Michael Meets Machu Picchu – Ski for Light Training (Jan 27 – Feb 3, 2019)

For the 2019 Ski for Light International Week (January 27 – February 3), I traded in my hiking boots and trekking poles for ski boots and cross-country skis.  Although there would be no mountain hiking training here, I would be getting in some great cross-country skiing workouts at nearly 8,500 feet elevation.

Ski for Light (SFL) is a non-profit organization whose mission is to enhance the quality of life and independence of visually or mobility-impaired adults through a program of cross-country skiing.  They hold an annual International Week at different locations across the United States with participants attending from all over the world.  The 2019 SFL Week was the 44th Annual SFL event and was held at Snow Mountain Ranch in Granby, CO.

SFL promo photo - blind skier and guide standing on ski trail with arms raised in victory sign

I volunteered again to be the captain/coordinator of the 2019 SFL Team Texas.  We actually got started back in August 2018 with an info kickoff meeting and started signing up participants from across the state.

We ended up taking 17 Visually Impaired Participants (VIPs) from across the great state of Texas to the 2019 SFL event. There were 8 of us from Houston, 3 from San Antonio, 1 from Austin, 2 from McKinney, 2 from El Paso, and 1 from Midland.  Team Texas had the biggest contingent of participants of any state which was pretty remarkable considering there is no cross-country skiing in the state.

I flew from Houston to Denver with a few other friends (Bonnie Vegiard, Alma Balleza and David Cleveland) on that January 27 morning.  FMichael, Bonnie, Alma and David waiting at gate in IAH airportrom Denver, we met up with pretty much all the rest of the 150 or so participants.  Then, we took shuttle buses from the Denver Airport heading northwest through the snowy mountains to Snow Mountain Ranch, where we would be staying and skiing for the next week.

Once we arrived at Snow Mountain Ranch, there were plenty of volunteers to help us sort through our luggage, check in and get our registration materials, and find the way to our rooms.  There were three lodges with room accommodations for 2, 3 or 4 people.  I had already arranged to share a room with a friend from Houston, Wes Ferrell.

After settling in and getting a short rest, we were ready to head over to the “Commons” for the opening ceremonies.  The Commons would be where we would have all our breakfasts and dinners and general meetings.  Lunch would be served at the café at the Nordic Ski Center.

At the opening ceremonies dinner, there was the regular fanfare of introducing all the SFL board, planning committee and special guests.  Then came the fun part of introducing all the visually impaired participants and meeting our sighted guides for the week.  My guide, Einar Berg, was a very experienced skier from Norway and one of the original founders of the SFL organization back in 1975 (more on Einar to come).

The introductions were pretty much alphabetical and each time a Team Texas participant was called out, we rang our cow bell and had lots of cheering screams by the rest of the team.  By the way, this was also our first opportunity to meet up in person with most of the Team Texas participants.

And all Team Texas participants got a red ski cap, which had become our identity symbol the year before.  Everyone knew you were part of Team Texas when you were wearing your red ski cap out on the trails or around the lodge!

Most of us were pretty much beat by the end of the opening ceremonies and a day of traveling so we headed back to our rooms to get some rest for what would be an early start the next morning.

Most of the VIPs were up bright and early the next morning (Day 2) to attend the stretching class at 6:45 AM.  I chose to stay in bed a little longer and simply do my stretching in my room.  Breakfast was at 7:30 AM every morning at the Commons less than a 5-minute shuttle ride from the lodges (or you could take a 10-minute brisk walk in the cold Colorado morning air).

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After breakfast and the daily announcements, we headed back to our rooms to finish getting dressed and ready for a day of skiing at the Nordic Center.  Since it was the first day of skiing, most of us had to spend the first hour or so getting our ski equipment.

Then, depending on your skiing ability, you could take the beginner techniques class or immediately hit the trails.  Since this was my third year, I chose to go on outside and get acquainted with my ski equipment again on the snow before hitting the trails.

It was snowing off-and-on all day and the temperature hovered right around 20° the entire time. The skiing conditions were excellent!  But since it was my first day out in the snow, I quickly tired after a couple of hours and headed in for lunch and decided to call it a victory for the day.

Two parallel set of cross country ski tracks heading down a gently sloping trail with mountains and trees in the background

Apres ski activities each day included special interest sessions (presentations on various subjects by participants, guides, instructors, or SFL staff), followed by dinner and announcements and usually the night ended with some form of entertainment.

