Arts & Leisure

Skiers take on challenge for Alzheimer’s benefit

The 36th Camel’s Hump Challenge will take participants on a single-track backcountry ski trail around the perimeter of Camel’s Hump on Feb. 4 (assuming the snowpack is sufficient). Photo by Bobbi Locicero

Ninety participants are gearing up for the 36th Camel’s Hump Challenge, which takes them around Camel’s Hump on Feb. 4. This event takes backcountry enthusiasts on a 13-15 mile trek, and is a key fundraiser for the Alzheimer’s Association, Vermont Chapter.
Photo by Bobbi Locicero

It started with wool sweaters, knickers, wooden skis and a dedicated spirit to venture into the winter woods. This is how it all began, according to Bruce Beeken’s recollection of his late father, Warren Beeken’s, project to establish a trail circumnavigating Camel’s Hump.  

That trail around Vermont’s third-highest mountain in a couple weeks will serve its 36th year as the Camel’s Hump Challenge — a rigorous wilderness ski touring experience where backcountry skiers traverse the perimeter of Camel’s Hump. This year’s event is Feb. 4. 

“Back in the 1980s my father moved to Richmond and cast his eyes on Camel’s Hump,” said Beeken, who now lives in Bristol and makes custom craft furniture with his partner, Jeff Parsons. “He developed a trail that started on the Huntington side and worked his way around the mountain… It was trial by error, but eventually he finished — with the help of townspeople, family members (I’m one of three sons, and we were all pressed into service at various times) and willing students.”

Warren was a doctor and teacher of medicine at the University of Vermont, Beeken explained. 

“He did this with absolute pure love of relating to the land,” Beeken continued, “and sniffing out routes with a special feeling.”

Warren wanted the trail to be more than just recreation, so he founded the Camel’s Hump Challenge thinking it could serve as a benefit event.  

“The fundraising efforts were mighty modest at the beginning,” Beeken recalled. “It was sort of an old-school, rag-tag kind of event. It was very joyful.”

Early on in the event’s history, Beeken’s mother (Warren’s wife, Ruth) developed Alzheimer’s Disease and the Camel’s Hump Challenge focused its efforts on raising funds and awareness for Alzheimer’s Disease and related dementia.

“There are over 13,000 Vermonters age 65+ living with Alzheimer’s and over 26,000 caregivers providing a total of 37 million hours of unpaid care,” cited Jenna Johnson, development manager of the Vermont Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association. “The funds raised through the Camel’s Hump Challenge support the education programs and support groups offered free of charge here in the state… Events like this challenge not only bring our community together through an activity that is woven into the fabric of our culture, but it also provides a space for those who are impacted by Alzheimer’s and other dementia to do what they love in support of a cause that is personal for them.”

THE CAMEL’S HUMP Challenge has a fundraising goal of $81,000 this year. Funds benefit the Alzheimer’s Association, Vermont Chapter.
Photo by Bobbi Locicero

This year, registration for the Camel’s Hump Challenge was expanded to 90 participants and has more than 50 people on the waitlist.

“We filled up in just a handful of days,” said Rob Backlund of Lincoln, who’s been an organizer of the event for seven years. “It’s a really good problem to have.”

The event stays small for several reasons including the small, private parking lot they use at the start of the trail in Huntington, risk management and the variability of the snowpack.

“For me, I grew up skiing,” Backlund explained. “My mom taught me. She developed early onset Alzheimer’s and died a few years ago.

“This event is skiing for something more than skiing,” he continued. “It’s not a race; it’s not timed. It’s just a chance to go out and be challenged, be social and have fun.”

To be clear, this is a challenge. It’s somewhere between 13-15 miles and takes 6-8 hours, typically. Participants need to be “comfortable and competent on skis,” said Backlund. “There are some descents where you have to go a certain way… and the trail is tight through the forest.”

But the rewards are grand: 

“The trail is really a series of moments and they change,” mused Beeken, who’s done the challenge 25 times. “There’s a dramatic change of forest type and land history as you go clockwise from the Westside to the Northside… There’s a very intimate, fairly old yellow and white birch stand… A walk along a boney spine… tunnels of evergreens… cabin-sized chunks of stone… An extraordinary series of connected beaver flows… And a pure birch stand — the regeneration from a fire — where if there’s any sun to be had it’s just magic; absolutely fantastic.”

“There are really neat pockets all over,” Backlund added. 

The event ends where it starts — at a barn on a classic Vermont field. A fire, soup, sandwiches and refreshments are waiting for all participants to come together and celebrate. 

“It’s such a unique Vermont event,” Backlund said. “Skiing is so tightly woven into the Vermont I’m connected with, and it’s neat to see that synergy with the Alzheimer’s Association… The Alzheimer’s Association of Vermont was a huge resource for our family… This event is a way to support our elders and their families.”

Backlund is part of a “new guard” of organizers that have helped take the event online and boost participation and fundraising goals. 

And it’s working.

THE EVENT ENDS where it starts — at a barn on a classic Vermont field. A fire, soup, sandwiches and refreshments are waiting for all participants to come together and celebrate.
Photo by Bobbi Locicero

“We were struggling to raise $30,000 seven years ago, and last year we broke $90,000,” Backlund said. “This year our goal is $81,000.”

“This event has the highest per capita fundraising of any event we host here in Vermont,” Johnson said. “With around 90 skiers, the Challenge collectively raised over $94,000 in 2022. This is an incredible number and unlike many events. Participants for the Challenge are truly passionate about not only the ski, but raising funds for this cause. This event is the only one we host where 100% of donations stay in the state of Vermont.”

“Through this growth period, it’s still all about maintaining a genuine experience rooted in tradition from this trail, the camaraderie from doing something difficult for whatever reason you believe in, and maintaining this valuable trail,” Beeken summarized. “The Camel’s Hump Challenge is just one of those authentic and good things.”

Editor’s Note: If you’re interested in donating had online to tinyurl.com/AlzheimerSki, contact Jenna Johnson [email protected], 802-316-3839, ext. 8015, or visit act.alz.org/site/TR?fr_id=16354&pg=entry.

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