Challenge Mountain, a mostly unheard-of, no-frills, private ski lodge in a remote corner of Charlevoix County, is a humble place. But it deserves a spot with the Sleeping Bear Dunes as one of the North Country’s most beautiful locations, not for the steepness of its slopes or Kodachrome sunsets, but because of who goes there. The clientele and the people who run the operation are extraordinary.
Nearly 2,000 kids and young adults with a wide range of physical and cognitive disabilities visit Challenge Mountain every year for a chance to do something many other people take for granted—enjoy the outdoors and push themselves physically. For these athletes, a day at Challenge Mountain offers a rare treat.
Some arrive in vans. Others in buses. They all go home tired and happy. Tom McCullough, a Charlevoix resident with Down Syndrome, has been skiing at Challenge Mountain for years. “I love to ski here,” says the engaging 40-something with the big smile. “I learned to ski here when I was very little. I was scared then. But not anymore.”
Photography by Andy Wakeman
As anyone who has tried the sport knows, skiing can be tricky to learn. Some of the technical aspects, like turning a corner, seem counterintuitive. Consider what it’s like, then, for a blind and deaf person or someone with seriously impaired motor skills to stand on that hill and have faith that he or she will reach the bottom. It takes extreme courage. And these skiers seem to find it.
First-time skier Noam Raphael, a 21-year-old student at Washtenaw Community College who has balance difficulties as well as vision and hearing loss, was asked during a brief rest from the slopes whether he’d return to Challenge Mountain. “Yes, I liked it,” he said emphatically. “Going down the hill, it’s not scary at all.”
That is a typical reaction. In the lodge or outside, you hear, “Let’s go do it again,” but almost never, “I want to go home.”
Challenge Mountain serves a population with a wide range of disabilities—blindness, deafness, Down Syndrome, cerebral palsy and spina bifida. Participants come from all over Michigan, often accompanied by family members or as part of a group trip. Everything is provided at little or no charge—from a simple lunch to full ski gear.
And word is getting around. The non-profit organization now serves new populations. “We’re starting to get more spinal cord injuries, some stroke victims [and clients with] muscular dystrophy and autism,” says executive director Elizabeth Looze.
On a Saturday in early February, some 30 blind and deaf children and young adults, along with roughly twice that number of family members, spent the day skiing, having lunch and warming up in the lodge. The day starts with volunteers fitting all skiers (including an occasional friend or family member) with the basics—helmets, goggles and boots. First-time volunteers from Central Michigan University—all of them psychology students—are helping out. Then it’s a matter of assessing individual needs and finding the right equipment. Challenge Mountain owns an impressive array of adaptive skiing equipment.
All of that takes some time, but once all the equipment issues are settled and everyone gets closer to hitting the slopes, there’s a palpable, mounting sense of excitement.
It’s time to ski. A fast-moving snowmobile ferries skiers up the long, wide ski run. That trip itself is part of the fun. Then safety equipment is double-checked. And it’s time to take off.
In most cases, a trained ski instructor accompanies the skiers the whole way to the bottom of the hill. A few of the more physically able participants—especially those who’ve already learned to ski well—go it alone down the slope to the lodge. The attitude at Challenge Mountain is that with the right equipment and help, any visitor can experience the slopes in some fashion. To be sure, the whole experience is about fun. But in a deeper sense, there is more going on here. The Challenge Mountain motto, “Great Things Happen Together,” makes it clear: This day is also about building confidence. It’s a unique chance for these skiers who face major challenges every moment of their lives to demonstrate to themselves—and to their families—that they can succeed at a difficult task.
One of the main goals of the whole experience is to strengthen families. “A lot of parents just can’t believe their child can do all this,” says Looze. “It makes them so happy. Normally, they’re so busy being caretakers. They’re forced so often to say what their kids can’t do, instead of seeing what they can accomplish. A lot of parents are just blown away.”
That was clearly the case with Noam’s parents, Yoash and Donna Raphael. “This is an amazing place,” says Yoash. “Look around! Everyone has a smile on his face—from babies to grandparents. There’s attention without tension.”