Riding down a mountain on snow is an activity that puts people of all ability levels on an equal playing field. There’s not many other sports out there where the only objective is to slow down, allowing gravity to accelerate you with the most efficient engine ever.
Whether it’d your first time on snow or you’re getting back on the snow for the first time after losing a limb(s), there’s something for everyone. It’s very important when you’re learning to get (back) on the snow to get instructions from an adaptive program with certified adaptive ski instructors. Please contact us if you’d like recommendations for programs.
For the most severely injured or impaired individuals, sit skiing is a great option. There are two types of sit skis and both incorporate a shock. Bi-skis have a bucket with two skis and mono-skis have a bucket with one ski. Bi-skis are more stable but a little less maneuverable. With sit skis, you also use outriggers, which are basically forearm crutches with teeth on the ends and are used to push yourself around the ski lifts. Outriggers have strings attached to the handles. By pulling on the strings, a lock is disengaged and small skis flip down. This converts the purpose of pushing around to sliding, helping with balance and stability during turns. While learning, your instructor(s) will have you tethered, or will hold on to your sit ski, and will help guide you down the mountain. They will also ask the people running the lift for a slow down or stop at the bottom and/or top of the lift in order to ensure safety and allow time to position you on and off the lift. With practice, it is possible to transfer on and off the lift independently.
For those with enough strength, balance, and desire to stand up while moving down the snow, there are a number of options. These include: three tracking with the prosthesis off; skiing/snowboarding with a prosthesis; and snow biking with or without prosthesis.
Three tracking is done using one ski on the sound side and two outriggers. This is a great option because you can just leave your prosthesis in the lodge and not have to deal with any potential problems associated with fit and suspension. Three tracking does, however, require a good healthy leg. It’s a good idea to wear a gel liner and maybe extra padding to protect your residual limb in case of a fall. Some might argue that three tracking puts a lot of stress on the sound side, which is true, but at the same time, it is building strength and endurance and it’s possible to fly at lightning speeds once experienced.
Skiing with a prosthesis is possible for fit individuals with most amputation levels. Use of a grocery bag makes getting the ski boot on and off the prosthetic foot easier. Foam wedges can be taped around the pylon to tighten up the fit of the boot so it doesn’t move around inside the boot as much. Since pressure on the front of the ski helps to initiate turns, up to a 1/2″ heel wedge inside the boot will position the prosthesis in a desirable forward lean/athletic stance. This is true for amputation levels below and above the knee.
Importantly, keeping your leg from falling off while you’re on the ski lift is of utmost concern. Auxiliary suspension is a fail safe way to keep you leg on just in case the primary suspension fails. this means that if you use pin lock suspension, you may want to ask your prosthetist to borrow a suspension sleeve that rolls up from the socket on to your thigh. Make sure that sleeves and liners are in good condition and free of holes before your trip. For above knee amputation levels, a waist belt provides auxiliary suspension and rotation control.
While it is possible to ski with a prosthetic knee intended for walking, it is much easier if the knee has the ability to lock out at a specific angle. Your prosthetist may be able to help program certain microprocessor knees to lock out at an angle around 15 or 20 degrees, which will put you in the athletic stance desired for these types of activities. Specialized knees and feet are available for more advanced usrs and typically use hydraulic mechanisms to absorb shock. Some ski feet actually clip directly into the ski binding and do not require a boot. This eliminates weight and movement. (Side note: Paralympic athletes are not allowed to use such feet in competition.)
A custom knee orthosis is a good idea for below knee amputees who intend to progress past a basic level. The knee orthosis helps to protect the knee joint and also maximizes leverage while turning.
Walking in ski boots is hard enough with two biological feet, so it’s not surprising that walking would be difficult for prosthetic users. To make this a little easier, you may want to carry some rocker soles around with you in a backpack.
Arm amputees may need to use precautions getting electrical components wet in the snow. Special devices are avaliable to grip onto poles. Many arm amputees choose not to use ski poles after getting past the learning curve of skiing. There are a lot of different adaptive tools, and it’s possible for some people to ski even if missing all four limbs, starting out using what looks like a forearm walker on skis.
Snowboarding is also possible for fit individuals with most amputation levels. Again, a grocery bag makes sliding the prosthetic foot into the boot easier and foam wedges help take up room in the boot to prevent movement within the boot. Like skiing, heel wedges up to 1/2″ inside the prosthetic side boot can help position the leg in an athletic stance. Alternatively, wedges may also be taped onto the binding, creating a forward lean of the boot. Once this position is attained, the high back of the binding should be adjusted to match the back of the boot. Also, strap length may need to be adjusted.
You should also talk with your instructor about which direction seems easiest to ride. Left foot forward is called “regular” and right foot forward is called “goofy”. If you snowboarded before losing a leg, it might make sense to ride in the opposite direction (called switch) depending on which foot you decide to take out of the binding around the ski lift. There is no right or wrong, and it’s best to take some time to figure out which option feels best.
Since both feet are locked into the board, there is not usually the need of a knee orthosis for those with below knee amputations. For above knee amputations, certain microprocessor knees can be programmed to prevent flexion at about 15 or 20 degrees. This makes heel side turns much easier. However, current microprocessor knees still allow full extension, so toe side turns are somewhat difficult. The same specialized knees and feet with hydraulic units used for skiing can enhance performance for advanced snowboarders, but do not typically walk smoothly.
Auxiliary suspension is important for snowboarding, the same as it is for skiing for both safety and performance.
Arm amputees may only be impacted by their amputation when getting up after a fall and perhaps while strapping on the snowboard. The easiest way to get up after a fall is to roll to your belly and dig the toe edge of the board into the snow, then to walk up until standing. Special terminal devices are available which are made out of a wide rubberized surface, which is less likely to punch through the snow than a hook.
Changing binding strap configuration can make it easier to independently strap in and out using one hand. Snowboard boots with a boa dial are easier to take on and off with one hand compared to laces. It is possible for some people with bilateral above knee amputation levels to snowboard. For them, it’s easiest to learn without knees, on a shorter board and with a shorter height.
Snow bikes are relatively new and are a good option to try maybe after your legs are worn out since you are sitting down. Many resorts now allow ski bikes, so this could also be a definitive snow sport of choice. These bikes incorporate shock absorber(s) and two skis. One ski is fixed underneath the seat and a separate ski is connected to the front forks. The front ski turns, similar to a bicycle. Boots incorporate small skis and can be used to help stop and for balance. However, the main way to turn is by shifting your weight side to side and turning the handlebars. Once accustom to turning and slowing down, you can place your feet on pegs as you no longer need them.
No matter how athletic you might be, you can expect to get a lot of practice learning to fall your first four or five days on the mountain. Helmets are a requirement for all snow sports. Wrist guards and padded shorts are well worth the investment for snowboarding falls, but hang in there, the day will come when you are able to link turns down the mountain and then you’ll be hooked!