Adaptive Skiing

Adaptive Skiing? That's what most people say when you ask them if they know about adaptive skiing. Their first response is a question. What is adaptive skiing? Never heard of it, and so on.

It's simple, really. Adaptive skiing, or more generally, adaptive sports, is just the use of equipment that enables all those individuals with a form of cognitive and/or physical disability, whether that disability be from war, accidents, medical condition, or birth, to participate in (snow) sport activities.

Adaptive snow sports includes alpine and nordic disciplines, as well as ice hockey, even curling. The equipment for Alpine skiing ranges from the use of outriggers, ski tip retention devices, sit-skis like mono or bi-skis, among others (see the list below provided by Maine Handicapped Skiing). Nordic skiers typically use "buckets" that allow them to sit while they pole across and negotiate the trails. The types of equipment and their adaptability by the technicians who keep them in working order seems to go on and on, and the equipment is getting better and better. One example, sight challenged skiers do quite well negotiating ski runs, even high speed race courses, through the use of inter-skier communication systems or audible clues from a fellow skier to help them down a mountain or race course.

Some participants can ski and ride lifts on their own, while others require the help of guides or helpers, such as a sight challenged skier needs. Usually the helpers are family members or volunteers. What's great is that, as one adaptive instructor in Maine explained, once a physically challenged person learns how to use the equipment, the whole family can be together on the mountain. A winning situation for the person, the family, and for the mountain.


Adaptive skiing probably began prior to WWII, but the war produced wounded warriors by the thousands, many of whom were looking to get back to the mountains. Their numbers were such that equipment began to surface that made returning to snow sport activities a possibility. According to one source, Franz Wendel, an amputee from Austria, was the first disabled person to enter a skiing competition. By the late 1940's Austria's Ski Association was financing a division for handicapped skiers. Those Austrians love to ski!

Others in Europe and the United States also began to help the wounded, especially the military hospitals where the need was greatest and most immediate. Then came Vietnam. The number of casualties that made it back alive increased (as continues to be the case for our current wars), and along with this the development of more effective and unique adaptive ski equipment.

In 1983 the International Olympic Committee formed the Third World Winter Games for the Disabled, and finally the Paralympics in 1992.

In the meantime, more and more disabled military veterans needed help to regain a sense of normalcy, if that is ever possible, and so organizations such as Wounded Warriors have stepped forward as one means of pointing these men and women towards the slopes, some of whom have never been on skis. 


The Mountains do not recognize disability, Only Determination
— Jim Milina

In Our Own Northwest

Twenty years ago, some passionate local members of the ski community came together to provide snow opportunities to members of the community with disabilities.   Today, Oregon Adaptive Sports (OAS) is the premiere adaptive sports organization in the Pacific Northwest providing a range of year-round programs.  OAS is one of over 120 chapters of Disabled Sports USA, a non-profit organization that serves over 60,000 people nationwide. Being the largest adaptive ski program in the state of Oregon, OAS is committed to providing safe and affordable recreation experiences for people with disabilities. Go to the OAS website for more information and a listing of upcoming events.  

Mt. Bachelor is, along with Hoodoo, home base for the Oregon Adaptive Sports organization. Enjoy this video about OAS.  

Outdoors for All,

The Outdoors for All Foundation, based in Seattle, Washington, transforms lives through outdoor recreation. Founded in 1979 in the Pacific Northwest, Outdoors for All is a national leader in delivering adaptive and therapeutic recreation for children and adults with disabilities. Each year more than 2,400 individuals exercise their abilities thanks to the training and support of more than 700 volunteers. Outdoors for All enriches the lives of individuals with disabilities and families and helps them to get out and enjoy the great outdoors. Outdoors for All’s programs includes snowboarding, snowshoeing, cross country and downhill skiing, cycling, hiking, yoga, kayaking, day camps, rock-climbing, camping and custom events.

Outdoors for All has a very good video that gives you a look at a day in the life of a volunteer. The absolute joy that can be seen on their faces as both participant and volunteer ski down the mountain leaves one loving life. Have a look.


Both Outdoors for All and Oregon Adaptive Sports operate year around. So, if you aren't too sure you can competently volunteer to help during winter, perhaps something during the non-frigid months of the year is more appealing?

It's time everyone who enjoys our great Northwest winter sports environment becomes more than familiar with adaptive snow sports and get to know those persons for whom adaptive skiing is a means to an end.

