Adaptive equipment gives disabled skiers freedom on mountain
February 7, 2002
By Deb Acord The Gazette
"Just living is not enough, said
the Butterfly. One must have sunshine, freedom, and a little flower."
- Hans Christian Anderson
You could call the Breckenridge Outdoor Education Center "flight school."
The BOEC is a nonprofit organization that provides adaptive winter sports programs and year-round adventure programs to able-bodied and disabled children and adults.
Each day, the center's facility, just around the corner from Breckenridge's Peak Nine base, vibrates with activity.
The organization's on-mountain site is where disabled people learn to ski. It's where they taste freedom from a wheelchair, or a white cane, or a pair of crutches. It's where, outside of dreams, they feel the pull of gravity and the chilled air move across their faces.
It's where they learn to fly.
On this day, Quintin Gray isn't skiing. And he isn't happy about it. A slightly built man with powerful arms and shoulders, Gray has a cast on his right forearm.
He needs to let his arm heal, and his doctors have told him it won't if he keeps skiing. Still, he's sitting slopeside at Breckenridge beneath a partially blue sky.
Skiing with only one arm is out of the question. A paraplegic since a horse accident at age 9, Gray has used his strong arms to master the mono-ski, a bucket seat mounted on one long ski that the skier maneuvers with outriggers - short forearm crutches with tiny skis on the ends.
Gray, 38, is grounded, stuck in his wheelchair, separated from that flying feeling he craves.
"I feel complete freedom on the hill," he says. "I can do anything I want on my mono-ski, and I can leave behind the wheelchair and everything it involves."
Gray is a ski instructor for the Breckenridge Outdoor Education Center. He has worked there four years and has spent nearly two decades teaching skiing to able-bodied and disabled people at resorts throughout the West. He lives in Florissant with his wife, Lori, and their daughter, Skye. He commutes almost every day to Breckenridge.
Gray loves the challenge of teaching people to ski. "The challenge is in finding a person's transmission point - the point of their power, the point they use to make the ski or skis do what they want."
The skill required for skiing depends on finding that point, as well as a person's fitness level, and most important, a desire to learn.
Gray works hard as a teacher, and his goal is always the same: "To help a person catch the bug." He knows that those who catch it are going to ski their whole lives.
In the past decade, adaptive ski equipment has advanced to the point where skiers like Gray can keep up with anybody, anywhere. He has pointed his mono-ski downhill and flown over a cornice at Crested Butte, and has gone heli-skiing in Utah.
"There's nothing like flying on skis," he says, "absolutely nothing else in the world."
Not so long ago, Matthew Bogue arranged his life around his skiing. He loved where it took him, how it tested him and what it showed him. But mostly, he loved the freedom.
Then, he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. At first, he continued to ski.
"I had skied at a really high level, for years and years," says Bogue, 35, who lives in Boulder. "But then, my eyesight began to go away, and I had to slow down."
His eyes failing, Bogue went on a worldwide skiing rampage. He made one of the first ski descents of Mount Kenya. He skied Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, New Zealand and throughout North America.
The disease progressed, but Bogue kept traveling and skiing. "I got really busy living there for a while, because I didn't know what was in store for me. I wanted to do all I could do."
Bogue continued to fight the disease that, he says, "he doesn't have, but was diagnosed with."
And then, about a year ago, struggling with symptoms, he stopped skiing.
A friend in a support group urged him to ski again, in adaptive equipment. Bogue visited the BOEC early this winter and sat down on a bi-ski.
The experience was transforming. "I love skiing," he says. "Skiing is freedom. There are no worries on a mountain, other than getting to the bottom. Skiing was something I realized I had to do again. It's part of my life."
Bogue hasn't made it with his bi-ski to the top-of-the world cornices and cliffs that called to him before. "But I'm skiing. That's all that matters. I was smiling all day today. It's the right thing."
Waltzing on the slopes
Here's how to pick out Robin Ryerson on the slopes: She's the one humming . . . a waltz.
"I've found it helps my rhythm when I sing, and a waltz seems to be perfect for skiing," she says, humming a bit of an unnamed waltz.
Ryerson, 41, lives in Lafayette. She uses a wheelchair to help her cope with MS. She was diagnosed about 17 years ago, after five years of symptoms and worry. She didn't start using a wheelchair full-time until 1997.
"I was named Ms. Wheelchair Colorado, and as a motivational speaker for that group, I stayed in the chair all the time," she says.
Ryerson found the chair a relief, but still longed for the freedom she remembered from her past. She found that freedom on a bi-ski.
"I had never skied stand-up because my balance hasn't been good for a long time. But on the bi-ski, I could move on that mountain. I like moving fast, and I don't get to do that in my wheelchair. On the bi-ski, I can go faster and make it down steeper mountains."
Ryerson says she has learned that "not skiing is a mistake. I'm going to keep doing it."
She never forgets to look around when she's outside. "I make sure I stop and allow myself to be amazed by the mountains. I'm so grateful to be there."
Who to contact
The Colorado Springs Therapeutic Recreation Program sponsors trips and has a resource file of recreational activities and programs. Check them out, free of charge, at its office at 1434 N. Hancock Ave., 385-6958.
Colorado programs for skiers with disabilities include:
The Breckenridge Outdoor Education Center offered its first program in the summer of 1976; a series of wilderness courses for groups of people with disabilities.
The staff was all volunteer. Food was donated, and rain gear and clothing came out of the volunteers' closets.
The center's first sit-skiing classes were conducted in 1981, and soon after, rock climbing and rafting programs started. As the center grew, a wheelchair-accessible high ropes course was constructed, and a professional challenge program was formalized.
The nonprofit center now serves thousands of clients a year. Its year-round programs include the adaptive ski program, a therapeutic wilderness program, adventure travel and youth programs, and a professional team-building and leadership program.
Programs are tailored to groups and individuals of all abilities and ages, and also include family options.
Beginning this year, the center is offering an adventure travel and youth program for people with and without special needs. Trips to Lake Powell and Canyonlands National Park are included.
For more information on the BOEC, call (970) 453-6422 or check http://www.boec.org
Adaptive ski equipment
Mono-ski. Skier should have good upper body strength, balance and trunk mobility. Skier sits in a molded bucket mounted to a frame above one ski. Two outriggers are used for balance and turning.
Bi-ski. Developed for people who must ski in a sitting position. Skier sits in a bucket mounted to a frame above two skis, offering a wider base and better balance than a mono-ski. Beginners can use fixed outriggers and a handlebar; more advanced skiers use outriggers.
Sit-ski. One of the first sitting-position skis developed, for people with limitations in their lower extremities. To turn, a skier can drag short ski poles and lean.
Three-track. For skiers with one sound leg and two sound arms; they use a full-sized ski and outriggers, giving them three points of contact on the snow.
Four-track. Skiers use two skis and two outriggers and sometimes will use a ski bra that connects the ski tips and keeps them on track. Almost anyone who walks with canes or crutches may ski four-track.
Outriggers. Adapted forearm crutches with ski tips mounted on the bottom, they help the skier with stability and turning.
Breckenridge Outdoor Education Center
Copyright 2002, The Gazette