Healing with winter sports

A student takes part in a lesson in Tahoe. Photo supplied
Adaptive Sports Sun Peaks is known for providing beneficial programming through their volunteers. Photo supplied
A National Disabled Veterans clinic hosted at Snowmass. Photo supplied

Anyone who has spent time on a mountain knows winter sports bestow many benefits, therapeutic for the mind, body, and general well-being. Whether it’s the clear mountain air, the scintillating scenery and sunshine, the inspirational physical accomplishments, family bonding or pure fun, winter sports have been helping thousands of people every season. And these advantages are attracting a growing audience for adaptive snowsports.

All around North America, adaptive sports programs —largely not-for-profit— have been thriving.

These include, of course, Adaptive Sports at Sun Peaks (ASSP), which offers low cost adaptive learn-to-ski/ride programs for locals and ski school-priced lessons for visitors. Run by volunteers and sustained by fundraising, the vision, said instructor Pat McKimmon, is to make the mountains accessible to all.

“We haven’t wrapped up statistics but numbers were definitely up this year,” said McKimmon, who has been instructing with ASSP for seven years and is also a board member. “Guessing 75 to 100 people, all ages, with roughly 80 per cent being children with autism.”

Running December through March, ASSP offers four different disciplines: Autism/Cognitive Impairment; Sit Ski; Three and Four/track; and Visually Impaired  and trains and certifies its volunteers through the Canadian Association for Disabled Skiing (CADS) instructor training program. McKimmon explained this array of skiing and snowboarding options can contribute to the happiness and physical and mental wellbeing of participants of all ages.

“Skiing is an individual support with opportunity for social interaction and lifelong participation.”

Parents frequently report back that, after joining the program, they can go on to ski together as a family and, for the kids themselves, McKimmon said , it’s all about what she called show and tell fun.

Sun Peaks’ program is just one of many around North America working to share the benefits of being in the mountains with everyone. 

In California, Achieve Tahoe similarly helps those with disabilities learn to ski and snowboard and has also extended its reach to year-round outdoor recreation. Based at Alpine Meadows,  the sister resort to Squaw Valley , Achieve Tahoe is a non-profit organization, providing affordable, inclusive, adaptive sports aiming to build health, confidence and independence.  Stretching back 51 years, it now has over 200 volunteer instructors.

“They are highly trained to give lessons and work specifically with people of all kinds of disabilities,” said development director Deirdre Kennelly. “Achieve Tahoe spends significant time to ensure each instructor is capable of delivering lessons with the core values of safety, fun and learning so that each participant experiences success. We have instructors that have a range of disabilities who can relate that much more and pass on their knowledge to Achieve Tahoe participants.”

It all began in 1967 when the Donner Ski Ranch was repurposed as a rehabilitative sports program for disabled American veterans of the Vietnam war.

“It has grown into a year-round adaptive sports centre serving over 500 children and adults with disabilities,” said Kennelly. “With our highly trained instructors and specialized adaptive equipment, we can serve just about anyone with any disability.”

Altogether it has helped over 10,000 people, providing 50,000-plus lessons and counting. There are also multi-day, all-expense-paid military sports camps for wounded veterans multiple times a year helping achieve rehabilitation through adventure.

What you do on the ski hill, doesn’t stay just on the ski hill.

“We often hear how learning how to ski builds confidence in other areas of our participant’s life, breaking down their or their family’s own perceived barriers for what they can or cannot do,” Kennelly explained. “It’s the sense of autonomy and ability to challenge oneself and succeed— just like anyone else— that makes the experience long-lasting. Many participants go on to try other sports, have increased social activity and an overall more positive outlook on life.”

But it works both ways. Ski instructor Steve Urbani said he gets huge gratification out of his work with Achieve. 

“There’s nothing better than seeing the smile on a kid’s face once they have made it down the hill. Their lives are very restricted in most cases and being outside in such a beautiful place is liberating. They just want to be normal and play.”

Elsewhere in the U.S.  the  New England Healing Sports Association (NEHSA) is centred around skiing due to its adaptability to many types of disabilities. Based at Mt Sunapee, New Hampshire, NEHSA offers adaptive alpine and cross-country ski and snowboard lessons to people of all ages and all disabilities and also has a disabled veterans home for sports, rest and relaxation. Vail Resorts is encouraging veteran snowsports’ participation with its Military Epic Pass, free for active and retired veterans and qualifying dependents, a season-long free ticket to 18 or 19 resorts depending on categories.

Vail Resorts also donates $1 to Wounded Warrior Project ®  (WWP) for every season pass sold, expected to exceed $750,000 last season. The National Disabled Veterans’ Winter Sports Clinic at Aspen Snowmass offers six days of downhill therapy to profoundly disabled veterans every winter. Held at Snowmass Village, it includes Nordic and downhill skiing, sled hockey, rock wall climbing, scuba diving, and a wide variety of other sports and educational workshops. It is the largest rehabilitative event of its kind in the world and will host nearly 400 participants this year.

Snowbird, Utah is also the hub for Wasatch Adaptive Sports which conducted 2,710 lessons during the 2018/19 season, 2,380 of them on scholarships. 

Another therapeutic approach to ski improvement and appreciation is the mindful mountain meditation trend —of potential benefit to everyone. Resorts in North America are developing mindful ski and snowboard classes and camps, led by the likes of Jackson Hole which launched its first Mindful Ski & Snowboard Camp in 2019. Camp Facilitator, Jan Hoath said  life— and skiing — is a full body experience with a range of emotions from pain, to peace, to pleasure. 

“Bringing mindfulness to skiing takes this full body experience to a new dimension as it brings greater awareness to the joy of the ‘slide’ inside our bodies and the magnificence of nature that surrounds us outside,” she explained. “Mindfulness evokes what scientists call a state of ‘direct experience’ in which the brain functions through the senses in real time. This real time feedback allows for the integration of the mind, body, soul and nature connection on the slopes while enhancing the pleasure of the skiing experience, quieting any mind chatter, and maximizing the moment-to-moment adjustments required as one takes in the terrain they are skiing on, the skis they are skiing on, the functioning of the body to stay upright and turn.”

She also said, during this meaningful getaway in like minded company, fears and other barriers will be more easily dissolved as self-compassion and kindness take the place of attachment, striving, and unhealthy expectations.