Investigating a new era of accessible snowsports

Thanks to leaps and bounds in technology, and a shift in attitudes, the world of adaptive ski is making the magic of the mountains accessible for an increasing number of skiers and boarders, regardless of their physical condition.

By Matt Masson
Published 29 Jan 2021, 08:00 GMT, Updated 11 Feb 2021, 15:26 GMT
Snow-capped mountains in France's Chamonix-Mont-Blanc Valley.

Snow-capped mountains in France's Chamonix-Mont-Blanc Valley.

Photograph by Getty Images

For many people, sliding down snow, standing on what essentially equates to slippery planks, is one of the best activities a human can do.

It also comes with risk. Serious injuries, while statistically rare for the majority of skiers, do happen. And then what? Athletes, pros and ardent winter sports lovers will rarely give up their passion for the mountains easily, and it’s this determination to continue riding, sliding and enjoying the pistes, no matter what, that’s driven the recent rise in adaptive skiing.

A cynic might ask why a multimillion-pound travel industry wouldn’t want to maximise its market. And, in recent years it’s started to do just that. In terms of technology, accessibility and specialist tour operator packages, adaptive skiing has progressed hugely since its beginnings as a form of rehabilitation for injured soldiers. Today, it has grown into something that can mean any form of skiing or snowboarding that uses adaptations to make the sport accessible for people who are disabled, injured or are lacking in balance or mobility, or simply struggle with any aspect of downhill skiing/snowboarding.

The concept was first explored to rehabilitate injured German and Austrian soldiers in the 1940s. Franz Wendel — an amputee — pioneered the concept when he attached small skis to the end of his crutches, enabling him to enter a competition alongside able-bodied skiers. Wendel’s rudimentary crutches were an early version of ‘outriggers’, and while the design and technology has improved in 80 years, the concept remains largely the same: a cross between crutches and ski poles with a small ski at the bottom. This allows anyone who needs the added support — for whatever reason — to enjoy the sport.

Writing about adaptive skiing, or just overcoming obstacles to get out and have fun on the slopes, is a subject that’s certainly familiar for me. In 2010, I suffered a traumatic brain injury and after a six-week coma, I found I couldn’t walk, talk or even move much. I grew up in Switzerland and have been a keen skier since I was a kid. Not a day of the seven months I spent in hospital went by without me watching videos of my favourite freestyle skiers and dreaming I’d be back on the pistes one day.

That dream came true a year and a day after my accident. I’m very lucky: I can now ski without any adaptations. Obviously, I don’t ski as well as before the coma, but I couldn’t care less. And I’m definitely not alone in thinking that skiing, in any way you can, is one of life’s great pleasures — and adaptive skiing is giving this joyful experience to more people than ever before.

Enabling Tech is an American company that develops adaptive skiing equipment. Scott Will joined the company after he suffered a spinal cord injury, so knows first-hand the benefits of the sport, and just how far it has advanced in recent years. “The technology in adaptive skiing rigs has come a long way in 40 years, and with those improvements [and inflation], prices have increased. The very first ‘sit-skis’ were similar to a toboggan and lacked the comforts we take for granted today, like complex suspension systems, chairlift load assists, adjustable seating and the like.”

Medhi Bidault, a mountain guide instructor in France's Chamonix Valley.

Photograph by Medhi Bidault

Someone who definitely uses that suspension to the fullest is Trevor Kennison, a professional sit-skier. The now 28-year-old broke his back in a snowboard accident in 2014. He thought that his time sliding over snow was gone, then he was introduced to sit-skiing. “Sit-skiing means the world to me. I broke my back snowboarding, and it took my legs away from me — it took so many things away from me. Sit-skiing saved my life, in every possible way. It gives me freedom and such joy. It gave me my life back.”

Not entirely satisfied with just staying on the snow, Trevor now practices freestyle/freeride sit-skiing. With the nickname, Sit-Ski Boss (a reference to freeski legend, Tanner Hall’s Ski Boss moniker), Trevor earned a legion of fans when he launched off the notorious Corbet’s Couloir in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, USA — at an event where he was the only quadriplegic competitor. The American is now a sponsored athlete, with thousands of Instagram followers who watch videos of him backflipping, jumping off cliffs and even sliding rails on his sit-ski.

Specialist instructors

Most ski schools worldwide now employ adaptive trained instructors. Almost 200 French ski schools offer specialist equipment and instruction. Medhi Bidault, an instructor in Chamonix, decided to get qualified for ‘handiski’ (as adaptive skiing is known in France) to help his sister, Meige, who broke her back in a car accident.