Think about it. Meditate on it. But in the end, get out and enjoy, both the wonderful Northwest environment, and your fellow outdoor enthusiasts.

Each person’s reality is unique, and we all have our challenges, but that’s all they are, something to overcome. So? Time to get out and enjoy our precious Northwest, all of us.

Types of Adaptive Alpine Skiing
courtesy of Maine Adaptive Sports


Two-tracking is for skiers with mild motor deficits or those who are visually or hearing impaired. A two tracker will use two skis. Other equipment may include; poles, tethers, tip retention device, or a visually impaired or hearing impaired bib.


Three-tracking is for skiers with one sound leg. A typical three-tracker is an above the knee amputee, but there are other people who three-track as well. The three-tracker will use one ski and a pair of outriggers.


Four-tracking is for skiers with moderate motor deficits. Four-trackers may have disabilities such as cerebral palsy, spina bifida, multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, or below the knee amputation. The four-tracker will use two skis and a pair of outriggers. Other equipment may include tethers or tip retention devices.


Slider skiing is for skiers with moderate motor deficits or those with balance or strength deficits. Disabilities may include cerebral palsy, brain injury, stroke, or multiple sclerosis. The slider provides a very stable base of support for the skier and has an infinite number of adjustments to accommodate a variety of skiers. The slider skier uses a pair of skis and the slider. The slider is tethered from behind by an instructor and can be taken on the chair lift.


Mono-skiing is for skiers who need to ski in a seated position. The skier must have good upper body strength and good sitting balance. A mono-skier may have lower extremity amputations, spinal cord injury, spina bifida or a neuromuscular disease.  The mono-ski has a molded seat in a ski frame which is mounted directly onto a single ski. A mono-skier will use hand held outriggers. Most mono-skis have a lift assist mechanism to allow the skier to independently load a chairlift.


Dual-skiing is for skiers similar to those who would use a mono-ski.  The dual-ski seat and frame are mounted onto an articulating device mounted on two skis. This allows both skis to work together and provides a wider base of support. It has a lift assist mechanism for independently loading a chairlift. A dual-skier will use hand held outriggers.


Bi-skiing is for skiers who need to ski in a seated position. The bi-skier may have a more involved disability than a mono- or dual-skier. A bi-skier may have spina bifida, cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, spinal cord injury or brain injury. The bi-ski seat and frame are mounted onto an articulating device mounted on two skis. Adding fixed outriggers and/ or handlebars allow for a broader range of bi-ski participants. The bi-ski is often tethered and has a hinging mechanism that allows the bi-ski to be loaded and unloaded from the chairlift.

Ski Bike

Ski bikes are for skiers who fatigue easily or who have mild motor impairments in the lower extremities. The ski bike is often used in a lesson after a few runs of skiing. The ski bike looks like a bike with short skis instead of tires. The skier sits on the seat and uses short skis on their feet.

Additional Links

About the Author

John Jessen, former Director of Educational Outreach for NWSCC, came upon adaptive skiing fortuitously while in Maine. Discussing adaptive skiing with his neighbor, whose daughter was involved with the Maine Handicapped Skiing (MHS) program, John expressed interest in learning more, and, as luck would have it, the MHS organization was holding their annual weekend of Adaptive Ski Instructor training that next day on Sugarloaf. His neighbor, an instructor with the program, immediately signed John up to not only attend training as an observer, but be a full participant.

Amazed at what he experienced during the training, John returned to the Northwest to investigate adaptive skiing for the NWSCC's Educational Outreach program. Not only did he find adaptive skiing in the Northwest, but the Oregon Adaptive Sports organization invited him to participate as an observer in their "Heroes in Sisters" wounded warrior day at HooDoo. This report is a summary of his experiences.

As an aside, John approached this inquiry at first with a surprising trepidation. He was uneasy, timid, finding it awkward. That didn't last long, for the adaptive skiers and volunteers quickly put him at ease. He found that all everyone wanted to do was to get outside and have fun!  There was laughter, smiles, determination, strength, beauty, a joy of using one's body or just feeling the cold rush of air on one's face, all of which anyone would experience doing winter sports. It didn't take long before the "us" and "them" went away and it just became "us." All of us are just men and women and kids who want to participate, get outdoors, to exercise and take on the challenge of snow sports.

Be aware of those snow sport enthusiasts that you see who might be beginners and need some help, or who might be visually challenged and need a little extra maneuvering room, or tip your hat to a volunteer who is tethered to a sit skier. Better yet, go be a volunteer.