By J.R. Carpenter
Nature has never been synonymous with wheelchair accessibility. For those of us who use wheelchairs and venture out into the great outdoors, we often find our wheels stuck in sand or mud and our paths blocked by twigs and branches, or we face inclines too steep to go up or down without risk of becoming intimately associated with the hospital emergency room–again. But the National Ability Center in Park City, Utah, while not being able to actually ramp Mother Nature, has done an amazing job of removing the barriers wheelchair users might encounter when participating in winter sports. In addition to removing barriers, NAC also provides equipment and professional expertise to facilitate participation in winter sports regardless of disability. All you have to do is show up with a jacket.
Skiing and snowboarding are the most popular winter sports. Last winter season over 3,500 disabled participants took advantage of NAC’s program, according to outreach manager Brooke Hafets. It’s not hard to understand why: A two-hour lesson, all-day lift tickets for the disabled skier and companion, plus full adaptive equipment rental comes to a grand total of only $60–the regular adult full-day lift ticket for one nondisabled skier was $69. And if you’re not comfortable skiing with just your companion, you can book two lessons and have the instructor for four hours, which can be split between morning and afternoon. Lessons are not restricted to beginners. They are available for every ability level, from first-time skiers all the way up to skiers using the expert black diamond runs.
If you skied before becoming a wheeler, you undoubtedly remember that getting on and off a ski lift required deftness and speed. Not so for adaptive skiing. The lift attendants will slow the lift down as much as needed, even coming to a dead stop if necessary. They will also help lift you up onto the seat. It couldn’t be easier.
Each season, reservations are accepted starting Sept. 1. For the best chance of reserving a spot, call at least two weeks before you plan to ski. Even if it is months in advance, it is advisable to make reservations as soon as you know your travel dates. When you make your reservation with NAC, they will spend about 30 to 45 minutes on the phone with you to discuss your disability and the best way to meet your overall needs. They are extremely accommodating. There are no age restrictions to adaptive skiing or snowboarding, but if you need to use a sit-ski (e.g., paras and quads), you need to weigh no more than about 200 pounds–210 pounds may be OK, but 250 pounds is not. Both the disabled skier and his or her equipment must be lifted on to the chair lift. For those who stand to ski, such as amputees, there is no weight limit.
Wheelchair users will find ramps right to the slopes where ski instructors and others from NAC will assist you in transferring to whatever ski equipment you choose. Naturally, you’ll need to bring your own winter weather clothing–warm snow boots, waterproof jacket and pants, etc.
For parents who have a child with a disability, NAC also operates a children’s adaptive all-day ski camp from 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Cost–$150–includes group lessons, lunch, lift pass and equipment. Parents are not required to accompany their child, but if they want to, there is no additional charge.
For skiers with disabilities who want an adrenaline rush, helicopter skiing can be arranged for $525 to $770 per person per day, which includes approximately seven runs at Snowbird, including breakfast and lunch. You are picked up in Park City and taken there.
Fortunately, for those whose credit cards would set off alarms if they tried to pay for heli-skiing, there is another way to get a similar rush. The NAC actually has an accessible bobsled program that includes lessons and two to three runs for only $15! Traveling at 70 to 80 mph without an engine has never been so accessible, or affordable. To use the bobsled runs, you need to have full use of your upper body and hands in order to properly steer the sled. The driver sits in front with his or her legs in the nose cone of the sled. A second “pusher” then propels the sled and then jumps on the back. What makes this truly impressive is that this is the same bobsled run used in the 2002 Winter Olympics. To participate in the bobsled program you must be at least 16 years old, but there are no weight restrictions. However, you must be able to fit inside the two-man bobsled–if you weigh in excess of 250 pounds, that may be difficult.
If you don’t have full use of your upper body or arms and hands, you can still do something wild and crazy: The Ice Rocket. There are no physical limitations for participants as long as the rider is at least 8 years old. No steering is required, and there’s a rollbar for safety. The Ice Rocket, a one-man sled, travels downhill at about 50 miles per hour with the rider lying on his or her back, strapped in. Hafets says the Ice Rocket is a lot safer than the bobsled and NAC provides the motorcycle helmet to be sure. Like the bobsled, there are no weight restrictions, but the rider does have to be able to fit inside the sled. Cost is $16 per run, and nondisabled family members and/or friends can also ride at the same rate, based on availability.
