Set back from the scrum of the ski school corral at the base of Mt. Spokane Ski and Snowboard Park sits a tiny chalet—a diminutive twin of the Ski Patrol building nearby. It’s easy to miss in the controlled chaos of ski lessons, but for its guests, the building is the departure point for a life-changing experience.
For the past several decades, the Spokane Parks and Recreation Adaptive Ski and Snowboard program has provided equipment and instruction for skiers with physical disabilities that would otherwise prohibit them from traditional stand-up skiing, such as spinal-cord injuries, multiple sclerosis and cerebral palsy.
“Schweitzer Mountain Resort is starting to establish a program, but we’re the biggest program from Montana to the west side of the state,” says Sara Dunbar, Adaptive Skiing Coordinator. “We’ve had people from as far as western Montana in the program before.”
The program attracts skiers of varying experience, from never-evers to formerly able-bodied skiers. Some come for one day, just to test the waters; most participate in a three-week program of half-day lessons.
“One reason we like them to come up for multiple lessons is so we can tweak the equipment and get them into what they need,” says Dunbar.
Stand-up skiers have access to outriggers—in essence, a combination ski pole and brace with a small ski on the bottom—for increased stability. But most participants make use of a sit-ski: a plastic chair, or “bucket,” mounted in a metal frame atop either one or two skis.
Each participant is paired with his or her own instructor, who assists with getting the sit-ski on the chairlift and, with inexperienced or less mobile skiers, helps steer the skier by means of a hand-held tether.
In nearly all cases, Dunbar starts skiers out on a twin ski; a mono ski requires substantially more balance than its twin-ski kin and is better suited for more independent skiers.
“It’s always our hope that people can progress and be independent,” says Dunbar. But, she acknowledges, “Leisure is different for everybody—for some of them it’s just getting out there and having a new experience.”
For many participants, though, adaptive skiing allows them to participate in a cherished family activity. “I love seeing the kids get out, but one of the biggest things is when it touches a whole family,” says Dunbar. “For parents, to ski with their son or daughter or family member, it just means the world to them—especially if it’s something they never thought they’d see them do again.”
It’s fitting, then, that Mt. Spokane, with its mission of providing a family-oriented ski experience, has been such an enthusiastic host of the program. The Adaptive Ski and Snowboard program is a non-profit, relying on a crew of dedicated volunteers; even the construction of the chalet was a volunteer effort—the result of a ski patroller’s son’s Eagle Scout project.
Dunbar does as much volunteer recruitment as she can; she herself is a part-timer, with a day-job as a recreational therapist at St. Luke’s Rehabilitation Institute. But volunteers need not have any recreational therapy background.
“We want volunteers, first and foremost, to have some ski experience,” says Dunbar. “But I have volunteers of various backgrounds: people who are in the healthcare field, people in law school needing volunteer hours.” The program, like its participants, adapts to the circumstances on hand.
Says Dunbar, “Like anything in life, if you try something one way and it doesn’t work, you just try something different.”//
Aaron Theisen has contributed to numerous regional and national sports and lifestyle publications. He wrote about Kimberley Alpine Resort for the January/February issue of Out There.
Originally appeared in the March 2017 print edition of Out There Outdoors under the title “Yes They Kan: Disabilities Not a Barrier at Mt. Spokane.”
Feature photo: Disabilities not a barrier at Mt. Spokane. // Aaron Theisen