Outdoor Adaptive Sports Programs: Where To Find The Nation’s Best

adaptive skiingLike most of us, I didn’t fully realize the extent of the daily hassles and challenges faced by those who use a wheelchair, prosthetic, or other mobility aid until it became somewhat personal. I’m fortunate to have two people in my life who’ve been an enormous source of both education and inspiration, and I’m writing this piece because of them. A little bit of background is in order:

When I moved to Vail in 1995 to attend culinary school, I became friends with Darol Kubacz, a young Forest Service employee. Darol had broken his back in a motorcycle accident about 18 months prior; at the time of his injury, he was in the Army, working in Special Ops. He was already an experienced outdoorsman who enjoyed scuba diving, climbing, and hiking. Despite the physical challenges and fairly recent onset of his paralysis, he made a huge impression on me with his positive, non-defeatist attitude.

Darol’s job with the Forest Service entailed trail assessment for the handicapped, while in his personal life he’d already undertaken a number of adaptive sports, including the aforementioned activities he’d enjoyed prior to his injury. He’d also started alpine skiing (he broke his neck in a skiing accident in 2000, but fortunately sustained no additional physical or neurological damage).

Darol became my workout buddy, and he was the first friend I’d ever had who was in a chair. Through him, I learned a lot about what it means to live with a limitation. Mainly, he impressed upon me that, to a certain extent, it’s possible for humans to overcome physical limitations. I’m surprised he doesn’t have, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way,” carved into his chest.arm bikeToday, Darol works as a part-time adaptive hiking guide in Phoenix (he and his clients use off-road arm bikes),and is working on launching an adaptive paragliding program. He’s climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro –twice, summiting once– entirely under his own power, to raise awareness for his foundation, Freedom for Life. Following his ski accident, he has, he says, “Learned to embrace a more intimate experience with nature, that’s less about speed and adrenalin, and more about being in the moment.” Hence his passion for off-road bikes.

I met my friend Tony 12 years, ago, when I was living in Berkeley and working as a farmers market vendor. A loyal customer, Tony is also a documentary filmmaker and graphic designer. He’s quadriplegic, the result of a teenage diving accident. Tony has partial use of his arms, and until his accident, was a competitive surfer. Until a few years ago, however, he’d never been able to get back on a board due to some medical issues he was dealing with.

Today, a freakishly youthful 48, Tony is an avid surfer and skier (that’s him at Alpine Meadows, in the photo at the beginning of this story), thanks to several amazing adaptive sport programs. He says he’s in the best shape of his life, and his jones for salt water and snow matches that of any able-bodied enthusiast.

Living in the outdoor adventure mecca of Boulder as I do, I’m also in an epicenter of outdoor adaptive recreation programs. With my locale and both of these inspiring and incredible guys in mind, I wanted to provide a round-up of top adaptive sport centers across the country.
wake boarding
Adaptive Adventures
Based in Boulder, this is Darol’s preferred ski and summer program; he also co-produces a summer Moab Mania event for them. They offer alpine skiing, snowboarding, waterskiing, wake-boarding, kayaking, rafting, and cycling. Offers civilian, veterans, and kids programs.

Telluride Adaptive Sports Program
Darol and I both recommend this program (me, from living in Telluride and knowing some of the staff). TASP is very well-regarded, and offers summer and winter programs. This time of year there’s alpine, nordic, and backcountry skiing and snowboarding, snow shoeing, ice-climbing, Helitrax skiing, and snowmobiling. In summer, there’s horseback riding, hiking, biking, fishing, climbing, paddling, and camping.

Challenge Aspen
This prestigious adaptive ski and snowboard program based in Snowmass is for civilians with physical or cognitive disabilities. Challenge Aspen Military Opportunities (C.A.M.O.) is for injured military; a new camp this year has been developed to help adaptive skiers learn more about competitive Paralympic training programs and interface with Paralymic coaches.
adaptive kayaking
High Fives Foundation
Tony is a huge fan of this Truckee, California, based non-profit founded by paralyzed former competitive skier Roy Tuscany. It’s dedicated to raising awareness and funding for “injured athletes that have suffered a life-altering injury while pursuing their dream in the winter action sports community.” High Fives also serves as a resource center for alternative therapies such as acupuncture, massage, and pilates, gyms, and adaptive sports and equipment.

WORLD T.E.A.M. Sports
Chartered in North Carolina and based in New York, Darol recommends this athletic organization that offers adaptive and able-bodied events in mountain biking, rafting, cycling, and more. They also offer teen challenges.

They Will Surf Again
Tony has hit the waves with this Los Angeles-based program offered by the non-profit, Life Rolls On (LRO). Founded by quadriplegic, former competitive surfer Jesse Billauer, LRO raises awareness and funds for spinal cord injury (SCI) research, and offers bi-coastal adaptive surfing, skate, and snowboarding programs.

AccesSurf Hawaii
Honolulu-based adaptive surfing and other recreational water sport programs.
adaptive climbing
Wheels 2 Water
Tony recommends this adaptive surf and scuba diving non-profit in his hometown of Huntington Beach, California.

