Challenge Aspen spreads art of adaptive skiing abroad

Jill Beathard
Snowmass Sun

Challenge Aspen is working on a longtime dream of its founder — to spread the adaptive snow sport teaching methods it employs around the globe.

Co-founder Houston Cowan and a group of instructors just returned from Interski 2015, a worldwide snowsports conference, that this year was held for the first time in South America. Cowan gave a presentation about the adaptive sports industry at the conference, and afterward, he and some Challenge Aspen instructors shared their methods with Argentine instructors.

“When I helped co-found Challenge Aspen in 1995 … it was kind of a dream to teach others how to teach,” Cowan said.

Challenge Aspen already has a presence in Bariloche, which started with “Decifio Bariloche” (Challenge Bariloche), a local program modeled after it. Now an organization called Challenge Argentina aims to train instructors at ski resorts throughout the country in adaptive teaching methods.

The alternating winters have helped the program grow as Aspen instructors have been able to go to Argentina in the summer, while their trainees have been able to come here in the winter, Cowan said.

Challenge Argentina invited the Snowmass Village-based nonprofit as a delegation to Interski, and Cowan was asked to give a keynote address. Cowan chose to speak on how ski areas can benefit from developing adaptive snow sports programs, using the partnership Aspen Skiing Co. and Challenge have as an example.

One in six families have a member with a disability, Cowan said. Challenge Aspen integrates family members into the activities it does with its participants, and Cowan stressed that as part of the nonprofit’s — and the ski area’s — success.

“I’ve never met someone who didn’t want to help people with disabilities,” Cowan said. “We happen to be in an industry that’s very expensive for anyone. You can’t look at it as a charity all the time. People with disabilities … can bring a lot to the financial aspect of ski areas.”

Challenge Aspen also took adaptive equipment to Argentina and offered on-snow clinics to interested Interski attendees. Following the conference, the group returned to Bariloche, where former Challenge Aspen instructors Charley Phelan and Bobby Palm led eight instructors from four different ski areas in a four-day intensive workshop in adaptive instruction. Their goal was to leave AADIDES, the Argentine equivalent of the Professional Ski Instructors of America, with a framework for certifying and training instructors in adaptive methods.

“It is my goal, a lifetime goal, to create a passion and accessibility for people with disabilities,” said Phelan, who with Palm now owns and operates a business training instructors in adaptive teaching methods throughout the world. “It was the trip of my lifetime so far, because I hope that it’s still building and that there’ll be another trip and that it’ll be better and it’ll be more successful.”

This winter, three Argentine ski areas plan to send instructors to Snowmass to train with Challenge Aspen. Representatives from other countries who were at Interski were also invited to participate. All part of a shared goal of helping people in other countries to have the same life-changing experiences that Challenge Aspen is able to provide here.

“We have no hidden agenda,” Cowan said. “We’re not trying to make any money. We’re just trying to teach others (so that) they don’t have to come to Aspen, hopefully they can do it in their own backyard.”