Thursday, February 16, 2017

(Sit) Skiing

I have friends who live for skiing.  When the first leaf of autumn drops, they immediately turn their focus to snow.  Is it cold enough?  Is there enough snow? Are you ready?  Well, actually, no.   I'm not ready yet.  I love and appreciate the unique offerings of all four seasons.  However, while I do not live for skiing, skiing has been instrumental in defining my life and shaping my place in it.

Growing up, I went skiing with my family a few times each year.  Skiing in Northern Wisconsin is not for the faint of heart, since winter temperatures were never warm and sometimes even below zero.  I’m not sure if it was the cold, the expense, my schedule (gymnastics season was in winter), or my own physical/psychological limitations, but I never became more than a mediocre skier.  After high school, living on the west coast put me in proximity to actual mountains, but – without a car – even a few hours is an impossible distance, so I never graduated from mediocrity.  I loved the adventure of it – especially when trying to keep up with my brothers or Ted – but my sense of adventure was always stronger than my technique.  Still, that spirit and that foundation served me well when trying to learn to sit ski.

As my MS progressed, the loss of mobility wreaked havoc with my sense of identity and place in the world.  Who was I, if not an adventurous and active do-er?  After years of asking this question without answer, I discovered Outdoors For All , a local non-profit organization offering adaptive outdoor activities.  I have since tried some of their summer sports – kayaking, water skiing, and biking – but I started with their most famous program – alpine skiing. 

Powder day!
Learning to sit-ski was one of my best life choices.  Sit-skiing helped to create a new and yet connected sense of identity.  I still recall the day of skiing when Ted told me, “Today you reminded me that you are an athlete.”  Skiing also afforded me a sense of place in my community.  When everyone rehashed their experiences from the slopes, I had stories of my own to contribute.  Once a week for nearly two months out of every year, I belonged to a tribe with shared rituals such as waking up early, hoping for good snow conditions, skiing most of the day, and hitting the pub for an apr├Ęs-ski sharing of stories and drinks.  Finally, I had an activity I could do together with my husband.  We ski together as a team in this unique sport of tandem skiing.  

                                       Christmas Day 2016 (video by Ingrid, while skiing!)


The sit-skiers who star in Warren Miller films always ride monoskis.  These high-performance contraptions allow the skier to load him/her-self on the chairlift, and to ski almost anywhere independently.  On the downside, it is difficult to balance on the monoski's single ski.  I remember that when I competed on the balance beam in high school, kids watching in the bleachers used to take bets on how many times I would fall (and this was before MS!) ... so maybe a ski requiring good balance wasn't for me!

Mountain Man Biski

I chose, instead, a biski.  With two skis underneath, it is much more stable than a monoski.  Their design allows you to be connected to someone via a tether, so that he/she can assist you with turning and stopping.  Because my muscles can fatigue before I do, I rely on that backup assistance to help me out when I can no long initiate my own turns or stops.  Unfortunately, most biskis are difficult to impossible to self-load, requiring reliance on two able-bodied skiers to help you on and off of the chair lift.  I started with a Mountain Man biski, but I soon switched to a Bi-Unique (I think they fit better for those of us with hips).  I have also tried a HOC and a Tessier: both of these are high-performance machines – they turn on a dime, requiring less effort to steer, stop, and load.  In addition, they have shock absorbers, which is a life-saver when going over bumps and moguls with only your spine to absorb the shock. 

HOC Biski
Tessier Biski

Bi-Unique Biski
Despite these downsides, I prefer the Bi-Unique – perhaps because I learned on it or perhaps because it is lower to the ground.  Although the closeness to the ground means I usually end up with a face full of snow on every run, it also means a shorter distance for a fall, which is, in turn, an amazing confidence booster.  The main disadvantage, which I realize regularly, is the lack of a shock absorber.  I end up in the air quite a bit, and while the experience of launching and flying is exhilarating, the landing absolutely crushes my spine.  Unfortunately, in a never-ending cycle, flying off of moguls increases the speed and lack of control, which increases the number of flights into the air, etc.  Bi-unique has recently developed a model with shocks – the Dynamique – which I can’t wait to try.

