Eagle Mount’s Big Sky two-day training session.

Volunteers are first taken through instruction on how to teach. Each individual identifies with a particular learning style—visual, auditory or kinesthetic—and then receives instruction on how to familiarize with the styles they are less comfortable with. Because different disabilities require unique methods of communication and guidance, it is imperative for volunteers to be well versed in them all in order to best accommodate each student’s needs.

From there, volunteers are taken through the fundamentals of skiing, once again identifying their own tendencies and habits and correcting and adjusting for the foundational nuances that will later be taught to students. The second day of training is entirely focused on how to teach skiing, specifically using adaptive methods such as sit-skiing, mono skis and tethers. 

Eagle Mount volunteers support a skier with tethers, a mechanism that helps control balance, direction and speed.

Wolf said there are plenty of challenges to navigate, but providing volunteers with the tools to break down student’s walls of apprehension can open up an unparalleled experience of fun and empowerment that nods to the organization’s founding mission.

According to Wolf, many of their students come to Big Sky specifically for the Eagle Mount program, often bringing with them several family members each visit. Eagle Mount operates in Big Sky from opening to closing day. Last year, they provided approximately 700 lessons. This year, Wolf hopes to grow that number to 1,000. For the dedicated director, each one of those lessons is equivalent to one less individual getting left behind.

“It’s all about bringing people to their ability,” Wolf said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re abled or disabled, let’s focus on what you can do.”

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