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Adaptive Winter Sports Tips From Experts

Snowfields around the world buzz with enthusiastic adaptive winter sports fans and Australia is no different. There’s a thriving community of people who love nothing more than sharing their experiences. Here are the best adaptive winter sports tips from experts.

Snowfields around the world buzz with enthusiastic adaptive winter sports fans and Australia is no different. There’s a thriving community of people who love nothing more than sharing their experiences. Here are the best adaptive winter sports tips from experts.

Debbie King

Skier with limited vision

Debbie King on her skis in the snow, facing away from the camera, wearing a vest that says VISION IMPAIRED SKIER
Debbie King

I became involved in adaptive skiing in 2011, about three years after my first vision loss. I thought I would have to give up skiing as it was becoming too dangerous. But my daughter, who was working for Mt Buller Ski Lifts at the time, told me about Disabled Wintersport Australia (DWA) and I became a member soon after.

I wear a vest declaring my vision impairment when I ski, in the hope that people will understand my limitations and give me space. It works! I have had a vest translated into Japanese (thanks to our local sushi shop), which I have worn when skiing overseas. 

I always reach out to different adaptive groups when I travel to ski. This came in handy when we went to Whistler (in Canada) and my luggage went missing. I was so grateful to be able to borrow a vest from Whistler Adaptive Sports Program while mine was lost in transit somewhere over the Pacific. 

My scariest moment while out skiing was when our bluetooth headsets ran out of power. My husband guides me through voice commands so when our communication suddenly died while we were skiing in a new resort in Japan we knew we had a big problem. My husband said it was like driving a bus (that’s me) with broken steering! Needless to say we always check that we have our equipment fully charged from now on. Lesson learned!

It’s always funny when people think that my husband, who guides by skiing behind me, is the one who is blind. Ha ha, I like that!

We’ve returned to Canada three more times to live in Sun Peaks Resort for the winter season. It was here that my husband and I became involved with Adaptive Sports at Sun Peaks. We both became qualified Adaptive Instructors. As someone living with a vision impairment I have personally learned so many skills from the adaptive winter sport community that have helped build my confidence as my vision has deteriorated. They are a fantastic group. 

Sun Peaks in Canada might be my favourite place to ski but I will always have a place in my heart for Mt Buller, Victoria where I have skied all my life.

My advice to anyone who is new to adaptive skiing is to get out there and give it a go. There are so many knowledgeable groups around with the skills to help you get on the snow. You just need to reach out because nothing beats that ‘wind in your face experience‘ or the feeling you get when you are carving up the slopes.

Ben Tucknott

Adaptive ski instructor

Ben Tucknott on the slopes
Ben Tucknott

I have high functioning Autism spectrum disorder – ASD. I started out as a participant with Disabled Winter sports Australia (DWA) when I was 13 on a school trip. Over the years while I was with DWA I became more interested in helping people like me out on snow – either supporting their first time on snow or as they return multiple times. Eventually I gained the skills and knowledge to attend the guide training weekend and passed!

I’ve been guiding for DWA for 10 years now. As one of their senior guides I can guide all rages of disabilities, but I specialise in helping people on the Autism spectrum. I’m also very experienced in ID’s and sit skiing. 

I love guiding; whether it be a joy ride cruising around the mountain having some fun, or spending a day teaching a client to hone their independence so that they eventually don’t need us for support. Sometimes you get asked to just go and ski with someone who’s looking for a ski buddy.

It’s not always easy starting a new sport. My top tip is don’t give up. Skiing isn’t an easy sport to learn but it’s worth persevering for. 

One of the fun things about my skiing experience began when I’d just started learning from DWA when I was younger. Over the years I was with them I had the same guides most of the times I went up the mountain. These days I’m very good friends with those same guides and have gone from chasing them around the mountain, to them chasing and trying to keep up with me. 

I’ve travelled the world with my group of guiding friends. We skied in Japan, where we have had some spectacular splats in the powder, and New Zealand where we went bombing down the crazy tight chutes in the club fields. In Canada we met some amazing people involved in adaptive programs there, and we made some good connections for future trips. Most recently we went to Europe where we skied our way around Austria and toured the spectacular resorts.

As an adaptive ski guide, I’m always learning. For example, once when I took a client out for a weekend joy ride in Australia, I was supervising a guide learning to sit ski too. We all took the wrong turn down a run in Hotham and discovered that the entire run was moguled out. We made it down and  we found out that it is possible to ski moguls in a sit ski! But I don’t think i’ll be attempting it again any time soon.

