Access: Sit Ski Solutions

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Candace Cable is a nine-time Paralympian who has won 12 medals. Here she shows off her form while downhill skiing on a mono-ski.

Following the accident that resulted in my SCI, I remember looking out the hospital window at the forest and thinking I would never again be able to indulge in my passion for the outdoors and hiking. I was so wrong. Sit skiing has brought the experience of hiking back into my life and can do the same for you.

There are two sit skiing disciplines: downhill (also known as alpine), and cross country (also known as Nordic). These two sit skiing disciplines are as different as the two sides of a coin, with both offering unique challenges and similar joys. Sit skiing is an all access pass into the snow-covered world, jam-packed with mood altering evergreens and deciduous trees.

“Cross country skiing was honestly harder than I thought, but well worth the work, given the way it enabled me and friends to travel off the beaten path and experience that freedom of movement that we all crave,” says Cheri Blauwet, a T10 paraplegic and beginning skier.

The first step on the path to a successful sit skiing experience is choosing the correct clothing. First and foremost, no cotton clothing while skiing. Cotton holds cooling moisture, never allowing the body to warm up. For downhill and cross country, garments should be layered, moisture wicking material so that if you do get too warm they can be removed. The base layers may be the same but this is where similarities end.

Downhill sit skiing clothing and equipment is heavy and calls for stout boots and dense waterproof pants. I wear bibs so the seat of my pants can’t slide down exposing my skin to the cold. Upper body gear consists of base layers with neck protection, down or down alternative material as a mid-layer and a jacket, with a hood that’s wind and waterproof. The gloves are thick and padded, a neck gaiter or balaclava, a knit cap or beanie, helmet, goggles or sunglasses, and you’re ready to shred.

Cross country sit ski clothing and equipment is lightweight. The boots are delicate compared to downhill boots, many people use down booties that are waterproof. The pants should fit snuggly and be warm but there is no need for heavy waterproof material. Cross country sit skiing is an aerobic activity so think running or cycling clothing when preparing to cross country ski. Lightweight shirts and jackets as well as gloves, knit hats and sunglasses, and you’re ready to slide.

There’s a wide variety of downhill equipment to choose from. Most paraplegics will use a mono-ski. The mono-ski has one ski attached to the moving parts of a shock and spring, which act like a human knee. A molded seat and straps help secure the skier’s hips, as outriggers in each hand are used to create a three-point stance for stability.

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A bi-ski is a great option for quadriplegics or people who have arm or hand weakness. Charlotte Rayfield (seated above) zips down a mountain with assistance from Dave Littman.

A bi-ski is widely used by individuals that have arm and hand weakness or quadriplegics. There are two skis under the frame and the skier sits in a molded seat. Most bi-skis are used for assisted skiing, meaning the skier is tethered to another skier with straps or a handle. The skier sits in the ski, leaning their body to carve turns while the other skier acts as the brake. The bi-ski can have attached, held or no outriggers at all.

Both pieces of equipment fit on the chairlifts. Mono-skis are self-loading, which means that the skier can get on and off the lift unassisted. There are currently bi-skis on the market that are self-loading, but most need some assistance. A skier stops both the mono and the bi-ski by sliding the ski sideways, known as a hockey stop.

Anyone can have a successful experience with downhill sit skiing because getting up the mountain is as easy as sitting on a chair, a chairlift. Getting down the mountain, gravity creates the momentum the heavy sit ski (about forty pounds) needs to be set in motion.

Cross country sit skiing takes more determination, ability and sometimes support for momentum because
the skier creates forward drive using the poles. Most cross country sit skiers are paraplegics or have leg amputations, but I have taught people with quadriplegia to cross country sit ski. The cross country sit ski equipment is about ten pounds or less, there are no moving parts, and frames have molded or cloth seats. Two cross country skis are attached to the frame, and the poles have straps that don’t require gripping, which is ideal for someone with weak grip. Admittedly, slowing down and stopping can be tricky using aggressive technical and timing skills with courage.

I’m hooked on the sport of sit skiing and plan on hiking the mountains during wintertime until my body says no more. Monique Jannette, a C5-6 quadriplegic
and beginning skier, summed up the attraction: “What I find best about the sport is its proximity to nature, its freedom from the concrete jungle and the ability to participate also with the able-bodied world.”