Grouse Mountain’s Skyride spits out its human cargo of about one hundred skiers and snowboarders, excited about the 27 centimeters of freshly fallen snow. Snow and wind blow into their faces as they exit the tram and fasten their skis. But for Richard Thompson, it’s not as simple to hit the fresh powder; it takes some time to get into his new sit-ski and start his first lesson of the season.
For most people, skiing is a fun way to be active in winter. But for people who are otherwise wheelchair-bound, sit-skiing is more than just fun: it frees them from their wheelchairs and increases their self-esteem.
According to the Disabled Skiers Association of British Columbia (DSABC), an organization that oversees eleven adaptive snow sports clubs in the province, there are approximately 560 people with disabilities participating in adaptive snow sports, including adaptive snowboarding, adaptive skiing and sit-skiing.
Thompson started sit-skiing in 2011 with the help of Vancouver Adaptive Snow Sports (VASS), the local volunteer-run organization that offers ski and snowboard lessons to people with both mental and physical disabilities on the North Shore mountains.
Diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1999, Thompson lost most of the strength in his legs the year that followed. He is determined to become an independent sit-skier so he can go skiing with his son. He loves to ski, and it’s now one of the very few sports they can do together since he can no longer skateboard or mountain bike.
“My son is involved in at least ten different sports, but I can’t do any of them with him. [With skiing] it’s the freedom that you get, the fresh air… it’s pretty special,” he says.
Of the two sit-ski programs that VASS offers, one is aimed at beginner sit-skiers, while the other is aimed at making intermediate students like Thompson independent skiers. The beginner program also caters to people who will never be able to ski independently because of the nature of their disability. Still, Paul Fulford, one of the coordinators who started the intermediate program, believes everyone should be able to enjoy the mountains.
“It’s not just taking a guy for a ride, it’s giving him a few hours in the snow; it’s giving his parents some time on the mountain and some time to themselves, and it’s giving him a sense of well-being that he’ll take back to his family,” Fulford explains.
Most people who become independent sit-skiers just want to ski with their families, but some continue on to racing programs such as the B.C. Para-Alpine Ski Team (BCPAST). BCPAST coaches sit-skiers and other athletes for provincial and national competitions and, eventually, the Canadian National Paralympic Team. All three sit-skiers on the team for Sochi 2014 hail from BC.
Rob Gosse, former member of BCPAST, says that sit-skiing has done more than just free him from the wheelchair he’s been in since a motorcycle accident in 2006 left him unable to walk without crutches.
“When I get on the hill, I know that people are watching me. […] I can ski better than most people on the hill, it’s something I excelled in quite quickly,” says Gosse.
This newfound self-esteem spilled over into the rest of his life and gave him the confidence to go out in public and not be ashamed of the wheelchair anymore. His injury had closed doors in his life, but many more have opened. BCPAST took him travelling where he met Prince Edward and the governor general and was part of the 2010 Paralympic Games – all because of sit-skiing.
Sit-skiing is not that well known in areas where there are no mountains or adaptive ski programs. As a sit-skier living in Chilliwack, Anya McRae often has to explain what sit-skiing is. Having grown up in subtropical Taiwan, she had never even imagined herself skiing. And now she has skied all over B.C..
“It’s my passion,” she says.