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When Turns Are About Adaptability, Not Disability

There’s more than one way to get down the mountain.

Written By Bob Wassom

Alta_TetraSki_Adaptive-Skiing_Bob-Wassom-3_Diamond-Austen_2021
Alta Ski Area   |  Austen Diamond

January 1972. The Snowbird Tram door opened, and when I stepped onto the summit of 11,000-foot Hidden Peak, I couldn’t breathe. It had nothing to do with the thin air. It’s because I wasn’t prepared for the magnificence surrounding me — piercing blue skies, snow-covered granite peaks and below me, an endless array of untracked ski runs. I was about to be one of the first lucky souls to dive into the steep and deep powder that graced this soon-to-be-a-legend ski mountain.  

My guide was brother-in-law Bob Smith, a Snowbird ski instructor who invited me to join him at this two-day-old resort. At the time I was a ski instructor at Beaver Mountain and a student at Utah State University. I had just passed the test designating me as a certified professional instructor. I figured I’d celebrate with a trip to Snowbird.

As a young, accomplished skier, the 3,240 vertical feet of Black Diamond, powder-laden slopes below me was one big playground. Time to play. We launched ourselves into the atmosphere, choosing the wide-open and untracked Regulator Johnson (named after Snowbird founder Ted Johnson) for our first run.  

At the bottom of the first steep pitch, we stopped to view our handiwork: perfect twin corkscrews top to bottom. Legs burning and out of breath, we weren’t even one-third of the way down the mountain. This was how skiing was meant to be: More downhill than your legs can handle. More exhilarating than you could imagine. Then do it again. And again.  

I can’t remember how many tram rides we made that day, or how many runs, but I do remember it was the last time I skied Snowbird in that body. 

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A view of Snowbird's Aerial Tram.

Photo: Marc Piscotty

A Broken Neck — and Then a New Chapter

Five months later, on May 29, 1972, I dove into Cache Valley’s Hyrum reservoir, hit a submerged tree stump and broke my neck. I was instantly paralyzed from the neck down.  

End of story? Miraculously, no. I hadn’t completely severed the spinal cord. Within a year I was walking again, kind of, and three years later, I was skiing again, kind of. I never regained full use of my body. I’m guessing I got to about 60 percent. But I was back on the mountain, just in a differently performing body. (Read: "Getting Back on the Mountain")

Relying on my knowledge as a ski instructor, and what physical ability I had left, I managed to get back to being a decent intermediate skier. I could do Blue runs all day, and an occasional Black Diamond, as long as the run was groomed. But I was skiing, and using standard equipment.

I eventually skied Regulator Johnson again, but with a different abilities and different mindset. No longer was it my playground, but a proving ground. Anticipation turned into apprehension: This was now a gauntlet to be survived.

But I was forever grateful I could still get out and sample Mother Nature’s best work. It was a privilege I never took for granted. Each time down the mountain was memorable. Every turn was to be savored.

Enter the Need for Adaptive Equipment 

Then something else happened: Age. I began losing neurons in my spinal cord, and my strength and balance were greatly diminished. Walking became difficult, so I began using trekking poles for balance. Enter the need for adaptive ski equipment. 

My first experience was using a Nordic bi-ski that came from the University of Utah’s TRAILS program (which stands for: Technology, Recreation, Access, Independence, Lifestyle, Sports), with programs aimed to help people with spinal-cord injuries and spinal-cord disease.

The Nordic bi-ski is basically a bucket seat on a frame mounted on two cross-country skis, with regular cross-country poles used for propulsion. It didn’t work well for me. I’m a quadriplegic, which means my arms and shoulders were also affected so I don’t have the strength to push myself across the snow. But it’s ideal for paraplegics with normal upper-body strength. For them, it’s a great workout and loads of fun.

Utah has a statewide network of adaptive recreation providers, which can introduce you — or reintroduce you — to Mother Nature’s playgrounds.

Photo: Austen Diamond

Bob Wassom on the snowy slopes of Alta Ski Area.

Photo: Austen Diamond

G-forces, Speed and Adrenaline

I gave up skiing completely for a short, unhappy time. Part of my soul withered and almost died. Fortunately, through the TRAILS program, I rediscovered skiing on an alpine bi-ski, the downhill version of the cross country bi-ski, but this one powered by gravity. It has an extra-long set of handles for an instructor to help steer and provide balance. It was exhilarating, fast and fun, even though I was pretty much going along just for the ride. But the G-forces, speed and adrenaline rush were all there.

Then I discovered the Ski Bike at the National Ability Center in Park City. It’s basically a full-suspension bicycle frame with two skis mounted where the wheels would go, one behind the other.

It’s perfect for me. It takes the stress off my weakened shoulders and allows me to use my legs, which still have some strength. 

It’s deceptively easy to turn. A subtle hip shift to the right and a left turn ensues. Left hip shift and right turn. Short outrigger skis on each foot provide some balance, but the bike does most of the work. The best news is that now Wasatch Adaptive Sports has one, so I can get back to skiing at Snowbird.

