This winter, Sun Valley Adaptive Sports offered three camps to American veterans wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan. Called Higher Ground, the program put 24 vets and their spouses or caregiv-ers on our higher ground—the tops of Dollar and Baldy—and helped them create fresh tracks for a fresh start.
Accomplished local skier Holley duPont is part of a volunteer team that works with wounded veterans as a part of this program. She said she was very impressed by her experiences at the three snow sports camps.
"When you work with a wounded veteran, you help them reach out and try something they have never done or thought they could never do again," duPont said. "Skiing gets them out in this beau-tiful environment. You can correlate their skiing to their lives, to the peaks and valleys. Here, we are on a peak. They can breathe deeply at the top of a huge mountain. It's incredible."
Higher Ground is provided free of cost to men and women who have suffered traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress disorder, blindness, visual impairment, amputations, spinal cord in-juries, burns or other ailments while serving in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Erin Rheinschild, Sun Valley Adaptive Sports' director, said that getting injured service people onto the slopes yields remarkable results. When they arrive, some have never seen snow. They don't know how to put on their boots or carry their skis. Others were recreational skiers or board-ers who thought they might never enjoy the feeling of swooshing down a slope again.
"Recreating through skiing is soothing to the soul," Rheinschild said. "It creates independence."
duPont has seen great results first hand. One of her skiers, the brother of a young soldier who returned from his tour of duty paralyzed, became paralyzed himself in the role of caregiver. At 21, he thought both his and his beloved brother's lives were over. He arrived at the Higher Ground program dejected.
"When he left, he told me, 'You have no idea how much this program has changed my life. I know now I can have my life back,'" duPont said.
Another of duPont's veterans, a woman soldier who suffered a sexual assault, was virtually housebound. When she arrived in Sun Valley she didn't want to leave the hotel room.
"By the third day skiing, she was laughing, talking, wanting to go back to the life she remem-bered," duPont said.
< Skiing helped her to remember the athlete and woman she was.
Many vets who arrive at our mountains have lost their sense of freedom, their sense of trust. Their experiences have made them feel unsafe and unprotected. These men and women who risked everything no longer feel self-reliant. To place their trust in an instructor, in a sport that encom-passes speed and a good chance of falling, is a huge obstacle, Rheinschild said.
"Trust is really a big element," she said. "We work to build them back up and it's amazing how quickly the trust grows."
All of the Higher Ground skiers and boarders start on the Magic Carpet at Dollar. By afternoon they generally move onto Quarter Dollar. On day two, they are skiing full Dollar, something duPont said many don't think possible when they arrive.
"At first, Dollar is huge, insurmountable," duPont said. "When we get them on the top, it seems so high, they literally hold their breath."
By day three, many skiers progress to Baldy.
"When we get to the top of Baldy, I point out the tiny tower on the top of Dollar," du Pont said. "They can't believe they've come so far."
Everyone who participates in the program gets to ride to the top of Baldy and enjoy lunch, whether they can ski down or not. The group picture at Lookout is one of the highlights of camp, duPont said.
The equipment and instruction needed to navigate the slopes are as varied as the vet. For those without the use of their legs, there are buckets, or the sleds that are often seen being "driven" or guided by instructors. There are sliders, which resemble walkers and allow those who have some use of their legs to stand and ski with the aid of instructors.
Chris Paiser, a Higher Ground soldier, said, "The event showed me I wasn't broken. It gave me the chance to feel like a soldier again. I can't wait to go home and show my son I can snowboard with him."
duPont started as one of the volunteers who skied next to participants to help create a safe zone. She quickly got hooked and began training to instruct vets.
"I get more out of it than they do," she said. "It's an investment. It taps a part of you that you didn't know you had."
In addition to the Higher Ground program, Sun Valley Adaptive Sports makes the joy of skiing available to others challenged by disabilities, including Blaine County students, the Idaho School for the Deaf and Blind and Special Olympians. For information on the organization or to get in-volved, call 726-9298 or log on to www.svasp.org.