Making the outdoors accessible


If you’ve been following along for any length of time you’ll know that as part of my Ironman Journey this year I’m raising money for Bretton Woods Adaptive, a non-profit organization that helps people with disabilities experience recreational opportunities. I’ve been collecting stories about this incredible organization and will be publishing them on this blog over the next several weeks leading up to the race.

Below is an article from Tom Eastman titled: Making the outdoors accessible to all Bretton Woods Adaptive Program blazes new trails for people with disabilities. Please read this great story and consider making a donation. It’s a long read, but a worthwhile story.

BRETTON WOODS-On a fine fall day, six volunteers from the Bretton Woods Adaptive Program helped a 29-year-old consultant achieve his dream of hiking to an Appalachian Mountain Club hut.

It wasn’t easy traveling the rocky, root-strewn 2.7 miles from the parking lot to the AMC’s Zealand Falls Hut last Saturday, Oct. 6. But thanks to new advances in gear for the disabled, and a lot of sweat equity, it wasn’t impossible, either.

Chris Hart, director of Urban and Transit Projects for the Institute for Human Centered Design at Adaptive Environments in Boston, Mass., has cerebral palsy. His condition impacts his body, but not his spirit.

Hart is an adaptive skier and busy consultant who travels frequently around the country, helping to design systems that make it easier for the mobility challenged to negotiate their way around urban buildings and transit systems. “With the aging of the Baby Boomers…there is going to be a greater demand to help design things that will allow people to remain independent longer,” said Hart, who noted that last Saturday’s first-ever hike by the Bretton Woods Adaptive Program to an AMC hut fulfilled a long-held dream.

“My grandfather began hiking all of New England’s tallest 100 peaks when he was 75. He finished them when he was 83,” said Hart. It takes some effort to understand him, given his condition, but like the hike, with a little patience, his message is loud and clear. “I could not ever hike with him. But now, today, I am hiking. It lets me go to where my grandfather went – for the first time!” he said, with a grin that said it all.

There were two rough sections along the 2.7-mile hike from the parking lot off Zealand Fall Road to the hut. Of the two, the worst was just below the hut, and it took the volunteers a good 45 minutes to port Hart in a Terra Trek Wheelchair, an all-terrain wheelchair. The wheelchair is modified to carry two poles in front that turns it into a rickshaw type vehicle.

For the section from the trailhead to two-tenths of a mile below the hut, Hart had been carried in a Trail Rider, a one-wheeled Rickshaw-like device designed and manufactured by an intern at Northeast Passage, a non-profit organization based in Durham at the University of New Hampshire dedicated to solving accessibility challenges for people with physical and cognitive disabilities.

The hike from the trailhead to the hut took three hours Saturday, while the hike out Sunday took two and a half hours.

The weather changed from the morning’s sunshine, and rain began to fall as they got to the hut Saturday afternoon. After a quick visit to Zealand Falls next to the hut, where the fall foliage was at its full glory, all changed out of their wet clothes into dry gear and then enjoyed a hearty meal prepared by the AMC hut crew of roast turkey, mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce before bunking down for the night by lights out at 9:30 p.m.

Sandy Olney, director of the Bretton Woods Adaptive Program, said one benefit of doing the hike in fall was no bugs. “I needed folks to be available so it had to be a weekend, and I hoped Columbus Day Weekend would give me the number I needed to get people up on the trail. We had six wheelchair team members and three ‘Sherpas,’ who carried supplies and gear up to the hut prior to our making the trek with Chris,” said Olney.

In addition to Hart, Annie O’Neill also made the trek. She is a 26-year-old who has autism and who is an avid downhill skier and hiker. A resident of Wilder, Vt., she works two days a week in food service at Landmark College, Putney, Vt., and volunteers in the kitchen at Lebanon SeniorCenter, Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center and David’s House.

Volunteers participating on the trek as wheelchair team members were Lennie Fillius of Bethlehem; Jim Hogan, a construction worker from Franconia; Tom Norcott of Franconia, Emily Voytek, a college senior majoring in geology at Tufts University in Boston; Gary Biadasz of Bethlehem, and Olney.

The Sherpas were Charlotte Fleetwood of Cambridge, Mass.; Keith Wortzman of Boston; Roy Loiselle of Cranston, R.I., and Herb and Ellen Kingsbury of Kittery Point, Maine, as well as Fillius’ wife, Mary, who came up on Sunday to help transport gear from the hut back to the trailhead. Also recruited at the hut Saturday night to help with the portage out Sunday was a French Canadian guest name Stefan, along with members of the AMC hut crew, who helped carry gear down.

“It proved that wilderness and back-country hut experience is accessible to people who use wheelchairs. The inconvenience of having to use a wheelchair should not keep someone from hiking with their friends,” said Olney this week,

The AMC caught a lot of flak when it rebuilt its Galehead Hut to make it handicapped accessible, including its restrooms. But, proponents argued at the time, one never knows what technological breakthroughs will occur over the next century, thus bringing the outdoor experience accessible to all.