Double Black!
I know that some organizations teach sit-skiing by thumbing (holding on to the back of the ski) down an easy slope, and then letting the participant try it independently.  I learned to ski by being tethered, where a volunteer clipped one end of a rope to the back of my ski and then held onto the other end.  As I gained confidence and skills, the tether rope grew longer, and the volunteer’s assistance grew smaller.   Although it takes longer to gain independence in this manner, I prefer it.  There don’t seem to be many straight, easy slopes around Seattle.  Even the green runs seem to involve at least one steep headwall and a slanted run-off, making independent learning difficult.  Also, as I mentioned, my core muscles gradually fatigue over the course of the day, so I appreciate the steering and stopping assistance, as well as the confidence boost provided by having an emergency controller.  In addition, I have skied on some steep hills that I never could have done on my own.  Finally, Ted and I have made tandem skiing into a sport of its own – kind of like doubles’ tennis or synchronized swimming.  In the beginning, I explicitly requested NOT to have Ted as my tetherer; but within three years, both of us mastered our respective skills, and now we ski-dance down the hills (well, except for the not infrequent instances of marital miscommunication!). Sure, it would be nice to ski independently, but realistically it would only be on the easiest of hills for a short time.

I started out at Summit West at Snoqualmie Pass in WA (about 45 minutes from Seattle).  The lodge is quite accessible, but the skiing is limited.  If I could more easily go between the different parts of Summit (East, Central, West, Alpental), there would be plenty of good runs available, but I think that the connections between the ski areas are tricky (relatively flat or lengthy) and not all of the lodges are wheelchair accessible.

Mt Rainier at Crystal Mountain
I then skied for a few years at Crystal Mountain (about 2 hours from Seattle).  It is the home of my favorite run, Green Valley.  At the top of the gondola and the REX (Rainier Express) chairlift is a stunning view of Mt Rainer.  Unfortunately, Crystal's top lodge does not have accessible bathrooms, but the mid-mountain lodge is a great place to stop for lunch without having to go to the bottom of the ski hill.  This lodge has a couple of old wheelchairs that spend all winter in the lodge entry-way.  Of course, these wheelchairs are usually in terrible shape (no push rims, no foot holders, etc) but they allow me to enjoy lunch with friends up on on the mountain.  Crystal offers 50% off of lift tickets for disabled skiers.  There is disabled parking near the main lodge.  It is quite an incline to get from the parking lot to the first floor of lodge.  The first floor of the lodge has accessible bathrooms.   There is an elevator to the second floor cafeteria and chairlift area (this elevator has been known to be out of service, so call ahead).
North Cascades at Stevens Pass

In recent years, I’ve mainly been skiing at Stevens Pass (about 2 hours from Seattle).  Two of the lodges at Stevens have ground floor access and an elevator (which has never been out of service, in my experience), allowing access to the restrooms, chairlift area, cafeteria, and bar/restaurants.  Stevens Pass offers a free companion/guide lift ticket for sit skiers.  The top of the Tye Mill chair lift has a fantastic view of the Cascades.   

A friend told me that Mt Bachelor has a good adaptive skiing program, so I hope to try that later this year.  The jury is still out on whether Mt Hood and Mt Baker would be good sit-ski possibilities.  I know that some of the ski resorts in Colorado and Utah have adaptive ski programs, as do many of the Canadian ski resorts in British Columbia. 

My favorite place to ski so far is Revelstoke, in British Columbia.  They have over 1 mile of vertical, with long, fun, relatively uncrowded ski runs and an adaptive ski program with extremely reasonable prices and the most incredible staff.  They allowed Ted to tether me and provided a great mountain guide/lifter, who we ended up skiing with all of the time.  They helped me get my wheelchair and sit ski up the gondola in the morning and back down at the end of the day.  The lifties were familiar with loading/unloading sit skis on chairlifts.  I hope to go back again later this year.

PVC Overalls
(they don't only come in bright yellow!)
I have been sit skiing and refining my ski wardrobe for about 10 years now, and can offer a few clothing recommendations.  The first is to wear cheap PVC overalls instead of expensive Goretex ski pants.  Especially on the West Coast (Sierra Cement, Cascade Concrete), the snow is so wet that Goretex usually isn’t enough to keep you dry.  Because of the ski design (there aren’t drainage holes in the seats), you end up sitting in a puddle of melted snow and soaked even when it’s not snowing or raining.   Wearing overalls with suspenders ensures your pants don’t fall down or ride down when sitting.  The lack of breathability doesn’t matter, since you don’t use your legs anyway.   And the price is right.  While Gortex ski pants can run you $200 (and don’t keep you dry anyway), you can buy PVC overalls at a WalMart or marine hardware store (this is Seattle) or Amazon for about $20.

