Vermont Adaptive Ski & Sports to Open New $2.5 Million Complex at Sugarbush | Outdoors & Recreation | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Vermont Adaptive Ski & Sports to Open New $2.5 Million Complex at Sugarbush

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Mono skier Paula McNeill at Mount Ellen - COURTESY OF VERMONT ADAPTIVE SKI & SPORTS
  • Courtesy Of Vermont Adaptive Ski & Sports
  • Mono skier Paula McNeill at Mount Ellen

When navigating the twists of German Flats Road in the Mad River Valley, drivers can see Mount Ellen's slopes from quite a distance. The steep Sugarbush Resort peak, cherished by locals, boasts the highest chairlift in Vermont. On a cloudy day, the longest runs appear to descend from the sky.

The towering heights might inspire vertigo in some people, but in a valley of Vermont ski bums, the most common reaction is pure glee. 

That was Jeff Alexander's reaction as he trekked up the pebbly hill to Mount Ellen's base lodge. The director of strategic partnerships at Vermont Adaptive Ski & Sports was visibly excited — perhaps by the first frost, still fresh that morning and hinting at snowy days to come. More likely, it was the expansive VASS construction project before him that has been over three years in the making.

For more than 30 years, Sugarbush has partnered with VASS to offer adaptive programs at Mount Ellen for individuals with disabilities. Founded in 1987 at Pico Mountain, VASS is the largest organization in Vermont offering daily, year-round adaptive sports programs to nontraditional athletes. The organization first came to Sugarbush in 1991, seeking to expand beyond Pico. 

Now, construction is nearly complete on a $2.5 million permanent home for VASS at Mount Ellen, set to open this winter. In May, Brandon-based Naylor & Breen, who designed VASS' Pico facility, began constructing the new building, designed by Warren's Jeffrey Dunham Architecture. It will be the organization's second permanent home. A third location on the Burlington waterfront and bike path is planned in the next two to three years. VASS also operates programs at Bolton Valley Resort.

Construction at the Mount Ellen base lodge - COURTESY OF VERMONT ADAPTIVE SKI & SPORTS
  • Courtesy Of Vermont Adaptive Ski & Sports
  • Construction at the Mount Ellen base lodge

For years, VASS operated at Mount Ellen out of a borrowed, 400-square-foot space that was separate from the main lodge. But Alexander believes everyone on the hill deserves an experience crafted with thought, care and passion, regardless of their abilities. Providing an accessible community experience means making Vermont's winter playground a diverse home for all, he said. 

"The interest is always there," Alexander explained as he guided a reporter through the space.  

The new building directly connects to Mount Ellen's base lodge, even boasting a shared outdoor wraparound deck. It will allow VASS program users easy access to the cafeteria, changing rooms and retail shops. More importantly, athletes of all abilities will be able to gear up, share beers, ski up to the lodge and enjoy the mountain together. 

VASS is dedicated to not only furthering independence for athletes with disabilities but also affording them full equality in their disciplines. At Mount Ellen, that means bridging the physical separation between adaptive and traditional spaces in the lodge to unite Mount Ellen's thriving communities of adaptive athletes, volunteers, locals and visitors.

Mono skier Emily Cioffi - COURTESY OF VERMONT ADAPTIVE SKI & SPORTS
  • Courtesy Of Vermont Adaptive Ski & Sports
  • Mono skier Emily Cioffi

"Community is a big part of the entire experience, and that holds true for everyone who enjoys Mount Ellen, whether as an independent skier or snowboarder or someone participating with us," said VASS executive director Erin Fernandez. "This new building will be the foundation and home for an incredible community of athletes, volunteers, local community members and tourists who can all ... recreate together, year-round, with ease."

Central to creating that community feel is a new, state-of-the-art, access-for-all elevator. It services all three floors of the Mount Ellen lodge and allows wheelchairs to enter directly from the mountain. Large enough to fit three chairs or multiple support staff, the elevator further fosters group settings by increasing accessibility. 

The new building will also have room for the many specialized programs VASS hosts. The organization's burgeoning Veteran Ventures program, which offers special events and retreats, now has a permanent office. Other new features include an educational lending library and a multipurpose space intended for classroom activities, yoga workshops, summer camps and more. A fully equipped kitchenette, which Cabot Creamery sponsored, will "always stay stocked with cheese," Alexander joked. 

A key component of VASS' operation is providing adequate and accessible equipment. From alpine skiing and snowboarding to snowshoeing, its selection of programs requires a wide range of adaptive gear. The new Mount Ellen facility will include an equipment workshop, ensuring that VASS gear stays in peak condition. The building will also house a shared adaptive equipment closet. 

Ski areas throughout Vermont reported significant losses last season due to the pandemic. With business expected to greatly increase this season, a more expansive space at Mount Ellen to serve diverse needs is a game changer. The Americans With Disabilities Act requires all resorts to have adaptive options. But often, adequate equipment or instruction is unavailable, or programs are so expensive that they're inaccessible for many. 

VASS prides itself on its ability to support everyone, never turning people away if they're unable to pay, VASS program coordinator Felicia Fowler said. Furthermore, the organization serves a broad array of individual needs, she added. 

"We work with everyone. The need for that sensory stimulation and that physical accessibility is there," Fowler confirmed. Unlike many resorts whose programs only serve individuals with physical disabilities, VASS also serves individuals with mental disabilities.

An adaptive skier and coach - COURTESY OF VERMONT ADAPTIVE SKI & SPORTS
  • Courtesy Of Vermont Adaptive Ski & Sports
  • An adaptive skier and coach

The 4,000-square-foot Mount Ellen facility will allow VASS to meet these needs. The building will have an outer-space-themed sensory room, complete with soundproofed, insulated walls to ensure a peaceful experience. In the past, supporting sensory relaxation needs could mean removing all other adaptive athletes from a space. Now, Fowler won't have to make that choice. 

Fowler said she's most excited about watching what was once a makeshift space transform into a permanent, dedicated home. 

"We went from a table outside to a shed to a room, now this," she said with pride. 

Kim Jackson, VASS' director of communications, emphasized the new building's value as a tourist hub. The organization's year-round programs draw people from across the country seeking adventure in the East. And events such as Pico's annual Winter Ski Festival, run with the U.S. Association of Blind Athletes, gather the larger adaptive community. But for Jackson, the most exciting part of the new space is the joy it will bring to longtime program participants. 

"Now we have this independent space that is built essentially for people of all abilities," she said, "and that is critical." 

VASS has fundraised all but $250,000 of its $2.5 million goal. The organization is accepting donations through its website. 

VASS hopes to open the space at the start of the Sugarbush season in mid-December with an opening ceremony. By December 26, VASS plans to operate daily programs from Mount Ellen.  

"It is a building, but there's a human reason behind why we need this building," Jackson said. "From the beautiful sensory room, where somebody on the spectrum can be quiet and get away from the chaos, to just being able to sit up into a sit-ski and push right out onto the slopes, there's human thought behind the building."

The original print version of this article was headlined "All Access"

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