“You do a bit of everything [to qualify]: three days on a sit-ski, then three days visually impaired, and then three days one-legged. You have to learn all forms. At the beginning, they’re all pretty tricky, but I find it fun to learn new things. For visually impaired, you ski with a partner, one blindfolded and one guiding. Then you switch over. For one-legged, you take one ski off, tie the leg up and ski with outriggers. Sit-ski, you practice in a sit-ski. With each discipline, you have try and feel the challenges the student might struggle with.”

“I broke my back snowboarding, and it took my legs away from me — it took so many things away from me. Sit-skiing saved my life.”

by Trevor Kennison

Medhi must be quite the instructor, because Meige now competes internationally as a sit-ski racer and ranks among the top 10 in the world in giant slalom, super-G and slalom. Anyone who watched the 2018 Winter Paralympics in Pyeongchang would attest that adaptive skiers and snowboarders are fast becoming role models. But you don’t need to do backflips; its ethos is about inclusivity, aiming to welcome anyone that wants to try snowsports. Shifts in attitudes within ski resorts over the last couple of decades have made the mountains more accessible, with specialised training and equipment available to myriad types of traveller, from those with mobility issues, to blind and deaf skiers, and those with conditions such as multiple sclerosis, autism, cerebral palsy and Down’s syndrome. In France, resorts listed as (but not restricted to) ‘adapté’ can accommodate adaptive and disabled travellers, and also offer accessible accommodation and restaurants.

“There’s an ever-increasing global demand for adaptive snowsports,” says Mark Kelvin, of Disability Snowsport UK (DSUK). “It’s incredible how much has changed since the 2012 Olympics alone, from attitudes towards what’s possible to advances in assistive technology and improvements to resort accommodation and assistance. It’s possible for disabled skiers and snowboarders to travel independently with confidence.”

Specialist companies such as DSUK, Ski2Freedom and Disabled Ski Holidays have been offering adaptive snowsports to travellers for decades, but increasingly, mainstream operators are adopting programmes or offering tailor-made trips to resorts with accessible accommodation. Crystal Ski’s Crystal Adaptive programme, for example, focuses on ‘holidays for independent, disabled skiers.’ It tailors flights, transfers and accommodation to the individual’s needs, and offers locations in Norway, France, Andorra and Canada.

“We work closely with DSUK,” says Chris Logan, managing director at Crystal Ski Holidays. “Last year, we raised £131,000, which enabled DSUK to open a new adaptive ski school. We’ve also collaborated on its group trips, sending volunteers from our teams to provide support on the mountains. Every year we’re oversubscribed with volunteer applications from our colleagues.”

Adaptive skiing, handiski, paraski or whatever you call it, has developed hugely as a sport, as have the equipment and holidays available in recent years. Everyone I spoke to for this feature had suffered injuries to themselves or loved ones, but not one of them could resist getting back on skis, in whichever way possible — a testament to the sort of unconditional love people have for the sport. And if you think, as an able-bodied person, that these activities aren’t on your radar, Scott from Enabling Tech has these words of wisdom for any skier, boarder or mountain lover: “Disabled or not, if you’ve never been on a sit-ski, get out and try it! Being low to the ground while ripping down the mountain is exhilarating — and nipple-deep powder days are easier to come by.” 

Trevor Kennison, a professional sit-skier. Trevor earned a legion of fans when he launched off the notorious Corbet’s Couloir in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

Photograph by Eddie Bauer

The types of adaptive skiing include, but aren’t limited to:


Sit-Ski
Essentially a wheelchair for skiing, with a moulded seat attached to one or two skis. Modern sit-skis incorporate suspension, suited to paraplegic skiers or people who may use a wheelchair.

Outriggers
A combination of crutches and ski poles with small skis on the end to give support for amputees and those with impaired balance.

Tethered skiing
The instructor is tethered to a visually impaired skier. As their confidence and awareness grows, less support is given.

Vertiski
A guided adaptation that offers paraplegics the ability to ski upright. The ‘Go to Ski’, for those with partial disabilities, is similar.

Sit-snowboarding
Differs from sit-skiing in that the rider adopts a sideways stance on bench-like seat attached to the board.

Pole snowboarding
A snowboarder uses ski poles to help stabilise themselves.

Horse ‘n’ buggy, hula hoop, ski-pal
Various systems to support a rider’s weight either independently, or with the help of an instructor.

Tandem snowboarding
Basically, tethered skiing but on a snowboard.

Further info: skiclub.co.uk/info-and-advice/learning-and-development/skiing-with-a-disability

The Covid-19 pandemic has affected the European ski season. For the latest advice, visit gov.uk

Published in the Winter Sports 2020 guide, distributed with the Nov/Dec 2020 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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