Adaptive Ski

Almost everyone, no matter what their physical or developmental limitations, can get out on the snow and have some fun. If you've think you can't ski, read this and watch the videos.

Glen Smith on Bi-Ski

Can a paraplegic ski? A blind person? Someone with Down's Syndrome? The answer in all cases is an emphatic yes! Some students might require special equipment or special techniques, which is why we call it adaptive ski. The basic principle of adaptive ski is simple: start from the techniques and equipment of standard skiing, and then adapt as necessary to meet the needs of the student.

There is a gamut of options available to skier from simple modifications to standard ski setups, to ski-poles with skis on the end for single-legged skiers, so sit skis for those without adequate use of their lower extremities. Athletes with strong upper bodies can ski a mono-ski (a chair on one ski, using poles with skis on the end) and those with less strong arms will usually use a bi-ski (a chair on two skis). Accomplished mono-skiers can actually ski and load and unload from the chairlift without assistance. Bi-skiers will need assistance on the lifts, but accomplished bi-skiers can ski independently. For students with developmental delays, often no special equipment is required, but a qualified adaptive instructor will have additional experience and training to keep the lesson safe and fun.

I haven't done a lot of adaptive teaching, but I had the pleasure to do an adaptive ski clinic for a couple of days with Glen Smith of Heavenly Valley, one of the masters of the trade, and have had the chance to put it into practice from time to time. One woman who I've taught a couple of times grew up in Florida and was paralyzed in a gymnastics accident as a teenager. Her husband said he never dreamed that they would be able to ski together. We put her in a bi-ski and after a couple of hours, aside from getting on and off the lift and maneuvering through the corrals, she was steering her way down the mountain wherever she pleased (though still tethered for speed control). One of her lessons happened on a powder day. She held her arms out like wings and hooted and yelled like a kid at play. She said it felt like flying and gave her a sense of freedom she had never had in her wheelchair. Another woman had skied for most of her life until she lost use of her legs. She thought the pleasure of skiing was behind her and was amazed at how much skiing in a bi-ski felt like skiing standing up.

One of my most gratifying experiences was teaching a 10 year-old who is bi-polar and has severe ADHD. I lucked out and caught him on a good day and we were able to have a great day skiing. A year later, his father told me that his success skiing that day gave him such confidence that his grades rose in school and he had one of his best years ever.

My friend McCray was hut warden at the Glacier Point Hut in Yosemite. It's a 10.5 mile cross-country ski to get there, with a four-mile uphill and several other shorter hills. One day, a pair of skiers showed up: a man towing a woman. The woman was in a cross-country sit-ski and had short poles to push with. The man provided the extra power on the hills. McCray went out to welcome them. The man said "If you're trying to shake my hand, I can't see it. I'm blind." So the woman in the sit-ski provided the eyes. The blind man provided the horsepower. Together they skied up and down hills and around hairpin turns for 10.5 miles and then turned around and did it again the next day.

If you want to give skiing a try, or you want to get one of your loved ones out on the snow, and you have special needs, here are a couple of things you might keep in mind.

  • Call ahead. Not all ski areas can provide adaptive lessons on the spur of the moment, so it's a good idea to make a reservation.
  • Be honest. Some parents are afraid of how the instructor will treat their child and "forget" to mention that the child is, for example, autistic (I've had that happen a couple of times). It's better to be honest, because the ski school will be better able to find you an instructor who has experience with autistic children.

The main thing is to remember that almost everyone can experience the joy of winter, regardless of physical ability. Indeed, for some skiers, they will be more free on skis than in much of the rest of their lives. Words are just words though. Check out these videos:

Luke Donovan, Canadian Adaptive Alpine Ski Team

Five years after losing use of his legs, Luke Donovan is screaming through a Giant Slalom course with a speed and grace that will make most skiers envious. Key quote: "Seven times down. Eight times up."

Helicopter Skiing on a Sit-ski

Again, this skier does it better than most people with two legs.

And here's a whole group of skiers at the Steamboat Springs Adaptive Ski Camp

As Mark Wellman says, no limits.