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This story first appeared in The Outsider, the premium outdoor newsletter by Jason Blevins.

In it, he covers the industry from the inside out, plus the fun side of being outdoors in our beautiful state.

When Kevin Wilson was a kid growing up in Texas and Oklahoma he told his parents that if he didn’t get a college football scholarship he was going to move to Colorado to ski bum in the winter and raft guide in summer. 

It made sense, what with his dad being a coach of all trades — football, basketball, baseball — and Wilson his heir to the interscholastic sports dynasties of eight different counties. School sports were the family’s life save for weekends. Then they’d drive to their cabin in New Mexico to ski at Angel Fire and Red River resorts, flying downhill amid the scents of pinyon pine and Englemann spruce.  

But when Wilson was 16, he was in a car accident that left him paralyzed from the waist down. There began a long period of recovery and rehabilitation, learning to use a wheelchair, and pain pills doctors prescribed to the tune of 300 every time he went in for a checkup, while failing to address the pain itself, he says. Through it all he managed to go to college, meet his wife and survive heavy partying and drinking. But he suffered from depression linked to his inability to move through the world as he once did.

Then, in a fit of inspiration in 2014, he and his wife came to Colorado. They loved it so much, they moved to Broomfield. Wilson had heard of Eldora ski area, but it wasn’t until 2018 that he found out about the Ignite adaptive ski program housed at the resort, and went there to try skiing after his wife signed him up. 

On a form his instructor gave him to list his goals, he wrote, “I want to be an independent skier and I want to work for Ignite.” 

It would take a couple years, but Wilson would achieve exactly what he wanted. He’s now a sit skier, a ski instructor and Ignite’s operations manager at an auspicious time for the non-profit.  

a man sitting in a wheel chair lifts sit-ski equipment.
Kevin Wilson describes the functioning of the mono ski, a piece of equipment designed for adaptive users, inside the Ignite headquarters Wednesday, May 24, 2023. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

Ignite’s past and future

Founded as the Eldora Handicapped Recreation Program in the 1970s, Ignite struggled along, first out of the back of a van, then out of a used AT&T shed and for 20 years, in a couple of cramped trailers in the corner of Eldora’s lower parking lot near the EZ chair and beginner terrain. 

The program grew, surviving a fire in 2006 and basking in the spotlight of the Today Show’s Lend a Hand Program. In 2008, it received a grant from the United States Olympic Committee, allowing it to start serving disabled veterans. And in 2010, with its current name, it topped 1,000 lessons given by about 200 volunteers in a single season, after which it was “bursting at the seams” in its modular buildings.  

A curveball arrived in 2014, when Eldora’s old owner, Bill Killebrew, threatened to shutter the program by refusing to renew its lease at the resort. He welcomed the program back the following season as Dave Levin, Ignite’s then board chair, started discussing the possibility of Ignite raising funds to build its own facility. 

In 2016, Powdr Corporation bought Eldora and Levin kicked off a capital fundraising campaign with $250,000 of his own money. Fast forward a few years and Brent Tregaskis, Eldora’s current general manager, says, “Ignite was maybe going to build a two-story building and rent the top floor back to us. But John Cumming, Powdr’s founder, was like, ‘Look. We should build it. We should own the building and give them a 99-year lease.’ You don’t want to have a little quarter of an acre (of your property) owned by somebody else.” 

Ignite Adaptive Sports 1970s van
The burnt remains of the inside of a building after a fire.

LEFT: Ignite Adaptive Sports, founded as the Eldora Handicapped Recreation Program in the 1970s, first operated out of a van in Eldora’s parking lot. RIGHT: A 2006 fire destroyed the office of what is now Ignite Adaptive Sports at Eldora. On May 18, 2023, Eldora broke ground on a new facility for Ignite and a children’s ski school. (Photos via Ignite Adaptive Sports)

TOP: Ignite Adaptive Sports, founded as the Eldora Handicapped Recreation Program in the 1970s, first operated out of a van in Eldora’s parking lot. BOTTOM: cA 2006 fire destroyed the office of what is now Ignite Adaptive Sports at Eldora. On May 18, 2023, Eldora broke ground on a new facility for Ignite and a children’s ski school. (Photos via Ignite Adaptive Sports)

Levin died of cancer before he could see Powdr, Eldora and Ignite kick his dream into high gear. “The only thing more important to him than Ignite was his family,” Carol Nickell, Ignite’s executive director, says. On May 18, Eldora broke ground on the facility. The new building, set to open for the 2024-25 season will span 12,000 square feet with roughly half going to Eldora’s ski and ride school for children and half to Ignite. 

Nickell says Ignite is raising $1.9 million toward construction and an endowment to insure future programming. Tregaskis, while refusing to give a hard number, says Eldora is putting up many millions more to make the co-operating space a reality. 

“Financially, it would have been better not to that,” he adds. “But John’s idea shows he’s really committed to Ignite.” 

As, it seems, are the 15 Colorado resorts that report supporting some sort of adaptive programming, according to Adrienne Saia Isaac of the National Ski Areas Association (“although there could be more; some folks are better than others about filling out their info,” she adds). 