I still guide for DWA, which runs out of all major ski resorts in Australia. Mount Hotham has an accessible bus network connecting the village to the lodges. And the lodges are becoming more accessible with many installing lifts. Falls Creek has fully equipped lodging for people with disabilities and is 12km away from the resort.

Chrissy Pantlin

Skier with a spinal cord injury

Chrissy Pantlin wearing skis on the snow
Chrissy Pantlin

I first got involved a year after suffering a spinal cord injury. I was aware of DWA from my time working at a ski resort and was thrilled to know there was an organisation out there to help people get into snow sports.

My first adaptive ski experience was really positive. I was able to get out on the snow with a volunteer, using some outriggers to do ‘four track’ skiing. We decided that this was the best option for me and I am keen to keep skiing standing up while I am able to. 

To be honest, it was the thought of skiing again that pulled me out of a pretty dark place after my injury. The absolute joy I felt as I went down the slope for the first time post injury, with the cold wind in my face, sun on my skin made me feel so alive again! I knew then that life wasn’t over, my spinal cord injury might make things more challenging, but I could still have a full and active life. 

Knowing there were people out there, volunteering their time to help me and others like me, really gave me motivation to keep pushing my limits, even when the doctors were telling me to just “get in a wheelchair and accept you’re disabled”. It has continued to be a huge source of motivation to stay active all year round and to never give up.

My favourite ski resort in Australia (so far) is Falls Creek. I haven’t yet had the chance to go overseas as an adaptive skier but am booked for Canada next year!

I think one of the funniest and scariest adaptive ski experiences was when my DWA volunteer completely ignored my protests and tricked me into going down a black run! Ha ha! I know that sounds bad, but honestly, it was the push I needed to regain some confidence which I had really lost, transitioning from an able-bodied to adaptive skier. I wanted to throttle him as I realised where we were going BUT I felt such a huge sense of achievement when I got to the bottom and it really helped me believe in myself, and to keep pushing boundaries.

My top tip for someone new to adaptive snow sports is to call DWA and go out with a volunteer or on one of their weekends away. Talk to lots of different adaptive skiers and get the support you need to give it a go. And if you have a bad day, that feels cold, wet and miserable and like you can’t do this, take a break then get yourself back out there. It’s such an amazing feeling!

Although I have a spinal cord injury, it’s not a complete spinal cord injury, meaning that I can still walk. So from the outside I look like any other able bodied skier. To begin with I felt like I didn’t really belong in the ‘adaptive snow sports’ category, yet I couldn’t keep up with able-bodied skiers because I didn’t have the strength in my legs any more. I was really worried about being an outsider in both groups but I have found the adaptive snow sports community really welcoming and non-judgemental. They really made me feel at home with them and winter is now something I look forward to every year!

Stephanie Jay

Adaptive snowsport guide

Stephanie Jay selfie, taken in ski gear on the snow
Stephanie Jay

I got into adaptive snowsport guiding through a friend I met in the university ski club. She’s a guide and she organised a girls weekend with two other friends, one of whom is a DWA participant and another who’s also a guide. We did this weekend annually for a few years, and I ‘guided’ unofficially. They all spoke so highly of DWA and the fun that they had guiding. So I decided to do my training and guide properly. 

Since joining DWA I’ve guided people of all ages and abilities. I mostly guide on DWA Victoria’s ‘camps’, which are weekends at Falls Creek organised jointly by DWA and other disability services organisations. I’ve guided people from the spinal injury unit at the Austin Hospital in Melbourne, most of whom were in their 20s or 30s. I’ve also guided people from the Shelley Earl organisation, which focuses on recreation activities for 15- to 18-year-olds with a range of disabilities: cerebral palsy, intellectual disability, acquired brain injury.  Groups participating in DWA camps come up to Falls Creek on a Friday and leave Sunday, skiing Saturday and Sunday. 

My top tip for anyone trying adaptive skiing for the first time is don’t be afraid to have a go. All of us, adaptive or otherwise, fall over, look goofy, and make mistakes when we’re learning. That’s how we get better. Organised camps are a great way to take the stress of coordinating everything as a first timer: accommodation, lift passes, equipment hire; and lets you focus on making friends and having fun. 

The first participant I ever guided was a man in his early 30s with cerebral palsy who was non verbal and used a chair. He came to a camp with a CP advocacy group. His carer came too, but his carer didn’t ski. Typically in these scenarios the carers hang out in the cafe where we all have lunch, to help with chair transfers and toileting and other care over lunch. It means they can keep warm and enjoy a coffee while watching everyone ski by. Carers who can ski are welcome to join us on snow too. We have a minimum of two guides per participant, one is always very experienced. 

