Old and injured skiers don’t have to hang up their boards. They can Elevate instead.
A company called Roam Robotics has engineered an “exoskeleton” specifically for skiers who need assistance because they easily fatigue and those dealing with debilitating injuries to knees and other body parts.
Aspen-Snowmass is one of 10 resorts around the country where the exoskeleton is available for rent this winter.
“I think the people who are benefiting are people who love skiing — they skied all their life and their body is not allowing them to ski like they used to,” said Brooke Pashley, a Roam representative in the Roaring Fork Valley. “This device is trying to push beyond that so that these physical limitations get dropped.”
Strapping on the Elevate product makes a skier look like something out of the “Terminator” movies. The knee braces run the length of a leg and have four straps from ankle to upper thigh to make them secure. An air bladder behind each knee connects by hoses to a power supply carried in a backpack.
“While you’re skiing, the sensors that are on-board in the pack and built throughout know where you’re at in your turns and it’s going to support you through that turn, depending on how you need to be supported,” Pashley said. “When you make a turn, if I’m turning right, it’s going to pump up air on the downhill ski and it’s going to let my uphill ski flex with still a little bit of air in there for support.”
Roam officials call the braces “intelligent shock absorbers for your legs.” It contends that Elevate supports as much as 30% of a skier’s body weight through a system that turns compressed air into an upward force. That reduces the load on muscles and knee joints.
But it accomplishes that without rigid, heavy braces. The braces and air bladders weigh in at about 2 pounds each. The power pack is about 12 pounds but it is compact enough that it can be worn comfortably and easily on a chairlift.
Roam invited reporters from The Aspen Times to experiment with the system this past week. The first thing a person notices is it sounds like there is a baby goat in your backpack, quietly bleating with every movement and even while standing still. That is the pneumatic actuators trying to figure out what the person is doing, Pashley explained. In essence, it’s trying to sense where it needs to inflate and deflate.
The system has numerous adjustments the wearer can make — three colors that vary the level of rebound and five settings for the level of air support behind the knee.
Among the colors, white is for crisp, tight turns, purple is for arcing, giant slalom turns and orange is for variable terrain.
Among the numbers, pumping up the system to the highest setting of five creates the greatest support. Turn the system off abruptly and it gives a better sense of how much support existed.
Observers from the Times noted during the skiing Wednesday that Elevate made gliding down groomers effortless and provided extra support charging through moguls.
Pashley was quick to note that Elevate doesn’t improve form or make a person “a better skier.” What it does, she stressed, is relieve the load on the skier.
Jim Harris, 38, of Glenwood Springs was skiing with Elevate for a second time this season at Snowmass on Friday. The braces are a life changer and hold potential to let him participate in the sport that is so important to him, he said.
Harris broke his back five years ago while using a ski kite in Patagonia for a filming session.
“The general consensus was I wasn’t going to walk again,” Harris said.
He wasn’t going to let that happen. He advanced from lying on his back to riding in a wheelchair to using a walker and now walking with a cane. He got on the slopes on the one-year anniversary of his accident in what he calls a symbolic gesture. His condition has improved over the years and he gets on the slopes when he can but he’s very self-conscious about it.
“Part of me really hates being the slowest guy,” he said.
Skiing used to be his career, his passion and an important part of his social life. But it’s difficult to hang with your friends when you must stick to the easiest trails and even then stop every now and then.
“My legs just get pretty noodle-y after a few runs,” he said.
Harris learned about Elevate and had a chance to check it out earlier this season. It’s difficult to explain the difference he feels while on the slopes, he said. He likened it to “skiing with moon gravity.”
But the result is crystal clear — he skis faster and has the stamina for more laps. He can cruise at around 25 mph now rather than 12 mph.
“I skied faster that first time out than I had in five years,” he said. Plus, he can ski deeper into the day rather than calling it quits after five or so runs.
Pashley said it was inspiring to see what Elevate did for Harris. She’s also witnessed how the product allows older skiers to hang out on the slopes with their families for longer. Elevate has assisted skiers of all ages deal with knee injuries.
This is the second winter that Elevate has been available. Pashley sees big potential.
“There are so many people with knee injuries that ski or got the knee injury from skiing, so it hasn’t been too hard to find people that are like, ‘Oh, I’d like to try that.’” Pashley said.
When you wear the devices, it can’t help but capture the attention of lift attendants and other skiers. Harris called the braces “future tech, Robocop” stuff.
Pashley said she’s been trying to build awareness of the product by word of mouth and by example. She wears Elevate frequently on the slopes.
“Some people will stop me on the hill and say, ‘Oh, I’ve seen that, does it actually work?’” she said.
Roam representatives ski with customers for a couple of runs to help them dial in the system. Pashley said it’s easy to figure out after a bit of repetition.
Rental options are a two-hour test drive for $25, daily rentals starting at $109, multi-day options and an open pass. Reservations can be made at Roam’s website at http://www.roamrobotics.com.