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Sunday, 27 April 2014

Skiing Blind

As my adventures at Go Ape show, I have always been a bit of a dare devil. But despite my love of adrenalin-fuelled activities like ice-skating and trampolining, I always assumed that my partial blindness would prevent me from taking part in really dangerous sports like skiing.

When I first 'came out' as blind at work and started using my white cane to get around campus, a colleague surprised me by recommending that I take my family on a skiing holiday. Her insistence that skiing is an essentially tactile sport which relies much more on touch and even hearing that it does on sight intrigued me and after watching some blind skiing online, I decided to give it a try. So last week me, my husband and our two boys travelled to Saas-Fee in the Swiss Alps to learn to ski.

Everything about skiing was completely new to me. I had never held a pair of skis, never been to a ski resort and I soon discovered that I didn't even know how to get into my salopettes. My first challenge, aside from familiarising myself with the layout of the hotel, was understanding what equipment I needed and how it worked. The first thing we did when we got to Saas-Fee was visit the ski-hire shop to pick up our boots, skis, poles and helmets. Luckily there were plenty of staff on hand to help us and I had been forewarned to bring all our height, weight and (continental) shoe measurements with us. Trying on ski boots was an adventure in itself. They come with a bewildering array of fastenings, straps and layers of padding and I soon discovered that putting on ski boots is a long and complicated process.


Properly-fitting boots are crucial for confident and controlled skiing 
because heels and toes are often used to control turns and improve balance.

Having managed to find some boots that fitted, I did not pay very much attention to the skis themselves. This turned out to be a mistake. Although my white skis looked very stylish as I carried them back to the hotel, it was only the following morning that I realised that they were not very easy to see on the snow! During the week, my biggest problems (and toughest tumbles) occurred when my skis crossed without me noticing. Next time I go skiing perhaps I'll try and get myself a bright orange pair instead.

When we finally got all our kit back to the hotel, I was relieved to find large and well-lit storage areas for boots, helmets and skis. Sighted readers might find this trivial, but one of my main worries before our trip had been what if I struggled to find my unfamiliar stuff (which looked and felt a lot like everyone else's stuff) in a badly organised and jumbled boot room. Happily there was enough space for me to find a familiar corner in which to keep my gear and this made getting ready each morning a little bit easier.

On our way to meet our instructor, I discovered that walking in ski boots is almost as tricky as learning to put them on. Even though our hotel was only a couple of minutes from the beginners' slopes, it felt like a long and difficult journey over bumpy snow and patches of ice. Without my white cane to guide me the unfamiliar route made me feel lost and disorientated, especially as I wasn't yet used to wearing my OTG (over-the-glasses) goggles. I arrived at the meeting point flustered and hot (which further steamed up my goggles) and was beginning to think that learning to ski hadn't been such a great idea after all.

When Simon and I booked our holiday we signed up for regular group beginners' lessons but as I watched the 2014 Winter Paralympics and saw the specialist guiding needed by the partially blind skiers I began to worry that group lessons would not give me the support and attention I would need to build my confidence. After several phone conversations and email exchanges with Esprit Ski in England who were in turn liaising with the hotel manager, the resort rep and the ski school in Saas-Fee, I was delighted to discover that there was a ski instructor in the resort who had worked with blind skiers before and who would be able to give us lessons for the whole week. 


Simon and I with our wonderful instructor/guide Jolanda: 
note our smart 'blind skier' bibs.

When we met Jolanda Stettler I was immediately struck by her openness and tact. One of the first things she did was ask me whether I would be happy to wear a 'blind skier' vest over my jacket. Given the stigma that still surrounds blindness, it must have been difficult for Jolanda to bring up this tricky subject which can make blind and partially blind people uncomfortable. A couple of years ago this suggestion would have upset me, but since then I have done a lot of work on feeling happy with my white cane and proud of my blindness and I was delighted to wear the vest. It immediately made me feel safer and more secure: I hoped it would remind other skiers to keep out of my way and encourage the ski lift attendants to give me a bit of extra help with those tricky drag lifts...


Jolanda's next job, after guiding me onto the nursery slopes, was to help me get into my skis. This was another challenge. Not only did I find it difficult to tell the front of my skis from the back, I found it impossible to position my boot so that it would easily snap into place. At first I was annoyed that this part of skiing seemed to depend on having enough vision to see the boots and skis. How would I ever become an independent skier if I always needed help before I even got started? But as the week went on, and I got more practised at putting on my skis, I found that I didn't need to see my skis or  boots at all. Once I'd felt my toes into position, trial and error helped me locate the right place for my heel. And if I'd judged it right, a very satisfying click told me that I was good to go. (Later in the week, after watching me struggle with the fiddly task of removing skis by fitting the ski pole into the back of the binding, Jolanda also taught me an alternative 'blind-friendly' way of removing each ski with the other boot.) 

After so much complicated preparation, gliding down a gentle slope on my skis felt easy.


The gymnastics I did as a child taught me balance and co-ordination and I have surprisingly good spatial awareness. Once Jolanda had shown me what position my legs and feet should be in, how I should lean and which parts of the skis should touch the snow, I quickly got the hang of turning and stopping.


And my colleague was right! Skiing is a very tactile sport. Even if I had been able to see my skis I wouldn't have wanted to look at them: it is much better to point your head in the direction you want to travel, and rely on the movement of your body to steer the skis. And feeling the contact between skis and snow helped me tell what kind of snow I was dealing with, which in turn told me how much weight to put into my turns.


As I became more confident on the snow I was more and more pleased that we had decided to opt for private lessons with an instructor/guide. Skiing itself might be a tactile sport but navigating down the slopes certainly isn't. Even with my glasses and goggles, I quickly discovered that I could not see well enough to distinguish the sides of the piste, other skiers or changes in the snow's consistency. Even on a slope I knew well I could rarely tell where I was in relation to its top or bottom. Without my guide I would not have got down even the gentlest of slopes. But when I was following Jolanda's bright orange guide vest and listening to her instructions I didn't have to worry about where I was or where I was going. Jolanda's movements and the sound of her voice and skis told me when to turn, when to be in parallel or snowplough and when to stop. I knew she would get me down safely. And she always did. And in the afternoons, when Jolanda was working elsewhere, Simon quickly got the hang of guiding me too.


Most ski instructors would be (understandably) nervous about teaching a partially blind beginner. After all, skiing is a dangerous sport and it is easy to imagine how a skier who cannot see where she is going could be a risk to herself and others. But Jolanda didn't seem nervous at all: her previous experiences with blind skiers had given her a clear sense of what I was able to do and whilst she never took any risks, she did encourage me to attempt more challenging lifts and runs every day so that by the end of the week I felt like I had made real progress. I was never terrified or panicky, but I was never completely in my comfort zone either: as soon as I felt confident doing something, we moved on to something harder.


I am not (yet) an amazing skier. I still like to go quite slowly and am cautious with my turns. But I can ski. And when I am following a guide I can reasonably confidently go down blue (beginner) slopes without stopping or falling over. I am so glad I took my colleague's advice. Learning to ski was an exciting, empowering and liberating experience which has given me a powerful feeling of self-confidence and a real sense of achievement.


With thanks to Abigail for giving me the idea in the first place, Soph and Dom for making it happen, Simon for being there with me the whole time, the staff at Esprit Ski and the Hotel Annahof for all their help, hard work and very welcome food and drink, Raffy, Zak and Cesca for getting me back out on the slopes every afternoon, Merri for cuddles and walks in the snow when skiing got a bit much, and of course Jolanda for her skill, enthusiasm, patience, generosity and sense of humour as well as for the photos.