A second recommendation is a “turtle” or neck gaiter.  Because sit skis put you so close to the snow, a lot of turns result in snow spraying directly into your face.  To avoid finishing each run with a frozen, snowy face, I recommend a turtle or balaclava that covers your neck and can be pulled up to cover your lower face as well.  Finally, I would recommend the warmest possible boots and gloves, reinforced with hand and toe warmers.  Wind can be brutal on the chair lift or at the top of a run.  Your feet are strapped in and don’t move.   Breathability is less of an issue than heat retention.  In addition, many people with spinal cord injuries have difficulties with temperature regulation.

My new career as a disabled snow-sports fashion model!

Many of the resorts provide volunteers, instructors, and/or rental equipment through their ski schools or a local non-profit organization.  If you own or can rent your own equipment, you are not limited to ski resorts with adaptive ski programs.  In that case, you should look for resorts with wide blue runs (unless you’re really good, of course), chairlifts that take at least three people (you and a lifter on each side), and staff that either has experience with sit skis or a positive attitude about making it work.  And, if you even happen to be in the Pacific Northwest and want to go skiing (either standing or sitting), let me know!

Monday, February 6, 2017

Amtrak with a Wheelchair

Amtrak southbound Coast Starlight and northbound Cascades trains meet at Portland, OR Union Station
(with Red Cap assisting passengers)

This episode is brought to you by a recent trip I took on Amtrak Cascades from Seattle to Portland.  The important thing is that this is a day trip with no sleeper cars.  I’ve read that Amtrak overnight trains do offer accessible sleeper rooms, such as the Superliner Accessible Bedroom and the Viewliner Accessible Bedroom, but I haven’t experienced them, so I can’t speak to them.  I also can't speak to the commuter trains that run on the Eastern Seaboard, except to say I remember them being especially complicated and requiring advanced planning for travel with a wheelchair.

Crossing the Columbia River outside
of Portland, OR on the way to
Seattle, WA... Roll on!
There are two key things about the Amtrak Cascades route.  Firstly, it is one of the most beautiful rides in the world.  I would recommend the trip simply for the view.  The train tracks run along the coastline of Puget Sound, past the infamous Tacoma Narrows Bridge, along the Cowlitz and Columbia Rivers, through beautiful countryside in the middle of western- Washington and -Oregon, across the mighty Columbia River just north of Portland (Roll On!).  Unbelievably, the northern leg of this route, from Seattle to Vancouver, BC, is possibly even more spectacular, since it hugs the coastline of Puget Sound and its islands … and includes an international border crossing to boot!

Secondly, Amtrak is almost always late.  Amtrak trains run on tracks owned by the private railroad companies (ie BNSF), so these freight trains have the right-of-way.  An Amtrak passenger train must stop to let the freight trains pass when there is not room for both, thus necessarily lengthening the journey.  These waits can add up.  There was a time in my life when I rode this route every other week for over a year, and I think the average time for the 3 ½ hour trip was actually 4+ hours.  There were perhaps 2 times in that entire period where the train was actually on time.  So, bring a good book and enjoy the view!

Ten years ago, when I was a rode this train frequently, I traveled on a portable three-wheeled scooter.  This weekend I made the trip in my power chair.  Over that decade, the trains improved, the reservations process became much easier, and Seattle and Portland grew exponentially.   As a result of these changes, the wheelchair experience is smoother and nicer, but many things remained similar.  Details …

As a result of city growth and change, getting to and from the train stations has never been easier.  In Seattle, I can take the underground light rail (which I call a subway), from a station near my house to a station just a couple of blocks from the train station in about 10 minutes.  In Portland, the streetcar just a few blocks from the train station drops me off directly in front of my hotel.

Image of Julie
Julie, Amtrak's friendly virtual assistant
Fortunately, the reservations system has improved.  Ten years ago, it was possible to book online, but not if you had a wheelchair.  Those of us with “special needs” had to go through Julie, the automated attendant for the voice system at the 1-800 number.  I learned very quickly to yell “agent” at Julie as soon as she answered, lest I be trapped in the voicemail system from hell.  I must admit that that is a lesson that has served me well in other hellish voicemail situations.  At any rate, the reservations system has improved, such that even wheelchair-users can reserve a seat online.  There is even a box to describe whether you will be traveling with a manual chair, power chair, or scooter.  There are restrictions for maximum dimensions, but I think that most wheelchairs and travel scooters will have no problem with them.

You can now receive and print your e-ticket via your email, so you can (and should) print your ticket ahead of time.  Still, I would arrive at the station about 45 minutes before departure time, since passengers needing assistance are the first to board.

Not all stations have accessible services, so you should definitely do some research before traveling.  You can find a basic indication of accessible services using Amtrak's station finder, but you should also call your start/end stations as well, just to confirm that you can get there and leave.