Wheels Up Pilots
This research and instructional paragliding program in Santa Barbara is highly recommended by Darol, who is about to become one of the first two U.S.-certified adaptive paragliding pilots. Open to civilians and veterans.

Freedom for Life Off-road Arm Biking
For guided hikes in the Phoenix area, contact Darol Kubacz, darol@fflfoundation.org.

[Photo credits: adaptive skier, Tony Schmiesing; all others, Adaptive Adventures]

Will This Motorized Unicycle Redefine Transportation? (VIDEO)


Watch out, Segway – there’s a new kind of people mover in town, and you don’t even have to stand up to use it. Earlier this week, Honda introduced the UNI-CUB, a self-balancing electric vehicle intended to transport people inside large buildings such as airports, museums and shopping malls. The compact device looks kind of like a futuristic motorized unicycle, except there is an extra wheel on the back for maneuverability. Similar to the Segway, riders simply shift their weight to move backward and forward, side-to-side, or even diagonally. But unlike the Segway, users are free to use their hands and are able to buzz along on the compact device while sitting at eye-level with pedestrians, making the UNI-CUB an unobtrusive addition to foot traffic (besides, of course, all the people who stop to stare).

For travelers, especially those with disabilities, the UNI-CUB has the potential to revolutionize getting from place to place. People who cannot walk long distances are currently limited to using cumbersome scooters – especially when standing upright on a Segway for a long period of time is not an option. Since it’s less bulky, weights only 22 pounds, and can be folded up into a carrying case, the UNI-CUB also might be able to help users get through airport security and board planes with ease.

This is all just speculation, of course. Honda does not yet have a planned release date for the robot unicycle. Besides, we can’t forget that even the Segway never lived up to its hype as a product that would redefine the way we travel. Instead, the machine is most commonly known as a shopping center patrol vehicle. It doesn’t look like we’ll see armies of UNI-CUBs replacing the Segways that are now popular for city tours, either. The transporter is intended for indoor use only and moves at walking speed, about 3.7 miles per hour.

Is the UNI-CUB just another ridiculous people mover, or would you go along for a ride on the sit-down Segway? Personally, I think I’ll hold out for my own hovercraft.

Five trekking options for adventurers with bad backs

trekking with bad backIf you’ve got a bad back or neck–and many of us do–it can make certain aspects of travel challenging, especially if you’re otherwise healthy and active. Perhaps the most frustrating issue for adventure travelers such as myself is being limited to day hikes, unless there are overnight options that don’t involve humping a 50-pound-plus backpack into the wilderness.

I suffered a moderately severe back injury in 1994, which has been exacerbated over the years by my recreational/occupational pursuits and being a general spaz (a fall on ice led to months of physical therapy). While I travel with a 35-pound backpack, it’s always for relatively short distances. When it comes to trekking, I know my limit is about 10 pounds, in a daypack.

Yet I love few things more than backpacking and trekking. Over the years, I’ve found ways to circumvent my back issues, and in the process, have taken some truly mind-blowing trips (as well as excelled, physically). There are those who consider it cheating if you don’t carry your own gear, but I’m willing to bet they haven’t experienced the joys of a herniated disc, whiplash, or spinal stenosis. Ignore the naysayers, and look into these rewarding options. Happy trails!

Note: I don’t want to underplay the importance of being physically fit and well-conditioned for a trek. You need to be able to walk long distances, on often steep, difficult terrain at very high altitude (depending upon itinerary). Any reputable company will provide you with an outline on conditioning for your adventure. Please be honest (with yourself, and them) about your abilities.

Use a porter
Outfitters in many locales, such as the Inca Trail, the Himalayas, or Kilimanjaro rely on porters to haul gear; you’re responsible for your daypack (which may include weather-related gear). The altitude presents enough of a challenge for the average trekker, and porters are usually indigenous peoples who are genetically adapted to their harsh environment. There’s a reason Sherpas always accompany climbers on Everest and why the Quechua porters of the Andes are capable of sprinting uphill for miles, barefoot, with 100-pound loads on their backs.

%Gallery-125080%trekking with bad backThe first time I did a trip with porters, I was bothered by what I saw as a social injustice. But my Peruvian guide from Bio Bio Expeditions explained that there are strict guidelines in place (this may depend upon region, so please check with your outfitter or the local permitting office) about maximum weight loads. By employing the local people, porters receive a steady paycheck, supplemented by monetary tips from trekkers (please don’t overlook this; it’s part of their livelihood, and believe me, they earn it), and donated clothing items that go to their families.

Pack trips
While long days in the saddle can wreak havoc on tenderfoot thighs and butts, pack trips are the ideal way for the physically-compromised or older folks to explore remote wilderness regions, often at high altitude (day hikes are usually included during downtime; be sure to ask). Alternatively, if your back (or you) demand a bit more comfort at night, you can descend on muleback into the depths of the Grand Canyon, and stay in one of the Phantom Ranch’s rustic but comfy cabins; note that these trips book out at least a year in advance.

