From the Wheelchair to the Ski Slopes

Times Staff Writer

Even people who lose a leg can hope to fly down the mountain again--amputee skiers are, by now, a familiar sight on the slopes.

But lose the use of both legs--as carpenter Tim Burton did when he fell through a roof head first onto a concrete floor three years ago, suffering brain damage and extensive loss of motor function--and that would seem to be that. "I thought what the hell, I'll never ski again," said Burton, who lives in South Pasadena.

But Burton found a way.

It's a new sport called sit-skiing, and it resembles kayaking more than conventional downhill skiing. Developed seven years ago by a Santa Cruz sportsman, the downhill sit-ski is unique to the United States, and is currently the only vehicle in which a person who relies on a wheelchair can ski. As he masters the sport, Burton eventually should be able to match abilities in the sport with his able-bodied wife, a former ski instructor at Mammoth.

Not Limited

"When you become an accomplished sit-skier, you're not limited to any part of the hill. Sit-skiers have even gone off the Cornice (the most legendary drop at Mammoth)," said Michael Anthony, an instructor for the National Handicapped Sports and Recreation Assn.

"At the lodge at the end of the day, there'll be a bunch of guys drinking beer--and here's this guy in a wheelchair talking about running the moguls. That's really important, for a disabled person to be on a peer level with able-bodied people. There are plenty of adaptive sports, but this may be the only one where disabled people can keep up with the able-bodied--and, in some cases, even ski them into the ground."

When Burton, 30, was strapped into his Arroyo sit-ski at Chairlift 6 on a recent Saturday, he looked more like a Nordic warrior than a disabled man. He was tucked into the sleek craft, with a neoprene skirt snug around his waist to keep out the snow. He wore a helmet (recommended equipment for all sit-skiers) and held a 7-inch ski pole in each hand.

Skiers who came upon Burton and the three other sit-skiers in a class taught by Anthony had no idea the men were disabled--unless they noticed the wheelchairs parked by the retaining fence at the bottom of the run.

"How cool!" said a teen-age boy on skis who stopped to look over the crafts. "Are those toboggans?" he asked.

Beautiful People

Anthony, who has multiple sclerosis but skis without special equipment, said that people seem to be so accustomed to the prize physical specimens that congregate at ski resorts it rarely occurs to them that a person might be in a sled simply because he or she can't walk. "People assume you must be one of the beautiful people fooling around with a new toy," he said. "What people need to realize is that skiing is for everyone." Skiers waiting their turns in the lift lines gawked as the lift was stopped momentarily, and the entire sled was hoisted into the chair. The back of the Arroyo, the most sophisticated brand of sit-ski, is designed to lock snugly between the bars at the back of the chair. As the lift started up again, an able-bodied partner sharing the ride with the sit-skier hooked a safety line to the bars as extra insurance against slippage. (There is also a harness for use in the event the lift has to be stopped and skiers evacuated.)

Some sit-skiers eventually become strong enough and skilled enough to muscle themselves onto the lift without assistance, and propel themselves off the chair onto the ramp at the top of the run. Normally, though, the tetherer, as the assistant is called, unclips the safety line when the chair nears the top of the hill, and signals to the operator to slow the lift. Tetherer and sit-skier jiggle the sled free until it is teetering on the edge of the chair. Just when they're over the ramp, they shove the craft off into space.

There is a drop of at least three feet, but sit-skiers report that because of a thick foam cushion beneath them, the fall isn't jarring.

At the top of the run, tetherers unroll the lines attached to the rear of the sled, and keep a loose hold as the new skier makes a first run by trial-and-error, using short poles planted in the snow to execute turns. An uphill turn, or christie, brings the sled to a stop. A more advanced mode of stopping is rolling up onto one shoulder; and some sit-skiers eventually incorporate complete rolls into their repertoire of skills.

Tetherers, skiing without poles behind the sled, are prepared at any moment to stop the sit-ski in an emergency by making a hockey stop, and tugging on the line. At high speeds, this move sends the craft skidding on its side.

"Ski areas often give us an argument about liability, but in six years of teaching sit-skiing, we've only had one injury accident (a young woman broke her shoulder in a fall)," said Anthony, who is an architectural interior designer in West Covina.

"There are so many safety mechanisms involved in this sport that sit-skiers are safer on a lift and on the runs than an able-bodied skier," he added. "If someone is certified to ski untethered (to ski without a backup person, sit-skiers must pass a test showing they have command of stops, turns and slope etiquette), they've proven themselves far beyond what an able-bodied skier has to do--able-bodied skiers don't have to pass any test at all."

The ancestor of the sit-ski is a Norwegian invention called a pulk . Essentially a round dish with runners, it became popular in European and Scandinavian countries following World War II, when disabled veterans needed a way to get around in snowy terrain.

More Responsive Sled

The pulk wasn't much good for downhill skiing, however, as Peter Axelson found when he first tried it on a downhill run at the Winter Park ski area in Colorado. Axelson, who was injured in a climbing accident, found it "remarkable" to be able to get down a mountain without use of his legs, but realized that a more responsive sled was needed if the sport was to catch on.

After a demonstration of Axelson's sit-ski prototype, the Arroyo, at the National Handicapped Ski championships in 1978, interest in the project grew, and the Veterans Administration funded research that led to improved models. Axelson's company, Beneficial Designs of Santa Cruz, currently manufactures and sells Arroyos for $1,295.

Although companies in Montana and Colorado also make sit-skis, Arroyos are the sled of choice for competition. Sit-skiers will be racing in the slalom, giant slalom and downhill events at the National Handicapped Ski Championships to be held at Breckenridge, Colo., April 1-7.

Axelson said his company also distributes a cross-country sit-ski made in Switzerland; and he's recently developed a mono-ski, a type of sit-ski that rests about 12 inches off the snow on an actual ski, and is operated with outriggers (skis attached to the end of crutches).

While the United States is the leader in developing high-tech ski gear for disabled people, Axelson said other countries are scrambling to acquire the technology. There is no way of adequately measuring the beneficial effects of "snow, movement, sunshine, gravity and control" on a person who can't walk, he said.

A return to the sunny slopes is perhaps most momentous for someone who once skied as an able-bodied person.

Nineteen-year-old Michael Leight lives in Mammoth, where the ski slopes are as much of a constant as the beach is to Southern Californians. Michael's mother, Linda Conners, remembers a day of skiing last March when she noticed a few sit-skiers on steep runs, and thought to herself the sport looked like fun.

Just a week later, Michael was in a car accident on Highway 395 and became a candidate for sit-skiing himself. When he got into a sled for the first time during Anthony's class, and raced down familiar runs with his mother acting as tetherer, a big part of Michael's life was restored.

Shot in the Spine

Gerard Moreno was another class member who enjoyed skiing--as well as collegiate fencing at Cal State L.A.--before he was shot in the spine three years ago when he encountered three men in the process of burglarizing his home. Moreno's girlfriend, Toby Bishop of San Diego, drove up to Mammoth with him for the class.

Moreno caught on to the sport easily, and from now on they'll be taking ski vacations together--Gerard in a sit-ski, Toby right behind him in Moreno's no-longer-needed skis and boots.

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