A short list includes the National Sports Center for the Disabled at Winter Park Resort, which teaches adaptive lessons and has a competition center for athletes wanting to race at the elite level. Vail and Beaver Creek both offer “integrative lessons” for individuals needing extra support in any of its general ski school group lessons. With Telluride Adaptive Sports, if you’re skilled enough, you can go heli-skiing with Helitrax and an adaptive instructor.


The Breckenridge Outdoor Education Center offers group or individual lessons at Keystone, Breck and Copper; Steamboat Adaptive Recreational Sports hosts multi-day camps for kids and adults; Foresight Adventure Guides for the Blind, an independent non-profit operating out of Beaver Creek and Vail for level-4 skiers with visual impairments, matches coaches to skiers based on skiers’ ability and helps them fine-tune existing skills; and at Vail Resorts-owned Crested Butte Mountain Resort, Crested Butte Adaptive Sports, which operates independently of the resort, recently built a $14 million, 25,000-square-foot, four-story, ski-in, ski-out base facility with living quarters.

Some of these programs have been around for nearly as long as the resorts they’re housed in, while others moved in later. Ignite came to Eldora five years after it opened in 1970. NSCD started up in 1970, 40 years after Winter Park Resort. Telluride first spun its lifts in 1972 with adaptive lessons in its general ski school, while the non-profit Telluride Adaptive Sports Program opened on its premises in 1995. And while Steamboat Resort opened in 1963, Steamboat Adaptive Recreational Sports (STARS) didn’t start until 2007. 

These programs and a handful more now give thousands of snow sports lessons each winter to people affected by disability at resorts that don’t appear too concerned about the programs bringing them a profit. 

The mostly pros of adaptive snow sports 

Winter Park gives NSCD free lift tickets and “a generous rent rate” on their offices beneath the Balcony House at the base of the resort, Diane Eustace, NSCD’s communications manager, says. And “while in theory, we’re losing space, we’ve been a longtime partner of NSCD because we’re a bunch of people who believe the outdoors are for everyone,” Jen Miller, Winter Park spokesperson, adds.  

Chris Werhane, adaptive sports lead at Adaptive Adventures in Westminster, says people affected by disability are increasingly interested in skiing because “everyone in the last 30 years has been born with technology,” and people aren’t afraid as they were before to step out of their comfort zones. He cites advances in prosthetics technology, cars with hand controls, public bus services like Bustang, which serves resorts up and down Interstate 70, adaptive-compliant hotels and adaptive sports programs. With increased access to adaptive adventure and adaptive adventure travel improved, some of the once-insurmountable-seeming barriers to rolling up to a resort and shredding have been lowered. 

As for the high cost of tearing down the slopes in search of a goggle tan, “that’s a barrier for anybody wanting to go skiing,” Werhane adds. Adaptive equipment — for things like sit skis and outriggers — can cost thousands of dollars. Many adaptive snow sports programs are non-profit, so they rely on fundraising, donations and in-kind gifts to stay running. 

a person mid air while jumping on adaptive skis.
Adaptive Adventures runs weeklong camps that “create an immersive and social environment where adaptive skiers and riders can elevate their skills while forging lifelong friendships,” their website says. (Photo via Adaptive Adventures)

“But look at Breck’s adaptive program,” Werhane says. “For $165 a day you get a lift ticket, an instructor and the ability to ski on a $6,000 piece of equipment the Breck adaptive center bought. Breck probably isn’t going to get their money back on that purchase in one to two years. Thank goodness they and many other resorts comp tickets because otherwise a lot of these programs wouldn’t exist.” 

Thousands of Colorado’s adaptive ski instructors are volunteers, so paying them isn’t a problem; many resorts will donate day or season passes to them. Nickell says Ignite’s roughly 250 instructors all volunteer. In the 2019-20 season, 244 gave 1,085 lessons to 285 students, amounting to 14,253 hours of volunteer time at a value of $399,365. 

An animated graphic that reads: "244 — Number of volunteers"
An animated graphic that reads: "1,085 — Number of lessons"
An animated graphic that reads: "285 — Number of students"

“We do what we do really well,” Nickell says. 

But Erik Weihenmayer, the blind adventurer who has climbed Mount Everest, kayaked the Grand Canyon and skied the Haute Route from Chamonix to Zermatt with guides, says not all volunteer instructors are equal either in guiding ability or sensitivity to their students. 

“I like some programs, but the problem with others is that you show up and you don’t know who your guide is,” he says. “I can’t speak to other disabilities, but as a blind person, it’s about creating relationship, trust and communication. You can’t snap your fingers and do that in five minutes. You have to have consistency. You’re listening to the person guiding you. You’re learning to read each other’s minds so when your guide says turn left you know exactly what they mean by that. If you don’t have consistency, if there’s a new guide every time you go skiing, then it’s a problem and a lot of organizations fall short in that way.” 

He also takes issue with the prices he says some adaptive programs charge: “I went to Vail one time and they were gonna charge me $500 — over $200 for me and $200 for my guide. I go, ‘Wait, my guide is my eyes, folks. He should be free. He’s simply here to guide me down the mountain. I can’t see and you’re gonna charge me double?’” 

