A Brief Excursion into Skiing’s Cyborg Future
Last winter, when the robotics firm Roam released its latest version of Elevate, a revolutionary exoskeleton promising to boost skiing performance, our writer knew he had to give it a test drive. His analysis: the company's debut product is fun yet flawed—but its vision of a tech-assisted sports future will still blow your mind.
In November 2014, Jim Harris, a photographer from Glenwood Springs, Colorado, and two friends arrived in Punta Arenas, a large town in southern Chile. They were there to embark on a bold adventure: a monthlong, 350-mile ski traverse of the Patagonia ice cap. The plan was to utilize kites attached to their harnesses to help aid locomotion, effectively towing them across the frozen landscape. The day before the expedition, Harris was testing his kite in an open field when a gust of wind lifted him up, carried him the length of a football field, and then, in a fluid, violent action, swept him up and over the sail and tomahawked him into the ground, knocking him unconscious.
When Harris came to, he couldn’t feel anything below his sternum, and he lay in the field, unable to move. “I just stared at the sky and tried to focus on my breathing until help arrived,” he told me. By that night he was in a local hospital, stable but seriously injured. He had shattered nine vertebrae and almost completely severed his spinal cord. It seemed unlikely that he would ever walk again.
I met Harris in February 2020. Not only was he walking again, he was skiing. It was a powder day at Snowmass Resort, not far from his home, and I’d arranged to connect with him that morning to check out a device that enabled him to shred all day, despite his disability. We met up at a demo center run by Roam, a San Francisco–based company that has developed a battery-powered exoskeleton designed specifically for skiers. Called the Elevate, it looks a little like an elaborate knee brace, with an articulating frame and pneumatic air chambers that function like shock absorbers. The frame buckles around your lower and upper legs and attaches to a small compressor, carried in a backpack, that controls the air pressure. Proprietary artificial-intelligence software that runs the compressor “learns” how much support is best for your level of skiing. It’s wearable tech on steroids.
I’d first seen the Elevate a year earlier, at a press event at Eldora Ski Area, near Boulder, Colorado. There, Roam’s founder, Tim Swift, introduced the media crew to the product and outlined the company’s ambitious plans for a public rollout through demo centers at premier resorts across the West, including Snowmass, Big Sky, Park City, and Sun Valley. The Elevate, he said, wasn't just for disabled individuals. It could help any able-bodied skier who wanted an extra boost—from seniors with achy knees to young guns looking to charge from bell to bell. “We provide magic,” he said several times.
I didn’t get to try the device that day, but the reviews had been mixed from my media colleagues at Eldora—skiers of various ages, all with experience, ranging from intermediate to expert. Some felt it was too cumbersome and didn’t enhance their skiing. But others liked it. One tester, Lisa Dawson, said chronic knee pain had derailed her skiing, but using the Elevate felt like strapping on a new set of legs. “I slowly made a turn, then another and another, each faster and more fluid,” she wrote later on the website WildSnow. “I kid you not: no pain at all. By the end of the run, I was making the carefree turns of my youth.”
In the year since, Roam had made some updates to the Elevate’s design. The one in Snowmass looked slightly more refined. I buckled into the product and headed for the lifts, alongside Harris and Johnnie Kern, Roam’s director of product marketing. It was strange and confining to walk in the apparatus, but once we clicked into our skis and started sliding over snow, the device came to life. In the lift line, other skiers stared at the cyborg powder bros, and we fielded a lot of questions about what the hell we were wearing.
“For me, it makes a pretty substantial difference, minimizing my disability,” Harris, who had used the Elevate previously, told me as we rode the chairlift. “I wouldn’t say I’m a rad skier now, but I can ski at moderate speed and feel confident and not like I’m a hazard to myself or to others.”
There was about eight inches of new snow that day, and I was eager to plunge into it. We traversed to the top of a low-angle run near the lift. Would the promise of augmented legs turn a good day into an epic one, or would they just get in the way? I was about to find out.