Bonus: Many outfitters now focus on food, so rest assured you won’t be eating freeze-dried beef Stroganoff. Other outfitters will teach you packing skills, such as how to tie a diamond-hitch and load a pack mule, or focus on fly-fishing, photography, or personalized trips, so look for the company that best suits your needs and interests. Tip: There’s no unified national packers association. Your best bet, says Dave Dohnel of California’s (very excellent) Frontier Pack Train, is to “ask for references–I always tell potential clients to call the regional office of the Forest Service. They’re the stewards of the land, so they’ll give you an unbiased opinion.” Also be sure to do some online research on the companies you’re considering.
trekking with bad back
Llama/goat packing
Having a furry friend haul your gear as you walk alongside is becoming more popular in the States. Llamas, of course, have been used as pack animals for hundreds of years in the Andes. They’re tough, have excellent footing, and are cute as the dickens, but they’re also tempermental. If you’d prefer to trek with an animal you can really bond with, goats are ideal, as they’re more dog-like and enjoy interacting with people.

There are only a handful of goat packers in the U.S. at this time, but it’s grown in popularity since it was pioneered in the 1980’s by former Forest Service employee John Mionczynski. A large goat can carry up to a quarter of its body weight with a pack frame, and their small hooves and grazing habits make them a lower impact option than horses or mules. The North American Packgoat Association (NAPgA) is for those who want to start packing with their own goats, but it’s still a great resource.

Destinations for both llama and goatpacking include the Rockies, Pacific Northwest, and Southwestern U.S.. There’s also the Pack Llama Festival in Silverton, Colorado, held September 22-25.

Day treks from a base camp
Many outfitters offer combination trips that enable experienced trekkers or climbers and beginners to travel together. Seattle-based Mountain Madness, historically a “hardcore” mountaineering outfitter, now offers a “Trek or Climb Program” that allows partners or families to enjoy the same trip–each participant has the option to climb or trek only, or a combo of the two–and reunite at a new base camp each night. For those with no experience wanting to get a “taste of climbing but not commit to it 100%,” this offers a great compromise. All trips include porters, so you only need to carry your daypack (they’ll even hire a porter to do that, if you’d like). Other companies, like Seattle’s Alpine Ascents, will hire porters to carry your gear on their international trips if you’re unable (they suggest you be able to handle a 50-pound pack).
trekking with bad back
For my first mountaineering attempt, I did a Mountain Madness trip to Ecuador’s Cotopaxi, the world’s highest active volcano (19,347 feet). Because we had to spend the night at a refugio located just above 15,000 feet in the acclimatization zone, it meant I only required a day pack for the ascent (which was unfortunately thwarted at 17,000 feet due to avalanche danger). But the point is, you can have the best of both worlds, bad back or not. And I still had a great time and felt I’d made a massive achievement.

Specialty trips
Mountain Madness also offers a Mt. Baker “Slow Boat” beginner summit climb in the Cascades (FYI, a lot of outfitters are based in Seattle, an outdoor industry Mecca). This is a four-day trek–usually, it’s done in three–created specifically for those who need a little more time for whatever reason (you still need to be able to carry 35 pounds). Ask outfitters what options they offer if you have limitations; many companies will create personalized itineraries for two or more clients.

Have back problems and a trek or outfitter you want to rave about? Let us know!

[Photo credits: pack train, Flickr user Mouldy17; all other photos, Laurel Miller]

Yoga: Postures to Help Relieve Back Pain

Travel chops: Sailing solo when paralyzed

Sailing solo around Britain would be quite the feat for most of us, I suspect. Sailing solo when you can’t move your body certainly turns it up a notch–or a hundred.

Hilary Lister from Dunkirk, Kent in Great Britain is not letting the trifles of her life stop her. She’s been paralyzed from the neck down for seven years, but has kept setting sail by blowing into a device that controls the sail and the tiller. Her method has taken her already around the Isle of Wight and across the English Channel. She is the first quadriplegic female to ever do these trips.

According to this BBC News story, Lister’s journey around Britain will not happen in a non-stop endeavor, but will be broken into segments, and the segments broken into parts. That seems sensible. She must have a powerful set of lungs. She also has land-based crew that can offer support as needed. Her determination is astounding, but so is the support she must get from family and friends who know how important it is for people to reach their dreams no matter what the dreams are and what obstacles can get in the way.

Several years ago, when I stayed with a lovely family in Vinita, Oklahoma, there was one family member who had been paralyzed from the neck down in a horseback riding accident. He was able to do all sorts of things using just his breath because of the way gadgets had been built to help him do so. His family also made sure that he determined what he wanted to do and left him to his own devices.

We cooked dinner one night, although, he really was the brains behind the endeavor. All I did was do what he said. Dinner was delicious, and honestly, I had little to do with it. If Hilary Lister has half the determination he did, she’ll make it around Great Britain for sure.

As for me, maybe I’ll call up the friend I know who has a sail boat to see if we can take it on a spin on the Scioto River. She knows what to do and instructs me. Suddenly, I have the urge.