James Hayes helps people with disabilities enjoy alpine skiing
By Tim Rowland
At Gore Mountain, adaptive ski instructor James “Jimmer” Hayes recalled a man who had brought his 6-year-old autistic son to learn to ski. Who among the three was more tentative? It might have been difficult to tell. The father finally felt things were going well enough to hit the slopes on his own, leaving Hayes on an island to explain the finer points of skiing to a boy who would neither make eye contact nor talk.
But Hayes is OK with unspoken words. “Just because they’re not talking doesn’t mean they’re not communicating,” he said. “You start observing the second they walk in the door, what they’re reacting to, how comfortable they feel in their boots.”
Hayes’ skills at teaching those with physical and mental disabilities the sport known as adaptive skiing was noticed by the Olympic Regional Development Authority. ORDA put him in charge of a program at the downhill facilities the authority runs for the state, so that more people can enjoy alpine sports.
One thing that’s different, however, is that those who teach adaptive skiing need to learn as fast or faster than those whom they are instructing.
Teaching adaptive skiing is many things, one of which is finding the key to earning the trust of those who may be reluctant to give it. In the case of autism, noticing and interpreting a shift of the eyes or the motion of a hand can be the difference between a good outing and a bad experience.
To Hayes, a member of the Professional Ski Instructors of America, it’s all a matter of degrees, which means nothing is insurmountable. “Maybe we’re all on the spectrum to some degree—maybe I’m on the spectrum,” he said. The point is that everyone faces challenges in life, and in this respect people with disabilities are the same as everyone else, he said.
With the boy’s father gone, the immediate goals of trust and communication had to be achieved without the banter and eye contact that would typically help build a relationship. Was he reaching the boy? Hayes wasn’t sure. They stood next to each on a slight slope used to teach students to find their balance on a pair of slippery boards.
Then, almost imperceptible at first, a gloved hand began to reach out to Hayes. Then the gloved hand came to rest on his arm. In the world of adaptive skiing, this touch was akin to beholding the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, a memory that still floods Hayes with joy.
As inclusiveness becomes an Adirondack watchword, ORDA has committed to bolstering its adaptive skiing programming, and as part of that it recruited Hayes to teach adaptive skiing, and also to train ski instructors.
Jamie Collins, ORDA’s communications content manager, said that adaptive ski instruction is not new for the organization, but that the programs are attracting greater emphasis.
For Collins, having a close friend with disabilities, the issue is personal. Collins said the state wants everyone to feel comfortable and welcome at its mountains—Gore, Whiteface and Belleayre. ORDA encourages this community in other ways as well, hosting events such as the Para Bobsled World Cup Competition at Mount Van Hoevenberg last November.
The ski centers encourage reservations to be sure proper equipment is available on arrival, but outside of that it’s like any other ski lesson. For many, “you wouldn’t be able to tell them from any other skiers on the mountain,” Hayes said. Others require special equipment such as a bi-ski, a seated pod with articulating runners that can be guided not by arms or legs, but by a shift in weight.
While expensive, this equipment has rapidly evolved in terms of technology, and opened skiing to a wider audience.
Instructors follow bi-skiers down the slopes, tethered to make sure control is maintained.
Hayes, 52, of Ballston Spa, learned about trust at an early age.
He grew up on Gore Mountain, skiing with his father, an attorney and ski instructor. They were close. Sometimes on the slopes when the sun is bright and the shadows are long, Hayes sees the dark supple form in perfect synchronization with every turn, and can’t shake the feeling it’s his dad, now deceased, once again at his side.
Like his father, he earned a law degree, but unlike his father, he never much used it. His heart was on the mountain, even if instruction wasn’t an immediate calling. “He was a teacher; I just liked to ski,” Hayes said.
But that’s part of his success, said Gail Setlock, Snow Sports School director at Gore Mountain. “He wants (people with challenges) to get the same joy out of skiing that the rest of us do,” she said. “You can enjoy the breeze on your face or the sun on the snow, whether you’re on a bi-ski, or have autism or Down syndrome.”
Setlock said Gore gives well over 100 adaptive ski lessons a year, and the number has been growing. To meet the demand, in New York and at ski centers throughout the East Coast, Hayes trains and tests instructors, certifying them at levels commensurate with their ability. Hayes “has a passion (for the work) and a love of helping,” Setlock said.
Hayes himself recognized his purpose when he volunteered at the 2005 Empire State Games for the Physically Challenged at Whiteface Mountain.
He found himself paired with one other instructor and a 16-year-old girl who had suffered a traumatic brain injury in a car accident. She had never skied. While substantively no different from anyone else, it just took her mind a couple of extra seconds to process her environment. The goal was to teach her to ski in the morning and get ready for racing by the afternoon.
Hayes was new to teaching. “I was scared,” Hayes said. “I looked at her and thought, ‘I can’t do this.’” His father was the teacher, and his mother was the nurse, and as Hayes got to know the injured girl, he felt himself lacking in both arenas. Then they snapped their skis into their boots and everything changed. “Once I got on the hill, I felt comfortable,” he said. As the girl descended the racecourse, an instructor on either side, Hayes felt a profound bond, a sense of trust that, effectively, has never stopped.
Hayes started to learn more about disabilities, and the deeper he looked, the more the disability faded and the human being emerged. There was no need to treat his adaptive pupils with kid gloves, or, really, any differently than any other student.
In 2005 he followed his mother’s lead and began volunteering at the Double H Hole in the Woods Ranch in Lake Luzerne, which was co-founded by Charles R. Wood and Paul Newman. The nonprofit offers support and programming for children and their families dealing with life-threatening illnesses. Hayes served as ski school director there from 2017 until 2022 when he was hired by ORDA.
His journey took him as well to the Adaptive Sports Foundation in Wyndham, where he worked with snow sports educator Gwen Allard, a pioneer of adaptive ski education who was named to the National Disabled Skiing Hall of Fame in 2001. “She really took me under her wing,” Hayes said.
Working with children at Double H, Hayes began to see the difference it made in their lives, something he continues to experience now. He saw the smiles, heard the laughter and listened as they told him how much it meant to show photos of themselves on skis to their friends.
“They were out having fun on the weekend, just like everyone else,” he said.
As the scope of his work has broadened, the challenges for others, and himself, have grown. He isn’t teaching just children anymore. At a winter sports clinic for disabled veterans, the mountains were bigger, and the students were not young and impressionable, they were war-hardened adults.
They were America’s survivors of military trauma, and for Hayes the same thoughts of nervousness and inadequacy came rushing back from the time he was teaching the 16-year-old girl with a brain injury to ski for the first time. “I started to call my wife and tell her I couldn’t do it,” he said.
But of course, he could. And so could they.