For this second night at SFL, there was a dance with a DJ.  Some of the Texas contingent decided to turn in early, but many opted for the dance.  Interestingly, a tradition which started my first year of going to SFL in 2017, the Team Texas VIPs and the VIPs from New York began hanging out together most evenings and tonight’s dance was no exception.

Day 3 proved to be another beautiful day of x-country skiing.  The day started out on the cold side, approximately 8°, but warmed up to the 20’s later in the day.  I did one of the 5K trails in the morning and worked on some techniques in the afternoon.

Then some of the Team Texas gang and New York contingent headed over to the tubing hill.  Tubing down the icy hill was such a blast, but we could only get in three downhill runs.  You have to walk back up the hill with your tube and after a day of cross-country skiing, we had hit our limit.

Wes, Alma, Tim, Bonnie and Michael (taking the pic) sitting in rubber tubes getting ready to go down the snow tubing hill

I then headed over to the lodge to the room that had been set up for indoor biathlon rifle shooting practice. Michael wearing headphones and laying on the floor practicing biathalon rifle shootingIt took me a while to get used to the beeping signal that indicated when I was close to the target and I could pull the trigger.  I got six bullseyes out of 10 shots.

For the night’s entertainment, there was Trivia Game or movie.  Team Texas decided to host our own apres ski party in one of our rooms.  It was a long night!

Michael and Cuqui standing in their skis after a mornings run on the trails

Day 4 started out sub-zero and I refused to go out skiing until it reached 10 @ 10 (10 degrees at 10:00 AM).  I did another fun 5K trail before lunch and then had to cut the afternoon short to just a 1K trail to get back in time for the sleigh ride we had reserved later that afternoon.  Cuqui Soto and I skied together that morning.

Some of the Team Texas and New York gang decided to go for a sleigh ride over the fields and through the woods.  The late afternoon was really beautiful and really, really cold.  It was such a relief to stop about half-way and huddle around the pit fires and roast marshmallows and drink hot chocolate.  It’s hilarious watching blind people roast marshmallows – they either come out still cold or totally burned black and crispy!

When we got back from the sleigh ride, some of us stopped off at the lodge commons area to finish warming up and participate in a sing-along around the fireplace.

The entertainment for the night was a silent auction.  After a quick run through the auction items, Team Texas held another room party.

Day 5 was another gorgeous day for skiing and a lot warmer than earlier in the week.  It actually got up to 30° with crystal blue skies and lots of sunshine.

I forgot to bring my knee brace which I use for extra support of my osteoarthritis in my right knee due to multiple torn meniscus and surgery over the years.  Therefore, I had to take it a little easier today and did an easy 5K trail in the morning and repeated the same 5K trail in the afternoon.

We had a pleasant surprise during the afternoon run.  We got to see several moose that were out feeding about 50 meters off the trail about 3/4 of the way along the trail.

The evening entertainment was a Square Dance, which a couple of the Team Texas members attended, but most ended up at another Team Texas room party.  It was hosted a different lodge from where Bonnie, Alma and I were staying.  We missed the last shuttle bus back to our lodge and had to try to find our own way back.

Of course, I said, “I know the way!” and we ended up getting lost.  After about 30 minutes out in the cold night air (which normally would be a 5 to 10-minute walk), a security guard drove up and helped us get back on the right track.  Bonnie and Alma didn’t follow me again anywhere for the rest of the trip.

I know it sounds repetitious, but Day 6 was another eximious day for skiing.  We had azure skies and perfect temperatures between 19° and 34°.  Team Texas started out the morning taking a group photo at the Nordic Center of the VIP skiers and then one of the skiers and their guides.

Team Texas holding their skis and poles taking their group photo out on the snow under bright blue skiesTeam Texas with their guides taking their group photo out on the snow under bright blue skies

Today I did one of the 10K trails (or at least most of it). We stopped off to visit an old homestead and have a picnic lunch along the trail. I was totally uncoordinated after lunch and fell 4 times.

At the end of the day, I tried out one of the sit skis used by the mobility impaired participants (MIPs). Now that’s a real workout!

Entertainment for this evening was “Norway Night.”  It starts at dinner with a traditional Norwegian meal and desserts (yummy).  Then, there was the special recognition and history of Ski for Light originating from the Norwegian version called Ridderrennet.  There was also special Norwegian music and poetry and the night ended with the Norwegian version of a conga dance line throughout the Commons hall.

Day 7 was finally here, but the BIG day came much too quickly for me.  The Ski for Light 2019 5K Rally/10K Race Day!  VIPs and MIPs could choose the 5K Rally or the 10K Race.  The 5K Rally allows you “race” against yourself and a predicted time that you provided two days prior to the Rally.  Most of Team Texas chose to do the 5K Rally.

