February 21st-28th marked another one of Disability Snowsport UK’s European activity weeks. DSUK are a registered charity whose focus is getting disabled people out on the slopes. With the aid of their sponsors and partners – Crystal Ski Holidays among them – and fundraising initiatives, DSUK organise trips abroad as well as lessons and activity days at ski centres across the UK. Their mission is to provide fun and exciting activities for anyone requiring adaptive equipment and/or special instruction and support – to break down barriers and make snowsports accessible to everyone.
This particular trip saw a number of specialist instructors, six disabled skiers and loads of carers, volunteers and sponsored helpers (myself among them) jetting off to Andorra for a week of snow-filled fun. Here’s what went down.
Four o’clock on Sunday morning saw those of us flying from the UK wandering bleary eyed through Gatwick’s North terminal and tentatively asking strangers, ‘are you with DSUK?’ Luckily, the answer was mostly yes and we soon found ourselves in a group of sixteen, with eight more flying from Scotland (DSUK HQ) to meet us at the resort. The group so far comprised four skiers, three dedicated carers and nine helpers.
Check-in was a fairly speedy process thanks to a mysterious woman who, despite a lack of uniform, presumably worked for Thomson Airways. She whisked everyone through security before disappearing as quickly as she’d arrived, having barely said a word.
Arrival in Toulouse was a quick blur of baggage reclaim and being shown to our coach by some helpful folk in green jackets before the transfer began, which I slept through. Sorry folks, no lengthy descriptions of the beautiful French countryside here. There was however a brief stop in a very pretty Alpine town – the name of which I can’t recall – where everyone ate chips. It was good.
Upon arrival in the resort on Sunday afternoon we met the Scottish contingent of our troop, swelling our ranks to the tune of two more skiers with three more carers and three specialist instructors. It was quickly decided that ski-fit would have to wait until the morning – so naturally everybody sat about drinking lager for a while before getting an early night.
On Monday, the skiing began.
For those unfamiliar with adaptive skiing, the nature of the skiing and equipment changes according to the disability or physicality of the skier. Two of the skiers with us were autistic and as such their disabilities were communicative rather than physical; both skied upright.
Among the other conditions represented were muscular dystrophy and cerebral palsy. Both of these conditions directly affect the body and physical capability, so skiers employed sit-skis provided by DSUK into which they could be strapped. Sit-ski’s are almost like mini bobsleighs with skis at the bottom, allowing people who usually use wheelchairs to get on the slopes.
Depending on ability, they are then either directly aided by instructors or achieve partial or full independence – tethers attached to the sit-ski allow the instructors to act as anchors in case of a fall; if a sit-ski overturns or control is lost, the skier has very limited control over where they go, so help may be required. In addition to the sit-ski itself, more independent skiers may choose to use outriggers (handheld props somewhere between ski-poles and skis) to allow them more control over direction and balance.
Skier James for instance had muscular dystrophy and as such had difficulty standing unaided for long periods of time. In a bi-ski (sit-ski with two skis attached to the bottom) however, he can shift and modulate his centre of gravity and use outriggers to steer and throw his weight around.
Skier Jack on the other hand has cerebral palsy; this limits his motor skills and physical ability and he is wheel-chair bound. In a sit-ski he requires direct aid from DSUK instructors in order to maintain balance and turn, but can take an active part in the process by shifting his weight and leaning his upper body into turns. Not only does this allow him to experience the thrill that we all get from snowsports, but to be active and move at a speed and level of freedom which he might not normally enjoy. Indeed, enjoy is the operative word – Instructor Willie boasted that he and fourteen year-old Jack plummeted from the top of the main chairlift to the bottom of the hill in a mere three-and-a-half minutes, a feat that would take your average skier more like ten minutes at a decent pace.
Being a helper on the slopes was an interesting experience. On the Monday afternoon, the first time up the mountain, instructor Willie gave us thorough instructions on what was expected of us: that we should try and block people further up the piste from skiing into or between instructor and adaptive skier, and how to lift bi-skis onto and off chairlifts. When I told him it was my first time on skis in thirteen years, he said ‘well, just try and keep up’ – a task that proved difficult. As the week went on though I became, if I may say so myself, quite proficient in my meat-shield duties, staying behind and uphill from instructors and skiers. Writing it down, I begin to wonder if it was a cunning ploy to keep me out of the way.
More accomplished skier helpers aided in lessons, helping record video footage of adaptive skiers so that they could assess their technique later.
Conditions-wise we were fairly lucky all week: after a very cloudy Monday afternoon we were blessed with stunning sunshine throughout the mid-part of the week and a significant amount of fresh snow on Friday and Saturday. As it turns out, fresh powder is pretty hard work if you’re a beginner – tanking through it on a bi-ski however looked like excellent fun!
Unfortunately, halfway through the week Head Instructor Cath fell while tethered to a sit-ski, tearing a ligament and chipping a bone. She took it all in her stride though (almost, anyway) and although she couldn’t ski for the rest of the week, was soon up and about making sure everything was going to plan. Here’s Cath after the fall:
Off the slopes, helping consisted of making sure people got to and from their rooms safely, wheeling wheelchairs and raiding the buffet on other peoples’ behalf. Helping also apparently consists of spending a fair amount of time in the hotel bar or down the road at the Quo Vadis Pub, a nice après bar which hosted the DSUK pub quiz raising £130 – and continues to do so every Wednesday night. Get yourselves down there!
All told, then, the week was not only a fantastic opportunity to ski in the beautiful Pyrenees, but an incredibly eye-opening and educating experience. Stigma around disabilities and ‘disabled people’ is rife in our society and to hang out with six guys of various ages and with a range of conditions brought home exactly what we all know on an intellectual level, but sometimes fail to integrate into our everyday lives:
That we all just want to hit the slopes and have a beer.