If you can't find a Red Cap, or if there
isn't one at your station, inquire at
the Ticket Counter as to what to do.
Shortly before the train arrives, you may
show your ticket to receive a seat
assignment. Some stations have a Red Cap
or other staff take care of it for you,
allowing you to skip the long line.
At major stations, you should look for the “Red Cap.”  This is, believe it or not, a person wearing a red cap.  He or she is responsible for storing baggage and for helping “special needs” passengers board the train.  This includes assigning you a seat and boarding ticket, directing you to your boarding car (or driving you there in an electric cart), and handing you off to the staff at the car.  You can find the Red Cap major stations by simply looking around for a staff member wearing a red cap, or you can ask someone at the ticket counter where to go.  They will usually take your ticket to obtain a seat assignment and then ask you to wait in a special area before they come back to help you board.  In Seattle, I had to get my own seat assignment, but the Red Cap found me and helped me board at the front of the line of departing passengers (maybe 15 minutes before departure).  In Portland, the Red Cap found me almost immediately, obtained my seat assignment and ticket for me, had me wait by the gate, and came back to direct me to my car 35 minutes before the train’s departure.  In stations without Red Caps, you can ask what to do at the Ticket Counter.

Most passengers board the train by using a step stool.  That doesn’t work so well for passengers with wheelchairs or mobility impairments.  As a result of the ADA, I think all trains requiring a step stool now have a lift installed in at least one of the cars.  Theoretically, your assigned seat will be in that car as well.  The Red Cap can direct you to the accessible car (he or she can even help you get there, if needed), and a train attendant will lower the lift and then help you board.

If everything works as planned, your reserved seat will be just around the corner.  The old trains had these ridiculous fold-down transfer seats, giving you a choice of either staying and riding in your chair, transferring to an uncomfortable fold-down seat, or hoping the train would be empty enough to transfer to a regular train seat. The new trains are great!  On the trains in both directions, I was assigned a real train seat with an adjoining space large enough for my power chair, giving me the option of sitting in my chair or transferring to theirs.

Because mine was a short trip, I didn’t need to check any luggage. I had a backpack with my computer, which I stowed on my wheelchair.  I also had a small, rolling carry-on suitcase, just big enough to hold a few items and my wheelchair battery charger.  When it wasn’t raining, I carried the backpack and rolled the suitcase behind me.  When it rained (this was, after all, the Pacific Northwest!), I held both bags on my lap.  Out of Seattle, there was no staff around after I boarded, so the passenger in the seat ahead of me helped me stow the suitcase.  When I arrived in Portland, another passenger helped me retrieve my suitcase from the rack above my seat.  On the return trip the newer train I rode had space behind my seat for my suitcase, so I stored it there, with the help of a train attendant.

On board, you get to enjoy about four hours of forced relaxation.  Every once in a while, I’ve been on a train that shows a movie, so if you bring your own headphones, you can watch and listen.  But that has been pretty rare, so I don’t count on it.  My favorite stretch on this route, for what it’s worth, is just south of Tacoma, when the train goes along the coast, with views toward the islands, the peninsula, and the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, until it finally veers inland.

The restroom on this particular train was really wheelchair –accessible.  I’ve also ridden this route on the long-distance Coast Starlight, which supposedly has accessible restrooms (it is the law, after all), but the restroom in my car had a giant garbage can, which was too heavy to move and too big to allow my scooter to fit.  This one, fortunately, had a truly accessible restroom.  The doorway was extra wide, with a sliding door.  The room itself was large, with plenty of room to turn around.  There were several grab bars around the toilet – both horizontal and vertical.  The sink and paper towels were both accessible.

The center aisle on the train is fairly narrow, which is why the accessible seat is right next to the entrance/exit and the restroom.  In the past, my scooter was narrow enough to fit between the chairs and travel the aisle, but my power chair was too wide.   Amtrak literature claims that passengers in wheelchairs can have food from the bistro car brought to them, but I’ve never tried that. Rather than rely on the train staff  (whom I never saw) to bring me food, I brought my own.

Improvements in the Amtrak reservation system, allowing even passengers with wheelchairs to reserve and purchase their tickets online, make the ticketing process simple and quick.  Newer trains offer spacious seating, a dedicated transfer seat with adjoining space for a wheelchair/scooter, and truly accessible restrooms.  Traveling with a wheelchair on Amtrak ranges from possible to enjoyable, depending on the type of train and the attention of the staff.  The train will probably be late, but the forced relaxation time on board – as long as you remember to add some time to your schedule –  is actually a gift.  Next mission – an overnight train and sleeper cars!

For more information, see the online Amtrak guide to accessibility: