Adaptive skiing industry makes strides toward getting more athletes with disabilities on the slopes of Colorado’s ski resorts

Adaptive skiers chat while out on the slopes at Breckenridge Ski Resort on Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2023, during the Hartford Ski Spectacular, an annual event hosted by Move United, which aims to expand recreational opportunities for people with disabilities.
Joe Kusumoto Photography/Courtesy photo

Twelve years ago, Josh Elliot took a leap and decided to get out of his wheelchair and onto a mono ski for the first time. Elliot said it took no time at all to fall madly in love with adaptive skiing.  

He went from a beginner to a coach for adaptive skiing and boarding organizations in Colorado in mere years. Now, he’s working on opening Angel Peak Adaptive Sports and Education near Spokane, Washington, to help get even more athletes with disabilities out on the slopes. 

Just as Elliot has evolved as an adaptive skier over the past decade, so has the industry around him. 

These days, Elliot sports a DynaAccess Hydra monoski, which he rode Tuesday during the The Hartford Ski Spectacular at Breckenridge Ski Resort, an annual event aimed at strengthening and expanding adaptive snow sports programs across the nation.

“The designs of monoskis — the way that they’ve been progressing — have been to emulate what it’s like to be a stand up skier,” Elliot said. 

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Elliot noted that adaptive equipment, such as his, has evolved to provide more flexibility that allows for carving, something that has not always been the case with adaptive skis. 

From being in the industry, he said he has seen manufacturers of equipment place more of an emphasis on making equipment that caters to more demographics of people with disabilities. The equipment has become more durable and lighter than ever, making it easier to transport and allowing it to last longer while taking a beating. 

Elliot was one of hundreds at the Ski Spectacular, which welcomes people from all over the world. The event is an opportunity to showcase adaptive equipment and the athletes that use it.  

As an industry that is just a few decades old, adaptive skiing and snowboarding has come a long way. The new technology allows athletes to explore more of the mountain and it has allowed athletes with varying abilities the opportunity to try out the sport.

Industry professionals and athletes describe a situation where the improvement of gear has been exponential over the past 15 years. 

Annika Hutsler makes her way down a slope while skiing at Breckenridge Ski Resort on Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2023, during the Hartford Ski Spectacular.
Joe Kusumoto Photography/Courtesy photo

Kathy Chandler, an employee of Move United, has been working in the adaptive ski industry since 1991. She said thanks to the innovation, people that use adaptive equipment can go out more independently than ever before. 

She specifically pointed to the TetraSki, a piece of equipment with two skis that provides independent turning and speed variability that the skier can control through the use of a joystick — or even their breath. The skier does so by using a sip-and-puff mechanism on the ski that looks like a straw, which controls the edges of the ski to carve. 

Fellow Move United employee Ed Bronson similarly has worked in the industry for decades and helped lead a demonstration of equipment at the Ski Spectacular.

Bronson noted that while there are not a ton of brand new apparatuses, there have been several modifications to adaptive equipment over the last several years to improve them.

“There’s been an incredible change over the last 15 to 20 years,” Bronson said. “The engineering that has been done, they keep making improvements on it.” 

He touched on the evolution of bi-skis, which is similar to a mono-ski in that it has a seat but instead has two skis as opposed to one. Recent developments of bi-skis have allowed more control and better ability to carve with the edges.

Bronson said this allows skiers to access more types of terrain and noted “you can go into terrain and actually have the skier ski that more effectively.” 

Jeff Inouye, the director of the Adaptive Ski and Snowboard Program at The Breckenridge Outdoor Education Center, has worked in the adaptive industry for nearly 30 years. Inouye said one of the areas he has seen the most evolution is with prosthetics. He noted that around 20 years ago adaptive skiing options were limited for people who have above-knee amputations.

“The prosthetic wasn’t something that you could put two skis on and have it work the way that legs work,” Inouye said. “But nowadays, they’ve developed these new knees and prosthetics … so there’s a lot of people that are above-the-knee amputees that can ski with two skis and two poles.”

He said that he had seen this adaptation be especially helpful to people who grew up skiing and became an amputee later on in life. 

With new adaptations being made to get more people with varying abilities out on the slopes, organizations in the Rocky Mountains that support adaptive skiers and snowboarders hope to keep their equipment inventory up to date. 

Challenge Aspen is an organization that provides support for adaptive recreation activities, such as skiing, to people with physical and cognitive disabilities. In the winter time, the organization provides adaptive winter sport instruction at all four ski resorts in Aspen. 

This season, Challenge Aspen has plans to get its hands on the TetraSki. The organization will be the owner of one of the only TetraSkis in the whole world, with roughly only 20 existing. 

Molly DeMarr, the director of operations, noted that adaptive equipment is often expensive — costing in the ballpark of tens of thousands of dollars and can mostly only be obtained through grant funding. 

She said grants helped her organization obtain the TetraSki and “some other pretty amazing equipment that focuses on spinal cord injuries.”

Steamboat Adaptive Recreational Sports provides adaptive ski lessons for Steamboat Ski Resort and is always looking to get new and exciting equipment in stock.

“We are just getting ready to acquire some new mono-skis that are kind of state of the art,” Steamboat Adaptive Recreational Sports executive director Susan Petersen said.

Organizations that provide these types of services in the Rocky Mountains acknowledge that adaptive winter sports can come with a hefty price tag for those who partake. Looking to make it more accessible on all fronts, most of these organizations have scholarship programs. 

Inouye noted that his organization provides adaptive ski and snowboard lessons at Breckenridge Ski Resort, Keystone Resort, Copper Mountain Resort and Arapahoe Basin Ski Area and gives out as much as $100,000 a year in scholarships.

“I don’t want the price to limit somebody from coming out,” Inouye said. 

DeMarr and Petersen said both their organizations also offer scholarship programs to try and provide these opportunities to people of varying economic backgrounds.

Scholarships to access adaptive ski and snowboarding lessons and programs can also be found at Vail Mountain and Beaver Creek Ski Resort. The National Sports Center in Winter Park has an adaptive ski and snowboard program that offers lessons and also has a scholarship program. 

More information on how to access scholarships can be found on the organizations’ respective sites. 

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