Just came in from the frozen Penns Woods snowshoeing with my wife Janet and I thought about a time a while back that was a heck of a lot colder than we were today. I had the idea one year to take Tom Burgunder and Fred Siget, two of our better blind skiers in Western Pa. BOLD to the National Blind Skiing Championships in Blackjack,Michigan. Now, Blackjack is in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan lovingly called the U.P. by our midwestern friends. The U.P. is really pretty in the summer but brutally cold in the winter with its northern location and proximity to Lake Superior.
Our merry band of three went to the Pittsburgh airport and traveled to Minneapolis. Once we landed we got our stuff and got on a bus headed to the U.P. with about 13 other visually handicapped skiers who were competing in the event. I noticed that there were not many folks on the bus aside from the skiers and it was so cold that the bus temperature was zero. At 60 MPH on the road with the temp hovering around 40 below F., the best the bus heater could do was warm it to zero. Tom, Fred and I put on every bit of our ski gear and shivered on the long drive to the U.P. We arrived in a raging blizzard at the Holiday Inn with no volunteers to help us because of the snow and the bitter cold. The bus driver dropped all the luggage in the driveway and yours truly had to figure out whose luggage belonged to who. I got the 13 others plus my guys into the hotel and then went about the frozen business of getting luggage into the hotel and into the appropriate rooms for the skiers. Late that night, I got a call from the event coordinator who said that there would be volunteers there in the morning but that I would be assigned several condos and a van and all of a sudden I was in charge of 15 blind athletes competing in Alpine as well as Nordic events.
The event coordinator also told me that he needed my help in the early morning setting the course on the hill for the Alpine events. 40 below in dark conditions is wicked cold and driving up and down the course in a snowmobile only accentuates the agony. The U.P is known for Nordic events like cross country skiing and ski jumping. From Blackjack you could see the 70 meter jump at Iron Mountain which is a world reknown venue. Once the course was set each day for the Alpine events, I would return to the condos to get the group in a congo line for breakfast. That was a logistially challenging event in itself helping 15 visually handicapped folks with getting all their meals.
Once I piled them all in the van each day, I dropped them off at the appropriate venues and concentrated on getting my guys ready to compete. Our procedure for guiding is skiing behind the blind skier and calling out the commands. Right Turn, Left Turn, etc. This is especially challenging when you have fixed obstacles like Giant Slalom gates on the hill. But Fred and I made it through and in fact Fred did real well considering his age and the caliber of competition from all over the country. There are a number of different classes depending on the level of vision and we saw guides with big red lights on their backs with the skiers following. Others relied on verbal commands skiing in a similar fashion but our technique seemed to be the best in our minds even though we had the opportunity to see how others guide and follow.
Once again the coordinator from the United States Association of Blind Athletes called on me because of a shortage of cross country guides. He needed me to guide an accomplished XC skier. After only a few minutes of instructions from the skier, we took off at the start and began side by side in the dual tracks. I learned how to brake with the skier by each of us holding each others poles horizontally and me holding him back with a gliding wedge or snowplow down the steep sections. How we didn’t crash and burn was a mystery to me but after many uphills and downhills, we finished third for his class and he was thrilled. So was I only to be at the finish in one piece after virtually no experience guiding XC. After the awards, I returned each day with the van full of skiers off into the night for dinner at the condo.
This was definitely an event for a young Pat McCloskey. Between the congo lines, the assembly of equipment each day, the dawn patrol setting of race courses, guiding in 40 below temps, and maneuvering the van and snowmobile in whiteout conditions, I was one tired puppy at night. I also did grocery store runs and several of the group were vegetarians. WTH!!!!! I almost lost my mind but fortunately was able to find all the tofu, sprouts, etc that I needed. At the end of the week, I did have a download with the coordinators and suggested that the next time they beef up their volunteer base. They almost wore me completely out that week but whatever doesn’t kill you makes you strong- or something like that!! As hard as the conditions were and the daily logistical nightmares, I learned a lot that week. I saw perseverance with the athletes and the amazing independence of individuals willing to compete with little or no vision. How they make it successfully through a GS course or an XC venue without disastrous results is truly remarkable. Coming back from that event, our normal ski days with BOLD seemed like a piece of cake. My guiding was razor sharp because of that experience. Fred, Tom and I still talk about that week even after all these years. It bonded our friendship and also taught me that no matter what challenges faced me that week, they paled in comparison to the challenges these folks face every day. Thanks for reading!! 🙂