Weihenmayer is a high-level skier, so a program like Foresight Adventure Guides for the Blind works better for him anyway. 

“I like them because I can call them up and they’ll pair me with the right person who guides me from behind,” he says. “Most blind guides guide from the front, but guiding from behind is better, because as a sighted person what do they tell you to do? Look down the fall line. They don’t tell you to lean your head back to try to listen to a guy behind you. If your guide is in front of you, the sound comes back and you ski into it.” With the right guide and using this method, Weihenmayer says he skis aggressively, with good form, and makes “nice, round turns.”

Programs like Ignite, Telluride Adaptive Sports and 30-year-old Crested Butte Adaptive Sports Center, which annually attracts around 800 people with physical and developmental disabilities, have improved their facilities, increased their offerings and given their instructors the opportunity to train with the Professional Ski Instructors Association. Crested Butte adaptive went over and above in 2019, when it constructed the massive ski-in, ski-out Kelsey Wright Building in the resort’s base area with funds raised in a capital campaign. Their center also offers veterans, active military and first responders with disabilities — and their families — $50 full-day lessons for summer and winter activities. The special rate extends to veterans, active military and first responders who have a family member or child with a disability. 

a man in a wheel chair heads down a ramp outside a building with a sign that reads "Ignite."
Kevin Wilson, Ignite Adaptive Sports employee at Eldora ski area, navigates down the makeshift ramp from his office Wednesday, May 24, 2023, in Nederland. Wilson was paralyzed in a car accident when he was 16, but later returned to skiing via mono chair after discovering Ignite. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

How adaptive programs boost Colorado’s economy 

So what do resorts get for supporting adaptive programs? 

Jessica Conyers, a therapist who works for the Veterans Administration at the Valor Point Domiciliary in Lakewood and helps coordinate the largest rehabilitative ski and snowboard program in the U.S., the annual National Disabled Winter Sports Clinic for Veterans, says for over a week every March, veterans from across the country descend on Snowmass to try adaptive skiing or snowboarding for the first time or to continue their adaptive journey.

“Without a doubt, snow sports provide enormous benefits to veterans, especially those I work with who may have a history of substance abuse and are thrill seekers and are looking for a way to get that adrenaline rush to maybe replace their substance habit,” she says. 

Teresa Parks, Conyer’s colleague and director of the sports clinic, adds, “For each veteran or those supporting veterans it costs around $1,700 to $2,200 dollars for the week, depending upon where they are coming from.”

That program and others like it bring residual cash to resorts and resort towns, through family members supporting adaptive adventurers learning everything from alpine skiing to snowboarding to Nordic skiing and snowshoeing, and through adaptive skiers, snowboarders, Nordic skiers and snowshoers falling in love with these sports and introducing them to their families, says Werhane.   

“I had a kid, she’s almost 30 now, when I was doing a children’s program at Winter Park,” he adds. “The family was at Vail, and she wasn’t skiing because they didn’t know about Vail adaptive. I got called out to do a 3-day lesson. After skiing in the morning, it was like this is cool, you skied in Winter Park, that’s great. She’d never skied with her family before, and after that, she did. Now, 15 years later, they own a condo at River Run, she’s been skiing for 20 years and her kids volunteer. They bring their friends up to Vail, Winter Park and Breck all the time. Those resorts have captured them for the season. That’s a lot of money coming back into resorts because of adaptive programs.” 

A rendering of a building with a ramp.
A rendering of the 12,000-square-foot building Eldora ski area and Ignite Adaptive Sports have partnered to build at the base of Eldora. Expected to open for the 2024-25 season, a bridge will extend from the third floor to beginner trails, easing access for adaptive skiers. (Provided by Eldora)

With its new facility at Eldora, Ignite will have greater ability to give some of the 1,015,417 adults in Colorado living with disabilities a chance to try or continue taking in the exhilaration, fun and freedom of sliding on Colorado’s most famous substance. In doing so, Conyers says, they may find relief from some of the difficulties of living with a disability. It’s well-known how time in the outdoors coupled with movement and nature’s beauty can help anyone, and Nickell says as the closest adaptive ski program to the Front Range, with a larger space and easier access to skiing, Ignite is poised to broaden the reach of adaptive skiing while enticing more people to contribute to its longevity. 

“A lot of our volunteers and their friends and community members have somehow seen our program and are touched by it,” she adds. “We have amazing adaptive programs throughout Colorado, but there’s a magic about Ignite that inspires people. I think a big piece is our core volunteer base. Once you’ve seen it in action you can’t help but donate.”

When that happens, adaptive athletes, adaptive programs, ski areas partnering with adaptive programs and resorts all benefit. Eldora plans to have its new Ignite/children’s center up and running for the 2024-25 ski season.  

Tracy Ross is The Colorado Sun's rural economic development reporter. She also covers the outdoors, books and culture. She came to The Sun after a 20-year career covering the same beats for magazines like Outside, Backpacker, Bicycling and Skiing....