In addition to skiing, snowboarding, bobsledding and the Ice Rocket, NAC also operates indoor wall climbing and indoor horseback riding lessons at their ranch, which is about 15 minutes from downtown Park City. The private two-hour indoor climbing lesson is $15 and participants will naturally need excellent upper-body strength. There are seven climbing routes, one of which is called, “Armed and Dangerous,” for those who don’t have use of their legs. It is designed in such a way that the climber’s legs won’t drag on the wall. Assistance is provided as needed. And in case you think that indoor rock climbing is not an option for you, a triple amputee has made it to the top. Climbers must be at least 5 years old and weigh at least 40 pounds, but no more than approximately 200 pounds.
During winter, horseback riding lessons are also available indoors, but if there are only a few inches of snow, the instructor may allow a trail ride at his or her discretion. The riding lessons are more of a skills lesson during the winter than a recreational trail ride. Cost: $20 per hour.
Where To Stay
Lodging at the NAC ranch is available, but there is no public transportation from the ranch to Park City. The ranch has 26 rooms, all with private bathrooms. Six have roll-in showers, and the rest have shower chairs upon request. Rates are $65 per night for double occupancy, which includes continental breakfast and use of the ranch’s lounge with television, DVD and video games. All guest rooms are the same except one that has a separate kitchen. There are no TVs in any of the guest rooms.
For those who want the ultimate location, book a condo at Marriott’s Mountainside Villas, or the Lodge at Mountain Village. Both have accessible condos and are right at the slopes and just a few yards from NAC’s office where you meet to get your gear. You’ll need to book months in advance as these are the choicest locations.
Park City has an excellent accessible bus system that links most of the major hotels with the Park City Resort. Marriott also has the Summit Watch Villas (with Jacuzzi tubs) located right on Main Street, where you will find an excellent selection of restaurants and night life. Both Marriott properties have accessible villas–as small as a studio or as large as a two-bedroom, two-bath, with full kitchen, washer and dryer. Marriott also offers the Park City Marriott, a full-service hotel; the rooms are smaller than the villas and the location isn’t as desirable, but it’s not a bad choice if all the villas and condos are booked, which is often the case. The Yarrow Hotel, with its mountain lodge feel, is also a popular choice on the bus route.
Just because you’re up in the mountains doesn’t mean you’ll have to rough it if you don’t want to. The Flying Sumo on Park Avenue has excellent sushi–wheelchair entrance off Main Street, with accessible parking next door. And the Tavern Sports Bar, as well as Mulligan’s, are fully accessible, as are most other restaurants. However, some shops have avoided becoming accessible by claiming historical status, even though they have recently been completely renovated (but that’s a different story), so don’t go expecting 100 percent accessibility (I had to get someone to take my watch down a dozen or so stairs to get the battery replaced at a jewelers on Main Street because there was no elevator).
If you read up on Park City before going, you are bound to come across Deer Valley, one of the nicest ski resorts in the entire world, and it’s just three miles from Park City Resort. If Park City Resort is the Mercedes of Park City skiing, Deer Valley is the Rolls-Royce. NAC will be happy to bring adaptive equipment and instructors over to Deer Valley and provide the same services that they would at their headquarters at the Park City Resort, except the bobsled of course, and snowboarding, which is prohibited at Deer Valley. The food at Deer Valley is exceptional, and the accommodations at the Stein Eriksen lodge are unsurpassed–they have three deluxe rooms that are fully accessible, but no fully accessible luxury rooms or suites.
To get to Park City, fly into Salt Lake City airport (a Delta hub), and rent a car or arrange for a shuttle–it’s only a 36-mile drive to Park City. Then hit the slopes and go nuts. I did, and I’m a quad.
Accessible Sports Details
National Ability Center, 435/649-3991; www.nac1985.org.
Park City Mountain Resort, 800/222-PARK; www.parkcitymountain.com. Good source for info on skiing conditions.
Utah Athletic Foundation, 435/658-4206; www.utaholympicpark.com.
Hotels, restaurants and nightlife, 435/649-6100; www.parkcityinfo.com.
Marriott, 888/236-2427; www.marriott.com. Marriott has three properties in Park City and more in Salt Lake City.
Stein Eriksen Lodge, 800/453-1302; www.steinlodge.com.
Wheelchair Getaways, 859/873-4973 or 800/536-5518; www.wheelchairgetaways.com. Accessible van rentals are $105 a day, $70 airport delivery/pickup fee, plus 9.5 percent rental tax and 6.6 percent sales tax.
Park City Mobility van service, 435/649-5466.
Wasatch Powerbird Guides Helicopter skiing and snowboarding, 801/742-2800 or 800/WPG-HELI; firstname.lastname@example.org, .
Park City Powder Cats and Heli-Ski, 435-649-6596; www.pccats.com