By Addison Wingate
Those who grew up skiing may know: You never truly admit to taking your last run. Some claim it’s a superstition, others a steadfast rule. Although 85-year-old Barbara Witt may not have grown up with the idea, a recent ski day taught her that calling last run never goes as planned.
With a progressive disability that took hold in her later years, my grandmother, Barbara, spent the past 11 years believing that she would never ski again. However, this past December she took to the slopes once again, thanks to the dedication of local nonprofit, Achieve Tahoe.
Early on as parents, my grandmother and her late husband, Harvey, took my mom and her brother on ski trips to Mammoth Mountain each season. These trips instilled within their children a deep appreciation and love for the mountains. After graduating with a degree in recreation therapy, Barbara’s daughter, my mom, Karen Witt, went on to live and ski in Winter Park, Colorado. It was here that she was introduced to adaptive skiing and fell quickly in love with its inclusivity and innovation.
Karen worked as an adaptive ski instructor for four years in Winter Park before “realizing [she] missed the sun,” at which point she made Truckee her permanent home. In Truckee, she has worked as an instructor for 35 years with Achieve Tahoe, a local nonprofit that empowers people with “cognitive, sensory, and physical disabilities” to participate in year-round outdoor recreation. As her daughter, I have been lucky to witness a small part of the hard work that goes into building this program’s exceptional impact.
Since its founding in 1967, Achieve Tahoe has become a flagship program within the world of adaptive recreation. The organization serves three mountains in the Tahoe area, with its headquarters at the base of Alpine Meadows at Palisades Tahoe. During the 2021-22 year, Achieve Tahoe provided almost 3,000 lessons to 686 students with various disabilities. These lessons — which included not only skiing and snowboarding, but also summer sports such as kayaking, paddleboarding, and climbing — were in large part made possible thanks to more than 200 dedicated Achieve Tahoe volunteers.
Achieve Tahoe works with people of all ages and all abilities, most recently adding my grandmother to their long list of empowered students. Barbara, who now has been dependent on walking aids for the better part of five years, developed in her later years a disability called polyneuropathy. By impairing nerves outside of the brain and spinal cord, polyneuropathy (and the broader umbrella of peripheral neuropathy) can reduce or altogether eliminate an individual’s balance and spatial awareness. With mobility severely impacted in her hands, legs, and feet, Barbara hung up her skis in 2011 for what she believed to be the final time.
However, Achieve Tahoe’s mission ensured 2011 was far from her last time on the mountain.
This December, more than a decade later, Barbara and I sat in a local restaurant booth eating breakfast. She mentioned how profoundly she missed the freedom of skiing. It was the first holiday season in ten years that we were spending in Truckee together as a family, and she was filled with “a particular sadness” at the thought of not joining us on the mountain.
Only a couple of weeks (and some convincing) later, her tune had entirely transformed. Barbara was cruising up and down Alpine Meadows in a bi-ski, expertly guided by longtime Achieve Tahoe volunteer Dave Littman. As one of the foundational pieces of adaptive equipment, a bi-ski positions a fiberglass shell seat above two, carefully engineered skis. With its highly stable base, a bi-ski makes independent skiing possible for a person with limited to no ability to stand or balance without assistance. For a first-time bi-skier, success often rides on the abilities of their guide.
“Dave [Littman] is one of the best of the best,” my mom, Karen, explained to Barbara on the drive to Alpine Meadows. Littman taught his first “very rough”, as he explains it, adaptive lesson in 1976 and never looked back. In 1994, he officially joined the Achieve Tahoe team. With community as one of Achieve Tahoe’s key values, it’s no wonder that the organization has collected a number of lifelong instructors like Dave and my mom.
“For so many years, Karen Witt has given so much to Achieve Tahoe and the families that we serve,” says Achieve Tahoe’s program director, Michael Hunter. “We love that it came full circle to give her mom the opportunity to thrive on the mountain again.”
That holiday week, the excitement — both on behalf of Achieve Tahoe’s team as well as our family — was palpable as the three generations of skiers reunited at Alpine Meadows for the first time in more than a decade.
“I can’t stop smiling,” Barbara told us each ride up Sherwood and Treeline Cirque chairlifts. “My cheeks hurt!” In perfect rhythm with the fall line and fellow skiers, Barbara reflected that the skills of Littman and generosity of Achieve Tahoe helped her to once again reclaim the “feeling of being on the snow, in the sunshine, with [her] family on the mountain… it was the feeling of utmost joy.”
As many of those lucky enough to share in the wonders of the Tahoe area know, there are particular healing properties to be found within the great outdoors. Far from metaphorical, these properties are well-explored in multiple fields of research and medicine. For example, the Stress Reduction Theory posits that time spent in nature can help regulate emotions and improve physiological health.
Similarly, studies on the Japanese practice of shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing”, have connected as little as 30 minutes spent in nature to lower concentrations of cortisol, decreased heart rate, and lower blood pressure — all indicators of reduced stress. It is clear that the outdoors works as a profound healer, engaging the parasympathetic nervous system and releasing tension from both the body and mind.
It follows, then, that the work of Achieve Tahoe is not only liberating, but healing. Even now, weeks after Barbara’s day of skiing came to a close, clear indicators of its impact still remain. Following her return home to Los Angeles, Barbara is more focused in her physical therapy and her enthusiasm is soaring. She continues to sing the praises of a reunion with her lifelong love of skiing and is excited about finding new ways to navigate the world with a progressive disability.
Constantly redefining what is possible in the world of outdoor recreation, Achieve Tahoe’s programs continue to “provide affordable, inclusive physical and recreational activities that build health, confidence, and independence,” as the group’s website explains.
As for Barbara’s future on the slopes, she knows not to count out another trip up the mountain. After all, she’d tell you with a smile, you never call your last run.
~ Addison Wingate is a writer, storyteller, fiddle player, horse mama, and lover of the land. Born and raised in Truckee, Addison grew up learning about the importance of outdoor inclusivity and protecting our natural spaces. Since graduating from UCLA, she has turned to the dark side and now lives in sunny Los Angeles.