With this first participant I guided, I was a bit worried because I was new and I’m a big talker. But I learnt pretty quickly what his cues were and whether we (the other guide and I) were talking about things that interested him. We’d ask him questions and get nods or smiles back in response. It turned out that he loves 80s rock music and one of the lift stations had triple M blaring, so we’d have a singalong while waiting for the lift. We would always check that his limbs were warm, and that the speeds we went were comfortable for him. Essentially, ensuring constant communication. The feedback from his carer was that he had a ball. 

My advice is that even if it seems overwhelming and causes you some anxiety thinking about whether or not to give it a go, I’ve heard of only good experiences overall. Even when people have had bumps or tumbles during the weekend. There’s no pressure on participants to be independent skiers (in a sit ski, using aids or whatever works for them) if they don’t want to or can’t, but equally everyone is very encouraging if it is something that a person wants to work towards. There’s also no pressure to be out on the snow for the whole day, if someone needs a rest or has low energy needs then that’s fine too.

I guide mostly at Falls Creek. A few years ago, custom built accessible accommodation including, accessible bedrooms, bathroom, kitchen and lounge was built. There are two dedicated DWA staff on the mountain full time in winter, coordinating guides and participants. Meals are provided, and if you’re participating in a camp, so is transport to and from Melbourne. 

Krista Callinan

Sit skier with a disabling medical condition

Krista Cullinan and her guide in adaptive skis on the slope
Krista Callinan (front)

My disabling medical condition (Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (ME) and comorbid Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia (POTS)) started with rapid onset in April of 2013.  I spent the first few years fighting against the illness, refusing to accept it.  By 2016 I realised I was using all of my limited energy fighting to have my old life back again, but inadvertently making myself miserable by not accepting that this is my life now (for at least the foreseeable future) and I needed to find new ways, within my new capacity and capability, to enjoy life.  

I needed to find ways to adapt the things I used to enjoy so I could enjoy them (or a version of them) again, as well as finding other new things to find joy in.

I’ve skied most of my 40 years. Cross country, downhill, backcountry, snow camping. I spent almost two decades as a Ski Patroller in the Lake Mountain Ski Patrol (Victoria). I had been a member of Alpine Search and Rescue (VIC) for about five years. In my final year of university I did a term of teaching rounds at Falls Creek Primary School. Snow and skiing were, and still are, my greatest passion in life. So, I decided that I needed to find a new way to bring the joy of being on snow back into my life.  

I booked a week’s stay up at Falls Creek and started searching online for how I could get myself out and onto the snow again. I needed activities that wouldn’t require very much energy and that I could do from a sitting position. I found a skidoo tour, dog sled rides and eventually came across Disabled Wintersport Australia (DWA).

My first adaptive ski experience was a sit skiing lesson and equipment hire through DWA in Falls Creek. My instructor was the very lovely Charlie. Even now, reflecting back on how the experience made me feel, I still get very emotional. I hadn’t realised how much I’d missed the rhythmic swoosh, swoosh, swoosh feeling of the skis across the snow beneath me. It was exhilarating and the most freedom I’d felt since getting sick. No broken body or slow electric wheelchair to hold me back.  

I remember feeling apprehensive the first time I experienced the sit ski-to-chairlift transition and the first time I was told to take control of the sit ski turns. That said, I did feel a distinct advantage in having come to sit skiing after learning to ski prior to having a disability. A certain amount of that previous knowledge and muscle memory; how the skis feel on snow and the smoothness and control of the turns and the edging of the skis, were surprisingly transferable from upright skiing to sit skiing. This is probably another reason I felt that I was able to immediately recapture the feelings associated with skiing that I had so dearly missed.

The best tip I can give is to just book a lesson and give it a go. If you enjoy being outdoors, have an adventurous spirit or just want to try something a bit different, it’s such a fun way to spend a day and can be made as little or as much of a challenge as you want it to be.

In my world, you rest for days or sometimes weeks to have enough energy to take part in an event and or for even daily living. And then you spend days to weeks afterwards recovering and rebuilding energy stores. You choose very carefully what you put your energy into. Sit skiing has been such a special experience for me and I can live off the memory of it for weeks, months and even years (thanks COVID-19!).  It’s hard to put into words how much it has meant to me to find sit skiing.

Daniel Ho

Adaptive ski guide

Daniel Ho and two skiers in vests on the snow
Daniel Ho (centre)

My wife and I started guiding back in 2003 after buying a raffle ticket from Mark Soyer at a Warren Miller showing. As a senior DWA guide, I typically assist clients with more demanding needs. I am one of the few guides at DWA who can solo guide participants if required.  