What’s so important about outdoor adaptive recreation for those of us with disabilities?  Why not just take up video games and reading? For me, getting back outdoors after my accident was life-saving. I was Mother Nature’s Son to begin with. Laying immobilized in traction for two months had shrunk my world to four colorless walls and one small window. My spirit yearned for blue skies and white mountain peaks laced with evergreens. That was my life, my joy. (Read: "Spreading the Joy of Adaptive Recreation")

Mother Nature is the Great Healer

For anyone with a lifelong disability, nature can be a great healer (Read: "Adaptive Skiing: Youthful Inspiration"). There’s nothing more therapeutic than a crisp wind in the face while riding a chairlift surrounded by winter’s white elegance. The views are stunning. Then there’s the unmistakable thrill of a perfectly carved turn with G-forces pushing up through your spine and erupting out the top of your head. Now that’s my kind of head rush!

With the advent of high-tech adaptive equipment like the revolutionary TetraSki created at the University of Utah, these life-changing moments are available to more people, even quadriplegics who need sip-and-puff technology. (Read: "TetraSki Offers Freedom and Independence for Skiers of All Abilities")

What’s more, clinical studies have shown that regular outdoor activity keeps those of us with disabilities out of the hospital. Plus, it’s just plain fun to be outside. Remember when you were a kid at recess? 

The rest of the good news is that Utah has a statewide network of adaptive recreation providers, which can introduce you — or reintroduce you — to Mother Nature’s playgrounds, in any season, regardless of physical ability. (Read: "Utah's Outdoors Are Wide Open for All Abilities")

Utah Adaptive Recreation Providers

Utah’s adaptive recreation providers have the equipment, people and programs to offer memorable, life-changing winter vacations for any age visitor, from toddlers with autism to veterans struggling with PTSD. Many also offer individual rentals as soon as participants demonstrate a solid knowledge and ability to safely use the adaptive equipment. Rental costs are usually similar to the cost of ski packages. For example, a mono-ski or ski bike rents for $45 per day, about the same cost as a ski rental package at Park City Mountain Resort. Most providers offer scholarships for all or part of the fees, and no one is ever turned away for inability to pay.

National Ability Center

Home base is the expansive Bronfman Family Ranch, Recreation and Education Center outside of Park City. The center aims to empower individuals of all abilities by building self-esteem, confidence and lifetime skills through sport, recreation and educational programs. They offer an extensive array of year-round adaptive activities including Nordic and alpine skiing, snowshoeing, ice skating, sled hockey, cycling, camping, river running, climbing and equestrian programs. Skiing and snowboarding lessons are available at Park City Mountain and Solitude Mountain Resort, while Deer Valley Resort offers skiing lessons. 

TRAILS 

University of Utah’s TRAILS (Technology Recreation Access Independence Lifestyle and Sports) program is aimed at those with spinal-cord injury or disease. Activities include Nordic and downhill skiing, indoor spinning, hand cycling, kayaking, sailing, target shooting, swimming and wheelchair tennis. It also offers wellness programs and educational events like the annual Spinal Cord Injury Forum. Cross-country skiing is at Mountain Dell, White Pine in Park City and Soldier Hollow in Midway. Downhill skiing is available at Alta, Brighton, Solitude and Powder Mountain.

Tetradapt

Tetradapt is a global initiative founded at the University of Utah with the goal of creating and sharing innovative adaptive recreation technology like the TetraSki, which enables injured people, including quadriplegics, to ski.  The University of Utah Rehabilitation Center partners with the U’s colleges of Mechanical Engineering, Computer Science, Architecture and Planning, Business and Health to design cutting-edge technology and programs. Access to the TetraSki is available through the University of Utah’s TRAILS program.

Wasatch Adaptive Sports 

With locations at Snowbird Ski and Summer Resort in the winter, and Salt Lake City in the summer, Wasatch Adaptive Sports promotes developing abilities, as well as independence, through recreation. They provide instruction of winter and summer recreational activities for those with adaptive needs and their families. Annual events include the HGGC Steve Young Ski Classic. 

Common Ground Outdoor Adventures

Common Ground Outdoor Adventures has locations in Logan and Beaver Mountain. Their mission is to enhance the lives of youths and adults with disabilities through outdoor recreation, and they aim to remove physical, social and financial barriers. The recently completed AMK Foundation/BIO-WEST, Inc. Adaptive Center for Common Ground Outdoor Adventures is located slope-side at Beaver Mountain Ski Area, and offers year-round access to this popular northern Utah recreation area.

The Kostopulos Dream Foundation

Campers stay for week-long summer camps at the 25-acre property in Salt Lake City’s Emigration Canyon, and kids of all abilities can participate in activities such as horseback riding, arts and crafts, canoeing, camping, rope courses and fishing. Camp K also offers week-long road trips at Bryce Canyon, Moab, Yellowstone and other regional adventure destinations. Scholarship programs are available.

Ogden Valley Adaptive Sports 

The agency aims to inspire confidence, build self-esteem, and recognize individual achievement, by providing personalized, safe and fun experiences to individuals and families through winter sports and recreation. Skiing and snowboarding lessons are available at Snow Basin, Powder Mountain and Nordic Valley.

Salt Lake County Parks and Recreation

The county parks’ Recreation Adaptive Program aims to facilitate access for all, regardless of age or ability. Their programs range from sports to social events (although no ski or snowboarding lessons), and they regularly add new activities, such as sled hockey, adaptive baseball and Special Olympics competitions. 

Accessible Utah

Utah is known for its recreation opportunities, from hiking in five national parks to skiing The Greatest Snow on Earth® to white-water rafting down the mighty Colorado River. But did you know all of these attractions and activities are accessible to people of all ability levels? Having fun in Utah is no problem, no matter your ability level.

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