“The bathrooms at both Zealand and Galehead are handicapped accessible. If there is a will there is a way in terms of bringing people to the huts. I like to say that if we put the programming out there, people will come forward and take advantage of it and enjoy it. It’s one of those, ‘If you build it they will come,’ kind of things, ” said Olney.

Located in Zealand Notch, the former scene of indiscriminate logging and devastating fires in the 19th century, Zealand Falls Hut occupies a choice four-season spot with outstanding views at the eastern edge of the Pemigewasset Wilderness.

Completed in 1932 along with Galehead as part of legendary hut master Joe Dodge’s plan to make all of the huts a day’s hike apart, it operates year-round.

The Bretton Woods Adaptive Program until this year was a ski program.

“But what was once the steering committee became a board of directors when they applied for nonprofit status with the IRS in the fall of 2006,” said Olney. She said the board presented a proposal to go to a four-season program, and to hire Olney as full-time director. The new owners of Bretton Woods – CNL Income Properties – embraced the program. The Bretton Woods Adaptive Program is one of the primary beneficiaries of Olympic ski great and Bretton Woods director of skiing Bode Miller’s annual Bodefest.

The program has expanded to include not only skiing, but hiking, road cycling, downhill mountain biking, paddling, water skiing and fishing.

The goal, said Olney, is to “enhance the lives of our participants by creating opportunities for them to enjoy outdoor activities.”

Having people experience environments that they were previously excluded from, and to experience the freedom of speed in motion, “is exhilarating for me as well as the participant,” said Olney, formerly of Nantucket, but a resident of Mount Washington Valley for the past five years.

Among her greatest success stories was this past winter, when Olney and crew helped a woman with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis fulfill her dream to go skiing.

“Erin Brady Worsham, an artist from Nashville, Tenn., who has ALS, first encountered Bode Miller while watching the Winter Olympics on TV. She was intrigued, so she Googled Bode, and found a link to the Bretton Woods Adaptive Program. Erin, who lives with her husband in and 12-year-old son, had never skied before, but she was excited by the element of speed that it could give,” related Olney.

She corresponded with the Bretton Woods Adaptive Program’s president of the board of directors, Cris Criswell, who suggested she come up and try adaptive skiing at Bretton Woods this past March.

“She only has the use of her muscles from just her forehead. She cannot swallow or breathe on her own. She has been on a feeding tube and respirator for 11 years. She paints, writes an speaks with an electronic sensor taped between her eyebrows. She calls that her ‘cosmic connection,’ ” said Olney.

The resort provided her family with food and lodging for the visit. It was a cooperative effort between Bretton Woods and the adaptive program at Loon, which loaned two master tetherers, George Hollingsworth and Dave Blenkhorn.

“We had to rig the bi-ski to accommodate her. She needed head support so we ended up transferring her head rest from her own wheelchair to the bi-ski, a device which is a sit-ski with two articulating skis,” said Olney.

The team connected her respirator to a portable battery, took her up the Zephyr chair, and at the top, disconnected the portable battery so that the respirator was powered by its internal battery.

“We skied down Crawford’s Blaze, and about halfway down we started to get a low-battery warning. The battery failed sooner than anticipated due to the cold weather. So, we high-tailed it to the bottom! We got to the bottom, got her plugged back in and caught it all in time before it completely failed. We did have a backup in case the respirator failed on the slopes – we had an Ambubag, which has a pump which allows you to manually pump air into her respirator, but thankfully we did not have to use it,” said Olney.

Erin Brady Worsham wrote the following account via e-mail: “The people of the Bretton Woods Adaptive Program took my vision in ‘Go Fast’ and made it a reality. I can never truly thank them for that. So, why did a girl from Nashville, Tenn., who’s almost completely paralyzed from ALS and breathes with a ventilator, and who had never skied before in her life, feel the need to make a pilgrimage to the White Mountains to go skiing? Cris, who is also a minister, put it best in an excerpt from his invocation at the annual Hartford Ski Spectacular in Breckinridge, Colo., which is the country’s largest winter sports festival for people with disabilities. ‘So whether by birth, by disease, by accident or by war, whether you ski or whether you ride, one board or two, two legs or one, sit-down, stand-up, with or without sight, it is our magic carpet ride – we all glide over frozen, sparkling crystals for the same reason, to be transported into another world, a place where the crippled dance, the lame walk and the blind see, where we may all, each and everyone, no one left behind, all together, mount up with wings like eagles and join the dance which has no end.’ Amen to that!”

The Bretton Woods program has 60 volunteers in winter, and for this past summer, the program’s first, the program had 25 volunteers. Olney said the rewards of volunteering are many.

“You get the glow. When everyone came down off the mountain Sunday and we went and grabbed some sandwiches together, everyone was so positive and sharing what they had achieved, and appreciating it so much, it was great to be around that positive energy,” said Olney.

For more information about the Bretton Woods Adaptive Program, call 278-3398; e-mail adaptiveprogram@mountwashingtonresort.com; or write Mount Washington Resort, Route 302 Bretton Woods 03575; on the web at www.mountwashingtonresort.com.

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