Blind WWII Veteran Skis at Holiday Valley

by Ed Racich

“OK, he’s coming to ski with us at Holiday Valley. Wait, he’s 90 years old! He’s also blind? What do you mean not ‘completely’ blind?!”

Our first communications about Werner Birtch coming to ski with us at Holiday Valley were not exactly what we expected to hear. Our friends at the Three Trackers of Ohio called and told us that Werner has been skiing with them at Brandywine Ski Area, in Sagamore Hills, Ohio, for about six years, and wanted to ski a bigger ski area like the one he used to ski. They wanted to know if Holiday Valley could accommodate him for one day and help him get back some of the “old feelings” of skiing at a “big” ski area.

It seems that Werner originally came from the Northeast, in New England, and by a very circuitous route, wound up living and working in the Akron, Ohio, area, a far cry from what he knew growing up. So, the whole story begins to unfold.

Born in 1923, Werner spent his youth living with his family in a prominent New England city — a place where skiing was very far from his world at the time. He attended public schools and performed well enough to be able to attend Brown University where he studied engineering.

Like so many other young men at the time, his studies were cut short by World War II and Werner was drafted into the U.S. Army to serve his country at the age of 20. The Army, in its infinite wisdom, decided that since he was from New England, the heartland of U.S. skiing, he could best serve his country as part of the Army Infantry in the 10th Mountain Division. After all, being from New England, he surely must be able to ski. By the way, he couldn’t!  So off he went, after basic training, to the Colorado Mountains to train with the Army’s elite Mountain Corps. Needless to say, Werner learned to ski, and skiing became a lifelong passion.

After the war ended, Werner returned to Brown University to complete his education, going to work after graduation in Akron, Ohio, where he worked as an engineer. He continued his affair with skiing, traveling to many places through the years to enjoy his sport.

As his life progressed, so did the macular degeneration that eventually claimed most of his eyesight. He eventually had to give up his beloved sport of skiing. His vision had regressed to the point where all he had left was his peripheral vision. He could see some colors and some shapes at the outside edges of his line of sight, while there was nothing but darkness in the middle 80 percent of his view.

As you can imagine, it became very difficult to walk, let alone ski down a hill. Then one day, along came the Three Trackers of Ohio, a group of volunteers who help people with disabilities continue to enjoy being out in the snow. In 2005, Werner became involved with the Three Trackers and has skied with them ever since.

The Lounsbury Adaptive Ski Program at Holiday Valley has worked with the Three Trackers of Ohio before, trading student skiers with one another, promoting veterans’ activities and attending training seminars. It seemed only natural that here was another opportunity for us to collaborate.

On Monday, March 4, 2013, Werner came to Holiday Valley with two friends from Three Trackers to ski with us and enjoy the big area ski experience that Holiday Valley has to offer. Lounsbury instructors Jim Hoffmeister and Joe Gallagher were assigned to work with Werner, and it turned out to be a perfect match. Jim, Joe and Werner’s personalities clicked right from the start, and produced a trust and confidence level that usually takes much longer to develop. Of course, the same kind of trust and confidence had been established by the Three Trackers with Werner years before, which made Jim and Joe’s jobs that much easier.

One of Werner’s friends, Rick Luft, of the Three Tracker group, suggested that on the hill we should “start slow with him, let him ease into the new area.”  The two instructors, Jim and Joe, and Werner all laughed at the comment. Werner seemed to think that “going slow on such a nice ski day would be a terrible waste of time.» With an attitude like that, how could anything go wrong?

The end of the ski day came around much too quickly, but Werner was able to sigh and smile deeply, surrounded by his Three Tracker, LASP and Holiday Valley friends, reveling in his day. I’m not sure who got more out of the experience, Werner or the rest of us. I know we won’t soon forget that day. Hopefully, neither will Werner. And hopefully too, Werner will be able to enjoy skiing for many more days to come.

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