As the sun rises above the mountains, projecting a majestic alpenglow on the surrounding peaks, the beauty of the moment is not lost on those living in darkness. For darkness is relative, and those living without the ability to see are not living without the ability to have vision. The warmth of the sun on the face and the smells associated the crisp breeze of the winter morning breathe life into those seeking to live without barriers. The sound of the snow crunching below boots, or the sound of an ice tool gripping the side of a frozen waterfall does not display the limitations associated with the lack of sight, but display the endless possibilities occurring when life is truly embraced.
On February 7-13, 2016, a group of athletes with visual impairments took to the mountains in Crested Butte, Colorado seeking an
adventure unlike any other. From Indiana to Colorado and Utah, these individuals came together with one goal in mind—to become a family. With a week of adventure as the medium for success, this group pushed beyond their perceived limitations to gain a sense of camaraderie and a bond strong enough to help navigate the obstacles of life beyond mountains. It was a chance to come together as a team with one true mission: to support one another in life.
Peace of Adventure, a Colorado Springs nonprofit, believes in giving veterans a renewed sense of purpose by empowering them to serve civilians with disabilities through outdoor recreation. Using week-long adventures in the mountains to bring groups together, Peace of Adventure engages participants in a long-term plan for care and connection.
“We believe in the therapeutic power of recreating in the outdoors;” said Kyle Thomas, Executive Director of Peace of Adventure, “however, we believe the true sustainability of personal growth and accountability comes in the follow-up and connection months after the event.”
Peace of Adventure is developing a unique peer support program designed to give veterans a sense of accountability similar to their military experience and a renewed sense of purpose through mentoring civilians with disabilities. Peace of Adventure works with participants after the event to meet sustainable health and wellness goals on a personal level and with the group as a whole.
“We believe in opening doors for individuals with disabilities and believe veterans are well-suited to help lead the way,” explained Thomas. “Veterans spent a large part of their lives serving a cause greater than themselves and that is often taken away upon leaving the military. We want to give that purpose back by empowering them to serve again. Additionally, we are dedicated to facilitating long-term sustainability of that empowerment.”
For the event in Crested Butte, Peace of Adventure partnered with the Adaptive Sports Center for five days of skiing and ice-climbing at Crested Butte Mountain Resort and surrounding wilderness areas. Peace of Adventure paired three veterans with visual impairments with three civilians with visual impairments. While a few members of the team had experienced some level of winter sports in the past, most were relatively new to the activities. However, the lack of experience did not take away the enthusiasm to tackle new adventures and support new teammates.
“Peace of Adventure’s mission shows a lot of vision and is truly unique,” said Chris Read, Program Director at the Adaptive Sports Center. “It is always a pleasure to work with another organization who understands the power of a well-designed adventure experience and is also willing to facilitate the impact of the experience over the long term.”
Utilizing the skillsets and professionalism from the Adaptive Sports Center’s staff of world-class instructors, each participant’s progression on the snow brought a new level of confidence and independence. However, the true success of the event did not occur from each individual accomplishment and is yet to be fully realized.
“I have been a part of many adaptive sports camps in the past, and Peace of Adventure’s focus on mentorship really caught my attention and was something I really wanted to be a part of,” said Retired Air Force Staff Sergeant Mike Malarsie, who lost his eyesight from an I.E.D. explosion in Afghanistan. “Learning how to integrate back into ‘normal’ society has been a challenge. This is a great opportunity for me to hopefully use what I have been through to help somebody else. But at the same time, I know I have a lot to learn and want to meet people who can help me be a better person.”
Ret. SSgt Malarsie was partnered with Kirt Manwaring who was born without eyesight. Immediately upon arriving in Crested Butte, both individuals discovered exactly how they could truly support each other long term. Manwaring’s independence in a big city and Marlarsie’s commitment to physical fitness are both strengths correlating perfectly to the other’s desired area of improvement.
“We are going to learn a lot from each other,” says Manwaring. “I’m very grateful to this program for making this happen and facilitating the long term growth for both of us. It’s incredible!”
As the sun sets in the mountains and the cool breeze fades to the cold of night, memories of the time spent together in the mountains serve as a warm beacon to a life lived without limitations and a life filled with purpose. At the surface, outdoor recreation serves as a means to physical fitness and a connection to our environment. But given the opportunity to dig deeper, one realizes the power recreation has in bringing people together in community…and that is truly therapeutic.