The opening ceremonies started with the playing of the national anthems of the seven countries represented at SFL 2019.  Skiers had been given bib numbers based on their predicted times and we lined up by our bib numbers.  Skiers started every 20 seconds.

The fastest skiers reached the finish line in about 30 minutes and all skiers were completed by two hours.  It was so exciting as each skier reached the finish line and people were ringing cow bells and cheering them in.  We had lunch at the Nordic Center café after all the skiers were finished.  We would not find out the final results until later in the evening at the closing ceremonies and banquet.

That night at the Ski for Light 2019 banquet, we learned that Team Texas really cleaned up with 8 awards. We got third place (Alma) in women under 57 partially sighted and first (Mary Alice), second (Young), and third (LouAnn) for women over 57 partially sighted.

For the men, we got second (Tim) and third (Patrick) for men under 57 partially sighted; and second (Michael) and third (Henry) for men over 57 partially sighted. This is a real testament to the quality of the sighted guides that we had.  Team Texas ROCKS!

Team Texas after the banquet celebrating their victory holding up all their ribbons and medals

Bright and early the next morning, the fun and camaraderie of Ski for Light 2019 came to an end as VIPs and MIPs began leaving Snow Mountain Ranch and heading to Denver airport on the shuttle buses.  It was bitter-sweet time.

Early morning sunrise of a open field of snow and mountains in the background

I did encounter a little more excitement on my last leg of the trip back home after Ski for Light 2019 week. I thought I was going to have a nice quiet, but boring trip back home since I was flying later in the day by myself.

But several of the Team Texas group (Bonnie, Alma, and David – the same group I flew to Denver with a week earlier) took a $600 voucher on an overbooked earlier flight and ended up on my flight. The fun times continued all the way to Houston!

Here’s my swag from Ski for Light 2019. Michael's swag from the 2019 SFL eventBib number 56 in the 5K Rally/10K Race, red ski hat representing Team Texas, participant medal, participant lapel pin, Ski for Light decal, and second place ribbon for Men over 57 partially sighted in the 5K Rally.

After being back home for a day, I had time to reflect on the experiences of my third SFL event. I realize how truly blessed I was to be part of such an awesome event and the SFL organization. The camaraderie and enthusiasm of the nearly 150 visually and mobility impaired participants from all over the world, volunteer guides/instructors assigned to each participant, and numerous other volunteers, who helped ensure all aspects and details of the event ran smoothly were absolutely incredible.

We were blessed by beautiful weather, beautiful scenery, beautiful skiing conditions, and most of all, so many beautiful people reaching out to one another in fellowship and love. Whether learning or improving skiing techniques, passing one another on the ski trails, sharing a meal, enjoying the numerous apres ski activities, or simply sitting by the fireplace in the lodge and joining in a sing-along, I always felt welcomed and included as part of the SFL family. It was also so heart-warming to reconnect with old SFL friends and acquaintances and make new ones for the first time.

One of those new acquaintances was my guide/instructor, Einar Berg, from Stavanger, Norway. I was especially blessed to have Einar as my guide this year. You see, not only is Einar an expert skier and guide, he has been a part of Ski for Light since it began in 1975. He has been on the SFL board, helped develop SFL procedures, and an inspirational leader to so many over the past 44 years. As you can imagine, there has been much SFL history and stories over the years. Again, I was blessed to have Einar share so many of these with me during our time together over the past week.

Einar, there are no words that can express the gratitude I have for the guidance, support and most of all, the friendship you provided me this past week. Your dedication and love of the SFL organization and family is outstanding. Blessings to you, my new friend. Looking forward to coming to Norway and having you show me the Northern Lights.

Ultimately, I want to document the larger story of my journey in the film “One Step at a Time.”  The goal of this documentary is to bring hope, inspiration and the joy of achievement to all through an impressive chronicle of determination and resiliency.

I have had several personal blind friends die much too early in their lives due to a complication of factors, including poor exercise and diet choices.

My hope is that this documentary will be seen by tens of thousands for years to come to empower the blind and others to live a healthier lifestyle through physical activities.

If you are interested in being a part of this film, you may make a donation on my personal fundraising page: http://bit.ly/2uzITej

My three guides and I are paying all of our own expenses for this trek (travel, tour package, equipment, etc.).

Funds received will go exclusively towards capturing, creating and distributing this film.

All funds for sponsoring this documentary are tax-deductible to Achilles International Houston, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization.

Thank you for your consideration for what promises to be a life-altering experience for me and all those who join me on this journey, in person or by film.

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