There have been numerous rewarding moments over the years, but the most challenging one was one weekend at Mt Hotham where I was assigned a participant who was mostly blind (pinhole vision in one eye), completely deaf, and had not been on snow for over 40 yrs (he was in his late 50’s).  Fortunately, the participant had an interpreter who was also deaf but could lip read and ski. It took all the tools in my toolkit and then some to figure out a way to teach this participant how to ski. By mid afternoon on the first day, he was skiing independently down the Summit run at Mt Hotham.  

Helping Ben Tucknott is another very rewarding experience and the longest interaction I have had with any participant I assisted. Each year, we finance and run one to two ski trips for the Autistic school Ben attended, which is when I first met him (he was 12 yrs old at the time). We taught him how to ski, and he got better each year. We were also able to see how skiing helped him in his personal development (this is universal with all the students, which is why we finance their camp every year). Ben continued his skiing after he finished school, and we continued to ski with him. He now assists us with the international ski trips and we are helping him get into backcountry skiing.

A lot of my volunteering is with sit skiers. Typically it takes three to five days for a fit individual from their first day on snow to sit skiing independently. The fastest progression I had was a track and field lady who had never been on snow before. She became wheelchair dependent after a spinal cord injury. Within three days she was solo sit skiing down black runs.

In Australia the three resorts with the most comprehensive DWA operations are Falls Creek and Mount Hotham in Victoria and Thredbo in New South Wales. Falls Creek is a fantastic place to start, as the runs are well suited for beginners and intermediates. The challenge with Falls Creek is that it has limited but expensive on-snow wheelchair accessible accommodation. And getting around the resort in a wheelchair or for anybody with mobility issues is next to impossible. Instead, opt to stay at Howmans Gap a few minutes down the road, which is wheelchair accessible and where DWA bases itself. 

Mt Hotham is better suited to intermediates and above skiers. However, with the right guide, Mt Hotham is suitable for all abilities. There is limited accessible accommodation, however the village buses and oversnow transport cater for wheelchairs. There are also several facilities that have adaptive access, including some nice restaurants.

Thredbo has arguably the best terrain options for skiers of all abilities. The terrain for beginners is fantastic. The location of the resort is convenient and there’s a dedicated DWA facility at the bottom of the chairlift. More generally, Thredbo has better wheelchair accessible amenities than Hotham or Falls Creek and if you choose to stay out of the village, DWA has access to accommodation in Jindabyne.

Three tips for first time adaptive skiers:

  1. Join the DWA Volunteer Facebook page; 
  2. Access the snow via DWA’s resort services program; 
  3. Find yourself a trained and certified adaptive instructor.

Kate Swain

Wheelchair user

Kate Swain seated for adaptive ski on the snow
Kate Swain

I had my first taste of adaptive skiing on a year 11 excursion to Canberra and to Perisher. My teachers had asked my Mum if she’d like me to give adaptive skiing go, she said yes. I was petrified, feeling sick and didn’t want to do it. I am so glad I did it as I was hooked! 

My first instructor, Paul, and the help provided by Disabled Wintersport Australia had a massive impact on how much I enjoyed my first adaptive skiing experience. It was great fun skiing with Paul and adapting hired equipment. As scary as it was, nothing was impossible. We even skied in the half pipe, which he’d never done before! 

After that first ski I’d been hankering to return but was busy with school and university. My Starlight Wish was granted a few years later and through that I returned to the slopes. I have since been back to the snow many times to ski. And I plan to continue. 

In Australia, I prefer to ski at Falls Creek. The slopes are progressive and I know many of the crew. It also has a nice community for my parents who support me but don’t ski. 

My favourite place to ski in Japan is Suginohara. It’s got soft powdery snow and long, wide runs! I’ve skied here many times and hope to return. 

I’ve had many incredible experiences on the slopes. For example when I went back on snow after many years thanks to my Starlight Wish, we went to Thredbo. One day we had a snowboarding photographer, Alister Buckingham, come with us for the morning. My instructor, Kenton Williams, wanted to create some amazing experiences and decided to go over jumps. He captured how scared I was but also how much fun we were having! A print of the photo was gifted to me and is hung in my living space. 

My tip for someone new to adaptive snow sports is, give it a go! We’ve all got to start somewhere. Speak openly about how you can be best supported. Figure out what works for you by trying different equipment, working with different instructors and guides, and visiting different resorts. 

I don’t ever say to a run no unless I have a valid reason such as I am too cold with blue lips or exhausted!

The Miss Snow It All Adaptive Wintersports Chatter Facebook group page is an amazing source of information with participants happy to answer your questions about gear, skiing, snowboarding and adaptive snow events globally. There’s no better place to research or plan a trip than with the assistance of people who have personal experience.

This story first appeared in Travel Without Limits magazine. You can subscribe here.

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