California Sounds: At Tahoe Resort, Disability Is No Barrier to the Slopes

3 min
David Collins (center) skis through the Achieve Tahoe program. (Sam Harnett/KQED)

Julius Schrem loved to ski when he was younger, although he wasn’t much into turning. He would bomb down the hills as fast as possible. He lost his leg in 1986 while deployed with the U.S. military in El Salvador. He was always an active guy, and losing his leg was devastating. Schrem thought he’d never ski again.

“I never thought I’d do anything again,” he said, “I was totally bummed out.”

But for the last few years, Schrem has been hitting the slopes with the help of the Achieve Tahoe program at Alpine Meadows ski resort. It helps skiers with a range of disabilities: Some have cerebral palsy or Down syndrome, and others have lost a limb. With all the snow this year, the program has welcomed new and seasoned skiers from all over the state.

On a recent day, Schrem headed out to ski with the help of Ryan Petherbridge, one of the guides in the program. Petherbridge helped Schrem adjust his leg prosthetic. It’s specifically designed for skiing, but it had a little too much air pressure the last time they went out.

“Well, the first day was pretty bad with Ryan,” Schrem said, “I kept falling all the time. Leg kept on coming off.”

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Some of the skiers with Achieve Tahoe use monoskis, similar to a human ski boot. You strap into a bucket seat with one large ski attached to the bottom, and you hold onto two little outrigger skis that you use to steer.

Michelle Marie Smith was never much of a skier before she lost her leg, but now she really enjoys the monoski. She said she even prefers it to when she skied standing up. Smith explained she's lower to the ground when she falls, and because she's strapped in, her equipment doesn’t go flying everywhere.

Smith recently lost her leg, and the transition has been hard. She said coming to ski is something to look forward to.

“It keeps me from laying in my bed, sad,” she said, “These things just help your mental state beyond what you can imagine.”

With Achieve Tahoe, Smith has been able to move her body under her own will and at high speeds, something that has been rare for her to come by since she lost her leg. It’s freeing, she said.

Also on the slopes with the Achieve Tahoe program were skiers who are blind. The Achieve guides skied in front of them and called out directions, telling them when to turn and alerting them to upcoming obstacles.

Guides for the blind and visually impaired ski ahead and behind, and call out when to turn. (Sam Harnett/KQED)

David Collins has been without his sight for over two decades, and he just got back into skiing.

“The scary part is when you’re first learning how to ski, and you don’t have control,” Collins said, “Then you’re like, 'Am I gonna hit that tree or am I gonna turn? I don’t see the trees.' ”

But now Collins felt comfortable following the voice of his guides, mirroring their turns as they fly down the mountain together.

“It looks beautiful when it happens,” Collins said. “It’s like synchronized skiing.”

Collins has conquered most of the intermediate trails at Alpine Meadows. Next he wants to take on the biathlon, which involves skiing and shooting a rifle at targets. Achieve Tahoe does not have a guide for that, yet.

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