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Adaptive chairlift prototype showcased at Whistler Blackcomb

‘I really think the time for people to ski and do all the sports they want independently is now’

Adaptive mountain biking in Whistler could eventually have a better guest experience, thanks to a new adaptive chairlift prototype.

Developed by a team from the University of Utah’s Spinal Cord Injury Acute Rehabilitation (SCIAR) program and the university’s engineering program, the adaptive chairlift is another step towards independence for adaptive riders. SCIAR program lead Dr. Jeffrey Rosenbluth was in Whistler June 6 to showcase the prototype and other equipment developed by his subsidiary business, Tetradapt.

The chairlift was on display, alongside an adaptive sit-ski and sailboat, and groups from Whistler Blackcomb (WB) and the Whistler Adaptive Sports Program came to check out the equipment.

Adaptive chairlift prototype

Omer Dagan works in business development for WB, and he explained adaptive bike loading at WB has been a trial-and-error process that considers different types of bikes and chairs to determine the best way to load each guest using an adaptive mountain bike (AMTB)

What is exciting about the adaptive chairlift is it would allow for biker independence.

“The exciting thing for us with a concept like this, is that if it comes to fruition in this configuration, it would mean that users don't need to get out of their bikes,” he said.

Dagan used the new Fitzsimmons chairlift as an example, where a lift operator would need to stop the chairlift, the adaptive rider would get out of their bike and sit on the chair, and the lift operator would then load the bike. The process is reversed at the top of the chairlift.

“That can be quite a slow and cumbersome process and not very efficient. Nor is that a particularly great experience for the rider themselves having to get in and out of their bike every single time," he said. "So something like this has the potential to significantly improve the guest experience.”

For full instructions on how AMTBs lift load, WB has an instructional video on its accessibility webpage.

WB is in conversation with the SCIAR program about the potential applications for the adaptive chairlift in the Whistler Mountain Bike Park, as well as its use for winter operations and sightseeing. SCIAR has done preliminary testing at Powder Mountain Ski Resort in Utah, and is working with lift maker Doppelmayr to create an appropriate design.

Dagan said it’s still early days, and couldn’t say exactly when the technology would be implemented in Whistler, but accessibility is a constantly evolving process at WB (and in the municipality).

“As we're preparing for the Invictus Games in February next year, trying to continually make improvements to the guest experience is something we’re prioritizing, and this is part of that," he said. "This is not something that is going to come to fruition overnight.”

The requisite approvals could take years, from provincial regulators, to engineering teams and lift manufacturer Doppelmayr.

The concept first started after feedback from adaptive riders about their experience highlighted the need for better wayfinding and lift loading, according to Dagan. Now, there are AMTB trail rating systems in the bike park, on trail maps and online and instructional videos for lift loading, as well as dedicated wheelchair and bike storage space in the gondola barn of Skiers Plaza.

Tetraski and sailboat

Rosenbluth and his team designed the tetraskis to accommodate individuals with complex injuries and illnesses, like no trunk control and limited or zero arm control.

Using a joystick controller or breath control, athletes have very fine independent control of the device.

Tetraski also partners with non-profits to ensure the technology is available for people who benefit.

“I think this is one tool where the world doesn't need 100,000 of them. We might need a couple hundred. And so we're really trying to look for partners and ways to just do this together,” Rosenbluth said.

“We should just have these available. I really think the time for people to ski and do all the sports they want independently is now. We don't have to do it as dependently as we've been doing it for 40 years.”

Adrià Flor is the lead coach for WASP, and in charge of its facilities and equipment. He’d like to see breath-control technology available for WASP athletes.

“If you don’t have the technology, then you rely on someone to help you all the time. You can experience things but you can’t be independent," he said. "That’s part of the goal, working on independence rather than just having the experience."

The breath-controlled equipment could be used in WASP's sit-skis, sailing boat and bikes, so people with higher injury compete independently.

The breath-controlled sit-ski costs US$30,000, a price tag that’s out of reach for WASP without a fundraiser to purchase the technology. But Flor said each year there are hundreds of athletes that come from around the world and within the Sea to Sky for adaptive sports programming, and he could think of more than 20 people who could use the technology.

He suggested WASP would be interested in leasing a tetraski and if it was something athletes need, they could fundraise for the overall cost.

“We need support from the community to make that independence happen. And that means that we need more funding, so any anything that people can think or donate support we welcome.”

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